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New Beginning in Islamic Republic

Dr. M. Mahtab Alam Rizvi is Associate Fellow at Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile.
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  • September 11, 2009

    In a surprise move the Iranian parliament (Majles) approved 18 of the 21 nominees including that of a woman proposed by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as members of his cabinet. Although Ahmadinejad had nominated three women candidates, parliament approved only one, that of Marzieh Vahid Dastjerdi as the health minister. This is the first time that a woman has acquired a ministerial position in the Islamic Republic since the 1979 revolution. Marzieh Vahid is a gynaecologist and obstetrician by profession. She said that this is “a significant step for Iranian women” and that “Iranian women have achieved their long-standing dream of having a woman in the cabinet to pursue their demands.” The other two women, Sousan Keshvaraz and Fatemeh Ajorlou, fell short of the required number of votes. They had been nominated for the ministries of education and welfare, and social security. In Iran every minister must secure more than 50 per cent of the votes cast by lawmakers in parliament. On September 3, 2009, following five days of heated debate, parliament approved 18 of the 21 ministers proposed by Ahmadinejad.

    Ahmadinejad’s move seems to have been aimed at softening his hard-line image especially in the wake of the June 12 election. The election and its aftermath have pushed Iran into its biggest internal crisis, which witnessed the killings of dozens of protestors and trials against more than 100 critics, including former reformist officials, on charges of spying. These events reveal intensifying divisions within the Islamic Republic’s ruling elite and clergy.

    Activists working for women’s rights state that women often face institutionalized discrimination in Iran, for example in legislation relating to divorce, child custody and inheritance, and have accused Ahmadinejad of ignoring such issues during his first term. During the recent election campaign, the defeated reformist candidate, Mir Hossein Mousavi, and his wife, Zahra Rahnavard, mobilised the youth and female voters with promises to remove discrimination, eliminate the “morality police” and “assist the youth to think freely”. By inducting women in his cabinet, Ahmadinejad has taken on board the growing political clout of Iranian women. It was Ahmadinejad’s intention to have three women ministers who will stand out in a society where women politicians are thin on the ground. Even in the present parliament there are only eight women among 290 MPs.

    Ahmadinejad stated that it will be a step forward for women’s empowerment in Iran. The selection of a woman to the cabinet was also welcomed by some Majles MPs. Alaeddin Boroujerdi, for instance, said inducting women in the new cabinet is a reformation, that women constitute 50 per cent of the country’s population, and 60 per cent of students in universities are females. Though, a woman in charge of environmental issues was one of several vice presidents in Ahmadinejad’s outgoing cabinet. Iran’s last female minister was Farrokhroo Parsay who served from 1968 to 1977. She was executed on charges of corruption after the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

    In another move, more than 80 per cent of lawmakers approved Ahmad Vahidi as defence minister. The Interpol had circulated Argentina's warrant for Vahidi’s arrest for the attack on the Israeli-Argentine Mutual Association (AMIA) in Buenos Aires in 1994, which killed at least 85 people. At the time of the attack Vahidi was the commander of a special unit of Iran's Revolutionary Guard known as the Quds Force. After the vote, Vahidi called his selection a “decisive slap to Israel.” When parliament speaker Ali Larijani announced his approval, MPs in the chamber yelled “Death to Israel”.

    Vahidi’s appointment indicates Iran’s defiance of the West. The United States strongly criticized Vahidi’s appointment saying that it is a step backward for US-led efforts to end Iran’s international isolation. The US State Department’s P.J. Crowley said “rather than taking a step forward” toward engaging the world, Iran is “taking a step backward by putting into high office” a man suspected of carrying out bombing. However, Iran has denied any involvement in the blast and says the case is politically-motivated. Argentina also strongly condemned Vahidi’s appointment, with Julio Schlosser, head of AMIA, saying that Ahmadinejad and Iran were rewarding an individual charged with committing one of the most terrible attacks.

    US President Barack Obama has already given Iran until later this month to take up his offer of talks. In response, the Supreme National Security Council (SNSC) Secretary, Saeed Jalili, indicated that Iran has prepared a new nuclear proposal and is ready to resume talks with world powers on its nuclear programme. He said the new package comprises political, economic and security proposals. There is some hope that in the new round of negotiations with the G5-plus one (Britain, China, France, Russia, the US and Germany) understanding and cooperation would be reached.

    Iran’s parliament strongly backed the cabinet proposed by President Ahmadinejad. Earlier it was predicted that almost 50 per cent of Ahmadinejad’s nominees would be rejected by parliament. However, the rejection of three nominees was enough to argue that checks and balances remain within the Iranian system without undermining the President’s ability to deal with challenges from the region and abroad over the country’s nuclear program.