Has Rouhani made Iran's government more inclusive?
Rouhani promised to be a progressive voice in Iran's government. (AFP/File)
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When Rouhani introduced his cabinet ministers to parliament for the vote of confidence last year, women, religious minorities and ethnic groups were watching events closer than anyone else, hoping to see members of their own communities on the list.
The hopes grew even higher after several papers reported that Belgium-educated Bijan Zolfaghar Nasab, a prominent Kurdish football manager and retired player, was among the nominees for the sports minister post. But the rumors didn’t add up.
As Iran’s conservative dominated parliament prevented three nominees from assuming office, mostly due to their political background, the president in fact never gave the Kurdish manager any chance to appear before the legislative chamber.
Women were also among groups that remained unrepresented in the cabinet, although Rouhani later appointed three women as deputies.
"The government couldn’t hand over any ministry or provincial governorship to religious or ethnic minorities," admitted Ali Younesi, presidential assistant for religious ethnic affairs.
Even from the first moment, some ethnic minorities could hardly dream of gaining such top posts, thus lowering their expectations. And seizing mid-level positions in government isn’t all that easy either, according to Younesi who said in December that many agencies and organizations avoid appointing members of minorities due to legal restrictions and prejudice.
Younesi vowed to continue his push against discrimination, knowing that he could soon face harsh opposition from traditional Shia clergy and the Qom seminary.
In local assemblies, however, media reports showed that the government has so far had a say on the appointment of governors, with many of them coming from Sunni, Balouchi and Turkmen backgrounds.
In the restive province of Sistan-Balouchestan two ethnic women were appointed local governors and one as deputy provincial governor. This also happened in Bandar Torkaman and DareShahr, where two Turkmen and Kurdish women were given top positions.
Rouhani’s $400,000 donation to a Jewish hospital and his foreign minister’s “Happy Rosh Hashanah” message on Twitter are equally controversial. His assistant also remained defiant of the establishment as he met groups of Jews and visited their temples in Shiraz on May 3.
"When Cyrus the great took Babylon, he released many Jewish leaders from prison," Younesi said, recalling the ruler's legacy of tolerance. "I had a good feeling when you were praying and your synagogues are so simple."
Younesi, who also recently visited Saint Sarkis Cathedral in Tehran, told a Jewish rabbi in Shiraz that, "if I as Muslim cleric and you as a Jewish rabbi stay aside, people would learn how to coexist peacefully."
The series of appointments and gestures prompted criticism in Qom and caused the senior Marja Ayatollah Golpayegani to protest at a meeting with Iran’s telecommunications minister.
"This doesn’t correspond with women dignity and the Islamic government should reconsider such attempts," he reportedly said.
Another Marja Ayatollah warned the government about its track in sharing power with Sunnis and paving way for them to enter university councils, stating that this would raise expectations and make them think of presidential and ministerial posts that they have not been in charge of in decades.
In protest, former reformist Kurdish Member of Parliament Jalal Jalali Zadeh highlighted, in a statement, the role Kurds played in the Islamic revolution and argued that the Kurds are now exposed to discrimination when applying for low-paid jobs as well.
President Hassan Rouhani admitted on Women's Day that women in his country still face discrimination and cultural barriers, demanding equality between the sexes.
On a similar occasion, the Supreme Leader argued that equality doesn’t always mean justice, and rejected Western views about gender equality.
Based on Iranian law, women and non-Shias are barred from running for the presidential seat but according to the constitution, which the president is in charge of handling, all people of Iran, whatever ethnic group or tribe, enjoy equal rights; color, race, language, and the like, do not bestow any privilege.
"I am seriously worried there is a trade between the president and the hardliners and only the media and minorities will pay," a senior European diplomat in Tehran who is regularly briefed on the human rights conditions told Your Middle East.
In the June elections, over 70% of people in Sunni dominated provinces voted for Rouhani who won the election with around 52% of the total vote.
In Sistan-Balouchestan, where Rouhani garnered 73% of the vote thanks to Sunni elders support, hardline media questioned a mediatory role played by Molavi Abdol Hamid Ismaeelzahi, top Sunni leader and scholar, in releasing of four Iranian soldiers kidnapped by extremist rebels in April, suspecting him of having ties with the insurgents.
In March, Molavi Abdolhamid, who staunchly supported Rouhani in the elections told Al Jazeera: "Sunni Muslims in Iran hope for an end to discrimination. Everybody is hopeful Rouhani can fulfil his promises and also implement the constitution and stop illegalities and stop the discrimination."
Given all these facts, the question now is to what extent he will continue his celebrated push and if he has the power and will to do so?