Article date: 27 July 2011
On Wednesday President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad presented his candidates for four vacant ministerial positions to Majlis (Iran’s legislature) for confirmation. They included Abdul-Reza Sheikholeslam for the Minister of Labour, Cooperatives and Social Welfare, Mohammad Abbasi for the Ministry of Sports and Youth Affairs, Mehdi Qazanfari for the Ministry of Industry, Mining and Trade and General Rostam Ghasemi for the Ministry of Oil.
The most important announcement was the naming of Ghasemi for the position of oil minister. Ghasemi was a commander during the Iran-Iraq War, a representative in third and fifth Majlis and has been commander of the Khatam-al Anbia Construction Headquarters, the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) economic arm, by order of IRGC commander General Mohammad-Ali Jafari since 2008. Beginning with Ahmadinejad’s ascendency to the presidency in 2005, Khatam al Anbia Headquarters, then already a major contractor, has become a leading player in Iran’s economy thanks to government contracts.
Ghasemi has been sanctioned since 2010 by the US and EU for his alleged involvement with Iran’s nuclear program. If he is accepted as oil minister, Ghasemi would become the third official in Ahmadinejad’s cabinet, alongside Foreign Minister Ali-Akbar Salehi and Defense Minister Ahmad Vahidi, to be subject to such sanctions.
This appointment comes at a crucial time for the Islamic Republic’s oil diplomacy as Iran holds the Organization for Petroleum Exporting Countries’ (OPEC) presidency. Ghasemi’s appointment as oil minister would also make him the OPEC president.
On the question of whether Ghasemi would pass muster with the Majlis, Alaeddin Boroujerdi, head of the Majlis Foreign Affairs and National Security Committee, sounded optimistic:
“The majority of Majlis representatives support his candidacy for the post of oil minister…For the reason that the candidate for oil minister [Ghasemi] has had a hand in many oil projects and has left a good track record, I am hopeful that with his appointment the oil industry will flourish.”
The latter is a reference to Ghasemi’s experience as commander of the Khatam-al Anbia Headquarters, which is the dominant player in Iran’s oil and gas industry.
Editor’s note: Ghasemi’s candidacy for minister of oil ties into two critical issues in Iran’s politics today.
First it appears that Ahmadinejad has forced the Majlis, which is currently in an acrimonious conflict with him, to make a decision which will end in a loss no matter the choice. If Majlis does not ratify Ghasemi in order to undermine Ahmadinejad, it risks angering the IRGC which is increasingly the center of power in Iranian politics. Majlis thus risks a shift in the balance-of-power in Ahmadinejad’s favour. If it accepts his choice it surrenders one of its primary weapons against the president and accedes to his design, again risking strengthening Ahmadinejad’s position.
Second, what appears to be the likely ratification of Ghasemi in the decisive oil minister portfolio would help cement the IRGC’s powerful grasp over the main centers of power in Iran. Ghasemi is a very senior IRGC commander with an illustrious record going back to the war, and his tenure would mark new inroads by that organization in in the highly sensitive oil sector. Additionally, by placing trusted individuals in the Ministry of Oil, Ministry of Power and the Ministry of Roads and Urban Development, the IRGC has consolidated its hold on Iran’s construction sector. Ahmadinejad’s continued central role in facilitating the IRGC’s power contradicts recent reports by some media outlets that the president and the Guards had strategic differences which could not be papered over.
While Ahmadinejad has been under heavy attack in recent months by the Principalist establishment, and many English-language media outlets have already declared his demise, it appears he is still in the game and may now be looking to gain the upper hand by promoting the IRGC’s political and economic interests.