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Iran gives key oil role to a Revolutionary Guard on sanctions list

Brig. Gen. Rostam Ghassemi was head of the Revolutionary Guard's construction arm, which like him is under United Nations and Western sanctions for its role in Iran's nuclear program.

August 05, 2011|By Ramin Mostaghim and Borzou Daragahi, Los Angeles Times
  • Rostam Ghassemi, center left, newly confirmed as Iran's oil minister, speaks with lawmakers Wednesday after delivering a speech in parliament. He was a commander in the Revolutionary Guard and is a target of international sanctions over Tehran's nuclear program.
Rostam Ghassemi, center left, newly confirmed as Iran's oil minister,… (Abedin Taherkenareh, EPA )

Reporting from Tehran and Beirut — A deal between beleaguered Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his opponents has given control of Iran's crucial Oil Ministry to a commander of the Revolutionary Guard who is under international sanctions, according to analysts and a former industry official in Tehran.

Ahmadinejad, his rivals in parliament and leaders of the Revolutionary Guard put aside months of differences this week and appointed four new Cabinet members, including the controversial Brig. Gen. Rostam Ghassemi as overseer of the country's vast oil and natural gas riches.

Parliament on Wednesday approved his ascent 216 to 22, with seven abstentions, in a vote many saw as a further weakening of the president.

"For six or seven years the Revolutionary Guard has been imposing its own candidates for top posts," said a recently retired Oil Ministry executive who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of retribution. "After several times resisting the Revolutionary Guard's proposals, finally [the president] submitted."

Ghassemi was formerly head of Khatam Anbiya, the guard's construction arm, which like Ghassemi is under United Nations and Western sanctions for its role in Iran's nuclear program. The U.S. Treasury Department has placed Ghassemi on a list of individuals whose assets are frozen, and with whom dealings are prohibited.

It is unclear what steps Ghassemi could take as minister to advance the Revolutionary Guard's effort to consolidate power over Iran and expand Iranian influence in the Middle East. Supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran's highest political and religious authority, has final say over any strategic decisions on oil output or major deals.

Most likely, Ghassemi's role will bolster arguments of those in the United States, Europe and Israel that the Islamic Republic has become a military dictatorship run by extremist members of the guard incapable of dialogue with Iran's foes.

Some Iranian legislators voiced concern about his appointment.

"I am opposed to the trend of the entrance of military officials into the area of politics, and regard it as harmful to the country's interests," lawmaker Ali Mottahari said Wednesday, according to news agencies.

Many say the president had little choice but to appoint Ghassemi. The Revolutionary Guard and its allies have for months been placing the president's deputies under house arrest or surveillance as part of a struggle over the future of the Islamic Republic.

Some analysts in Tehran regard the appointment as a desperate effort by Ahmadinejad to create room to salvage his political career beyond the constitutionally mandated end of his second term in 2013.

"Ahmadinejad compromised with the Revolutionary Guard by accepting a top commander as oil minister in an attempt to reduce pressure against his government," said one analyst close to the camp of Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, a former president and longtime rival of Ahmadinejad. "He hopes that he will get a chance to consolidate his power and the status of his cronies in the months to come."

Political wheeling and dealing and influence-peddling is nothing new in the Islamic Republic.

Mehdi Ghazanfari, who was approved Wednesday as head of the newly formed Ministry of Trade, Mines and Industry, began meeting with newspaper publishers several weeks ago and promising them ad revenue should he obtain the post, according to a journalist at one of the publications.

Ghassemi, who is about 50 and a veteran of the Iran-Iraq war, is known as a behind-the-scenes player and deal maker, said the former Oil Ministry executive.

A civil engineer by training and a former member of parliament, he used to work as a subcontractor for the Oil Ministry, and would procure business for the Revolutionary Guard construction arm.

"Anytime [the guard] needed money, he could come to the Oil Ministry and win any tender without any genuine competition from private or state-run firms," the former executive said.

Another Oil Ministry subcontractor in Tehran said Ghassemi was the "gatekeeper" for big projects involving Khatam Anbiya, including oil exploration, mining, dam building, port construction and ship repair.

daragahi@latimes.com

Mostaghim is a special correspondent. Special correspondent Alexandra Sandels in Beirut contributed to this report.

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