By Will Fulton, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: Will Fulton is an Iran analyst and Palantir fellow with the Critical Threats Project of the American Enterprise Institute. The views expressed are the writer’s own.
Hassan Rouhani will be inaugurated as Iran’s eleventh president on August 4, in a ceremony before the Iranian parliament. But Rouhani will officially become Iran’s president the day prior, in a ceremony known as tanfiz (validity), during which the Supreme Leader formally appoints the Iranian president. This important event is only attended by senior regime officials, including the Supreme Leader and his chief of staff, the heads of the judiciary and Expediency Council, current cabinet members, senior military commanders, and members of parliament. That Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei formally grants the president his authority, with Parliament only ceremonially witnessing this appointment, is symbolic of the relationship between Iran’s republican institutions and the Supreme Leader; the former are influential, the latter is sovereign.
The notion that Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei is the final arbiter of policy in the Islamic Republic is not new; rather, it has become something of an oversimplified cliché in discussions of Iranian politics. Certain events, however, occasionally remind us that this power dynamic is still a defining feature of the regime in Tehran. President-elect Rouhani’s cabinet selection process has provided one such reminder.
According to Saham News, affiliated with 2009 presidential candidate Mehdi Karroubi, Rouhani visited the Supreme Leader last week and presented him with a final list of cabinet picks. Khamenei was apparently dissatisfied and asked that Rouhani replace his nominees for the ministries of intelligence and culture, Ali Younesi and Ahmad Masjed Jame’i, respectively. Both Younesi and Jame’i had previously held these positions under reformist President Mohammad Khatami, whom hardliners have branded as a “seditionist” because of his unapologetic support for the 2009 Green Movement.
Rouhani reportedly acquiesced and returned later that week with a revised list, but Khamenei was still not satisfied. He asked that Rouhani make additional changes, but this time to his picks for the ministries of science and defense, Jafar Tofighi and Hossein Alaei. As with the other two rejected candidates, Tofighi served in the same position under President Mohammad Khatami. Although there are still a number of Khatami-era officials among Rouhani’s reported cabinet nominees, it seems clear that the Supreme Leader has certain criteria that individuals associated with the Khatami government must meet before returning to senior government positions.
The other rejected nominee, Hossein Alaei, has not previously held a government position, but he has given the Supreme Leader reason to mistrust him. Alaei commanded the IRGC Navy during the latter years of the Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988) and went on to become Chief of the IRGC Joint Staff, but is no longer an active IRGC commander. He made headlines in Iran and the West when he published an editorial in 2012 implicitly criticizing the Supreme Leader for his actions during and after the 2009 post-election protests. Several members of a powerful faction of hardline IRGC commanders subsequently responded with a public letter denouncing Alaei for his “betrayal.”
Alaei apparently backed down from that confrontation, and the signatories of the letter attacking him released a second letter explaining that Alaei had indicated there was a misunderstanding over his intentions. But the damage was done. Khamenei’s rejection of Alaei as a candidate to be defense minister suggests that there is still no love lost between the two. Iranian media reported July 31 that former IRGC Air Force Commander and current head of the Expediency Council’s Political, Defense, and Security Council Hossein Dehghan is currently Rouhani’s “only nominee” for the position.
Hassan Rouhani has, indeed, received a mandate of sorts after his surprise election victory, but the Supreme Leader’s intervention in Rouhani’s cabinet selection process is an indication of the extent to which Khamenei remains willing and able to define the reach of Iran’s president. Rouhani’s accommodation of the Supreme Leader’s requests is also an indication of his loyalty and deference to Khamenei, though that has never really been in question.
The larger question, of course, is whether Rouhani can follow through on some of his more ambitious campaign promises – changing Tehran’s approach to nuclear negotiations, freeing prominent political prisoners, and improving Iran’s relations with countries such as Saudi Arabia – within the confines of the regime’s formal and informal power structures. The most accurate answer at this stage is, “maybe.” Contrary to some of the more eager commentary that has either written off or over inflated Rouhani’s ability to make reforms, it is simply too early to tell. But history, and in this case very recent history, can and should serve as a guide to the obstacles that Rouhani must overcome in order to make substantive changes to policies that serve the interests of other regime centers of power.