Rouhani’s US-Educated Cabinet

November 13, 2014

            Iran’s presidential cabinet has more members with PhDs from American universities than the U.S. cabinet itself, according to The Economist. President Hassan Rouhani’s cabinet starkly contrasts with that of his predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who preferred advisers with Iranian academic backgrounds. In the years following the 1979 revolution, Iran’s new political elite viewed Western educations with suspicion. But as of late 2013, Rouhani’s cabinet had more American PhD holders than the cabinets of France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Russia, and Spain combined, according to The Atlantic. President Hassan Rouhani himself earned his master’s and doctoral degrees from Glasgow Caledonian University in Scotland.

            The following are profiles of the six members of Rouhani’s cabinet who hold advanced degrees from American universities.

Minister of Foreign Affairs: Mohammad Javad Zarif

      Born in 1960, Zarif was Iran’s ambassador to the United Nations from 2002 to 2007. He is widely regarded as one of Iran’s most savvy diplomats. Zarif served as deputy U.N. ambassador from 1989 to 1992 and then as deputy foreign minister for legal and international affairs until 2002.
      Zarif has been involved in both formal and informal talks with the United States. In 2001, he was Iran’s emissary to U.N. talks on the future of Afghanistan after the Taliban’s ouster. U.S. envoy James Dobbins credited Zarif with preventing the collapse of the conference due to last-minute demands by the Northern Alliance to control the new government. As an ambassador, Zarif attempted to improve relations with the West, including the United States.
            President Rouhani appointed Zarif Minister of Foreign Affairs in 2013. Since then he has taken steps to improve Iran’s ties with the international community, and acted as the chief negotiator in the 2014 nuclear talks between Iran and P5+1.
            Zarif speaks English with an American accent after receiving a B.A. and an M.A. from San Francisco State University, and an M.A. and PhD in international relations from the University of Denver. He completed his doctorate in 1988. Zarif joined University of Denver students, faculty and staff for a video conference on Iranian foreign policy in early 2014. He tweets in English at @JZarif.
Acting Minister of Science, Research and Technology: Mohammad-Ali Najafi
      Born in 1952, Najafi is a well-known reformist technocrat who has served in multiple Iranian administrations. He served as minister of education under President Hashemi Rafsanjani from 1989 to 1997, and as head of the Planning and Budget Organization under President Mohammad Khatami from 1997 to 2000.
      President Rouhani initially nominated Najafi as minister of education, but instead appointed him as head of the Cultural Heritage, Handcrafts and Tourism Organization after Najafi failed to win the parliament’s vote of confidence. Najafi resigned from his position in January of 2014 due to health issues, marking the first change in Rouhani’s cabinet. But in August 2014, he took on a new role as acting minister of science, research, and technology.
            Najafi attended Sharif University, and later pursued postgraduate studies in mathematics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology from 1974 to 1978.
Minister of Communication: Mahmoud Vaezi
      Born in 1952, Vaezi served in several high-ranking positions in the foreign ministry from 1986 to 1999, including deputy foreign minister for European and American affairs under President Rafsanjani and deputy foreign minister for economic affairs under President Khatami. During his time at the foreign ministry he played a role in mediating the Karabakh dispute between Armenia and Azerbaijan.
      More recently, he held a senior position at the Center for Strategic Research, a leading Iranian think tank formerly headed by Rouhani affiliated with the Expediency Council. Vaezi was briefly considered for the position of foreign minister in Rouhani’s cabinet before being appointed as minister of communication.
            Vaezi received his B.S. and M.S. in electrical engineering from Sacramento State University and San Jose State University. He began his PhD in international relations at Louisiana State University, but reportedly finished his degree at Warsaw University in Poland.
Minister of Industry: Mohammadreza Nematzadeh
      Born in 1945, Nematzadeh is an experienced technocrat. He served as minister of labor under President Mohammad-Ali Raja’i. He was later appointed as minister of industry under President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani from 1989 to 1997, and then as deputy oil minister for petrochemical affairs under President Mohamed Khatami from 1997 to 2005. Nematzadeh managed Rouhani’s 2013 presidential campaign before his appointment as minister of industry.
      Nematzadeh received his B.S. in environmental engineering from California State Polytechnic University in 1968 and later studied industrial management at the University of California Berkeley.
Head of Atomic Energy Organization: Ali Akbar Salehi
      Born in 1949, Salehi was appointed as Iran’s envoy to the International Atomic Energy (IAEA) by President Khatami in 1997 and remained in that position until 2005. He signed an IAEA protocol in 2003 which allowed agency inspectors greater authority to verify the country’s nuclear program. Despite President Ahmadinejad’s criticism of the decision to sign this protocol, he appointed Salehi as foreign minister. Salehi served from January 2011 to August 2013. Under President Rouhani’s administration, he was appointed as head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran.
            Salehi received a B.S. in mechanical engineering from the American University of Beirut in 1971 and a PhD in nuclear engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1977. He is fluent in English and Arabic in addition to his native Farsi.
Chief of Staff to the President: Mohammad Nahavandian
      Born in 1954, Nahavandian is an experienced technocrat. He received his PhD in economics from George Washington University and founded  the Islamic Research and Information Center, which reportedly partnered with more than 40 Islamic centers across the United States on culture and education. He became the deputy minister of commerce in 1993 and resigned in 2002 to serve as President Khatami’s economic advisor. Nahavandian was elected Deputy President of the Iran Chamber of Commerce in 2007, a position he held until Rouhani appointed him as his chief of staff.
            Nahavandian holds an M.A. in economics from Tehran University and a PhD in economics from the George Washington University. He obtained a green card while living in the United States, which generated controversy when he traveled to New York in 2005 for a science conference and reportedly delivered a message to then-U.N. Ambassador Zarif. Nahavandian was allowed to re-enter the U.S. despite his employment status with the Iranian government, which could have invalidated his green card.
Photo credits: Javad Zarif by Robin Wright, Mohammad-Ali Najafi by By Hamed Saber (Flickr: Dr. Ali Najafi) [CC-BY-2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons, Mahmoud Vaezi via Ministry of Information and Communications Technology,  Mohammadreza Nematzadeh via Ministry of Industry and Mines, Ali Akbar Salehi via Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, Mohammad Nahavandian via Elza Fiúza/ABr (Direct) [CC-BY-3.0-br (], via Wikimedia Commons