Iran's parliament approves president's cabinet choices

Tehran (AFP) –


Iran's parliament on Wednesday approved almost all new President Ebrahim Raisi's cabinet choices, enabling him to start working in earnest with his government, following a June election victory.

Lawmakers approved one-by-one 18 out of 19 candidates put forward by the ultra-conservative Raisi for the ministerial posts.

They rejected only his pick for the education portfolio, thus requiring the president to make another choice for that post.

In an Islamic republic where ultimate power rests with supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Raisi inherits a difficult socioeconomic situation.

Iran has been strangled financially by sanctions reimposed by Washington after then US president Donald Trump pulled out of a multilateral nuclear deal in 2018.

The country of 83 million people has since been hit by a severe economic crisis amplified by the Covid pandemic.

Iran is currently grappling with a fifth wave of infections -- the strongest wave yet.

The country recorded its highest single day death toll on Tuesday, with 709 fatalities registered by the health ministry in 24 hours.

The ultraconservative Raisi won a June 18 election marred by record low turnout and an absence of significant competitors.

He succeeds moderate president Hassan Rouhani, architect of the political opening that culminated in the 2015 nuclear agreement between Tehran and major powers.

But that external opening was torpedoed by Trump and much of Iran's conservative camp.

- 'National interests' -

The new president was sworn in by parliament in early August, but the outgoing administration remained at the helm until Wednesday's parliamentary vote.

The confidence vote in the strictly conservative line-up -- all men -- will allow Raisi to begin leaving his mark.

The president announced on Saturday that his government's first priority will be the battle against coronavirus, closely followed by the economy.

Western powers, Russia and China are all keeping a watchful eye for any sign of willingness by Iran to resume discussions that began in Vienna in April aimed at salvaging the nuclear deal.

The parties agreed in late June to meet for a new round of talks, but discussions have yet to resume.

In the aftermath of his election victory, Raisi declared on June 20 that he will not permit negotiations just for "negotiation's sake".

But he also said: "Any negotiations that guarantee national interests will certainly be supported".

The 2015 deal offered Iran an easing of Western and UN sanctions in return for tight controls on its nuclear programme, monitored by the UN.

The negotiations in Vienna aimed at reviving this accord -- directly with the remaining parties, indirectly with the US -- seek to bring Washington back into the fold.

When the last round of talks finished in June, the plan was to soften US sanctions in exchange for Iran adhering strictly to its nuclear commitments.

In retaliation for Trump's withdrawal three years ago and his swingeing sanctions, Iran in effect abandoned most of those commitments.

Elsewhere on the diplomatic circuit, one of the first decisions for the new government will be who to send to a Baghdad-hosted regional summit due to take place on Saturday.

The summit seeks to ease tensions on a number of fronts, and Iraq has said that Raisi himself is among those invited.

Along with the prospective ministers, Iranian cabinets are composed of several vice presidents, who do not require parliamentary approval.

So far Raisi has named four vice presidents.

Among them is Major General Mohsen Rezai, a former Revolutionary Guards chief and among the losers in the presidential poll, named vice president in charge of economic affairs.