No figure in Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s tightknit cabinet was more lifted by the recent Iranian election results than Oil Minister Bijan Zangeneh. The Iranian economy hangs on his ability to deliver on his ambitious plans to attract $200 billion in foreign investment to expand Iran’s enormous oil and gas export potential. Following the election, which saw allies of Rouhani gain ground, Zangeneh has a freer hand to push ahead with this agenda.
Still, Zangeneh’s job won’t be easy. His ability to succeed depends on his capacity to take into consideration his rivals’ key interests, particularly those of companies linked to the powerful Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC). And on that score, although Zangeneh has vowed to be accommodating of IRGC interests, there is huge uncertainty on whether he can succeed on this critical test.
Hardliners have been particularly critical of Zangeneh since Rouhani returned him to government in August 2013. The loudest voices, which came from the Majlis and media outlets close to the IRGC, claimed that he runs the Oil Ministry as his personal fiefdom. They also criticize Zangeneh for surrounding himself with a select group of men with whom he has worked since the 1980s, which, they claim, has made him unresponsive to criticism and too forgiving of his close lieutenants’ wrongdoings.
Such criticisms were ramped up in the weeks before the elections, and as international sanctions on Iran were lifted. Calling Zangeneh the head of Iran’s “oil-mafia,” hardliners leveled damning charges of nepotism against members of the oil minister’s inner circle. His brainchild, the Iran Petroleum Contract (IPC), which was approved by the cabinet in October 2015 and is designed to entice foreign investors, was particularly attacked as a national sell-out.
Heading into the election, the Zangeneh team doubled-down on countering charges of corruption and reinforcing the need for attracting foreign investment and energy policy reform at home. The Zangeneh team opted to keep its messaging simple. Accusations of corruption were either toward eight percent growth” per year, which is the regime’s aim. In today’s political climate in Tehran, the question of foreign investment has become Rouhani’s litmus test and Zangeneh is one of his principal chamberlains.
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