TEHRAN, Iran (AP) — Hard-line parliamentarians challenged Monday the Cabinet proposed by Iran's new president, accusing him of nominating ministers who are friendly to the West or who back "sedition" against the country's clerically dominated system of government.
President Hasan Rouhani fired back at his critics, saying he chose Western-educated ministers based on their competence and that the country is tired of "extremism."
In what is expected to be three days of debate ending Wednesday, legislators will vote individually to approve or reject each minister in Rouhani's 18-member Cabinet. Hard-liners are using the debates to launch their first major salvo against Rouhani's agenda since his election in a landslide victory in June, won with the backing of centrists and reformists.
The new president has pledged to improve an economy ravaged by international sanctions through empowering technocrats and mending bridges with the rest of the world. He took the oath of office on Aug. 4 and sent his proposed Cabinet list to the parliament the same day.
Rouhani's victory - he won an outright majority in the first round of the vote, leaving all his rivals far behind - gives him a strong mandate. But conservatives still dominate parliament.
The core of Rouhani's team includes figures whose academic pedigrees run through places such as California, Washington and London. Rouhani himself studied in Scotland.
But hard-line lawmakers implied some of the Cabinet nominees were trying to bring down Iran's clerically dominated system, linking them to the 2009 street protests, referred to by hard-liners as "sedition."
"A majority of the proposed Cabinet are either members of the seditious (group) or Western-educated figures," hard-line lawmaker Ataollah Hakimi told the house. "Why are you (Rouhani) seeking to revive sedition?"
Hossein Shariatmadari, editor of the hardline daily Kayhan who is close to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said some of the proposed ministers deserve to be jailed.
"Participation in the 2009 Israeli-American (engineered) sedition is nothing other than selling the country and committing treason. The place for those who participated in the sedition is prison, not the ministry," he wrote Monday.
Rouhani suggested that the Iranian electorate, weary of economic hardships linked to sanctions imposed on Iran over its disputed nuclear program, has endorsed his agenda.
"Society is tired of extremism. Moderation is the path the nation has welcomed," he said.
He said he named Western-educated ministers because of their competence to address both the impact of sanctions, which primarily target the oil and banking sectors, as well as mismanagement. He also said he would try to mend Iran's foreign relationships.
"The government pursues a parallel two-pronged path. On one hand, we will try in the arena of diplomacy ... to overcome the existing international challenge and stop the current inappropriate trend," he said during the debate. "On the other hand, we consider the existing shortage of resources as an opportunity to upgrade activities, increase economic resources and allocate the existing resources in an optimal manner."
Rouhani said his government's top priority will be to control inflation.
Even if the president's picks are approved by parliament, it is unclear how much they could actually influence Iranian policies and foster potential outreach diplomacy such as direct talks with the U.S. or possible breakthroughs in wider negotiations over Tehran's nuclear program.
In Iran's system, the president is usually tasked with managing the economy and has considerable influence in all spheres of government. But senior clerics have final say on all matters of state and direct control over security policy, including the nuclear program. However, a strong president can influence decision-making on key issues including the nuclear issue.
The West says Iran wants to develop weapons technology, but Iran denies this and says its program is for peaceful purposes.
Rouhani's nominees include Mohammad Javad Zarif, proposed for the post of foreign minister. According to his resume, he did postgraduate studies at San Francisco State University and obtained a doctorate in international law and policy at the University of Denver.
Zarif also raised his profile in the U.S. as a diplomat at Iran's U.N. Mission in New York during a five-year posting that ended in 2007.
Rouhani's choice for the post of minister of communications and information technology is Mahmoud Vaezi, whose resume shows he holds degrees in electrical engineering from California State University, Sacramento and San Jose State University. He began his doctorate in foreign relations at Louisiana State University but finished the degree in Poland.