By Golnar Motevalli and Ladane Nasseri
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani presented an all-male cabinet lineup to parliament, drawing criticism from female supporters and fueling speculation he backtracked on a campaign pledge to avoid irking conservatives amid rising tension with the U.S.
Rouhani nominated men to fill 17 of 18 ministerial slots in his new government, according to the semi-official Tasnim news agency, with no one yet put forward for science minister. He appointed three women among a dozen vice presidents in his previous administration, and pledged during the buildup to May’s election to further address the extreme gender imbalance in politics.
“Right now, many members are expressing their opposition,” Tayyebeh Siavashi, a reformist lawmaker who was among the 17 women elected last year to represent pro-Rouhani factions, said by phone from inside parliament after the ministerial list was submitted. “It’s a big question for us: Why after all our efforts and hard work do we have no women at all?”
Rouhani may have been attempting to avoid a backlash from hardliners who have opposed his goals of rebuilding the economy with investment from the West, as well as easing restrictions in a heavily regulated society. They have grown ever more vocal since President Donald Trump entered the White House, swinging behind Iran’s regional foes and signaling he was preparing to withdraw from the 2015 nuclear deal that lifted most sanctions.
Under pressure from the clerical leadership to deliver real economic gains for ordinary Iranians, and facing growing U.S. threats to the landmark agreement, the overall makeup of Rouhani’s team suggests he was probably unwilling to push the cultural and political limits of the nation’s Islamic system.
“The only reasonable explanation for his choices is that he tried to be very uncontroversial to avoid increased tensions so his cabinet can do some work,” said Adnan Tabatabai, chief executive officer of the Center for Applied Research in Partnership With the Orient, a think-tank based in Bonn, Germany. “He can live with pressure coming from female activists.”
“There is no real color in the composition of the cabinet,” said Tabatabai. “These people are not high profile, they are not figures that would embody a certain political current.”
Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and Oil Minister Bijan Zanganeh were reappointed, as was Abbas Akhoundi, the minister for roads and urban development who oversaw multibillion dollar deals with Boeing Co. and Airbus SE following the sanctions-lifting nuclear deal. The proposed ministers need to be confirmed by lawmakers, with votes beginning next week.
Rouhani, a moderate cleric, was comfortably re-elected president in May after a campaign that often highlighted increased liberties for women and their improved participation in politics and business.
“Up until the last moment, serious efforts were underway to make sure there would be names on there,” said Amene Shirafkan, a journalist who campaigns on women’s issues and stood as a candidate in Tehran’s city council elections, referring to the list. “It’s a rather conservative cabinet, much like Rouhani himself.”
Women did make some advances during Rouhani’s first term. The oil ministry appointed its first female deputy minister to lead the petrochemicals sector, and last month state-run Iran Air announced its first woman CEO. But the president has failed to build on the breakthrough achieved by his predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who gave the Islamic Republic its first female minister — Marzieh Vahid-Dastjerdi, who ran the health ministry during his second term.
Nominating women “would have been going into uncharted territories in ways that would have distinguished his cabinet,” said Ellie Geranmayeh, senior policy fellow at the European Council of Foreign Relations. “Perhaps it was too much of a controversial step for him to put women in such key positions. Perhaps expectations were too high.”
Siavashi, the lawmaker, said she expected Rouhani to again propose three female vice presidents, but that doing so would do nothing for gender equality and could ultimately damage confidence in the political process.
“We had an expectation that he definitely would introduce women,” she said. “We really don’t know the reason because it can’t be about expertise,” Siavashi said. “If it’s a case of women just being needed for the ballot box, well that’s really upsetting.”