Iran’s First Post-Revolution Female Minister ... and President?: About Marzieh Vahid-Dastjerdi
Iran’s Guardian Council has signaled it may alter a masculine definition of statesmen that impedes presidential campaigns by women for the first time. Marzieh-Vahid-Dastjerdi, the Islamic Republic’s first and only woman minister, is now at the heart of a plethora of speculations that she might be a wild card for the Principlists on their bid to retake presidency from moderate and reformist rivals.
Born in Tehran on February 11, 1959, Marzieh Vahid-Dastjerdi grew up in a family of revolutionary reputation, with his father, Seifollah, chief of Iran’s Red Crescent Organization, in charge for 16 years. It is often said that the Dastjerdis are in very good terms with Iran’s Supreme Leader because of their father. In a message of condolence Ayatollah Khamenei issued on Seifollah Vahid-Dastjerdi’s death, the Supreme Leader praised him for his earnest, dutiful, self-motivated and revolutionary personality. Former parliament speaker and presidential candidate Gholam Ali Haddad Adel once said Marzieh Vahid-Dastjerdi was the obstetrician that assisted the birth of the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s grandchild in a Tehran hospital. In 2015, the Supreme Leader appointed her as a member to the Imam Khomeini Relief Foundation’s board of trustees.
Her brother Hamid, reportedly an alumnus of Sharif University, London School of Economics and Political Sciences, and Oxford, is a philosopher whose major publications are The Epistemology of Belief and Epistemic Justification and the Skeptical Challenge. Once a devoted admirer and disciple of Islamic reformer Abdolkarim Soroush in the 1990s, he later turned into a zealous critic of Soroush, and was latter appointed dean of the philosophy department in the Institute for Research in Fundamental Sciences (IPM), which Mohammd Javad Larijani has administered for years. Marzieh’s other brother Ahmad, born on January 15, 1954, is a prominent IRGC brigadier general, who directed Iran’s Aerospace Industries Organization and served as a deputy to the defense minister. UN resolutions, 1737 and 1747, froze his assets for his role in Iran’s ballistic missile program, which Iran has repeatedly stated to have defensive purposes.
The Dastjerdi’s family ties have always been subject to rumors and media speculations. An alleged tie with Reformist mastermind Saeed Hajjarian has remained unverified while her marriage to Kayhan daily’s Hossein Shariatmadari, surfaced in a Le Monde story in September 2009, was immediately dismissed. An odd blood tie also went public, surprisingly in a pop gig by singer Mohammad Esfahani when he said Dastjerdi was his aunt.
Academy and brief encounters
Vahid-Dastjerdi entered Tehran University of Medical Sciences at the age of 16 and later married Mohammadreza Nakhostin, an orthodontist. Iranian media outlets have quoted her peers as saying she would passionately treat underprivileged patients for free before and after she started to work in Arash Hospital in eastern Tehran, where she has worked on and off for decades. Her life story abounds with brief encounters involving almost every president of the country since Ayatollah Ali Khamenei became Iran’s Supreme Leader. During the 1980s, her sister Elaheh, also a dentist, worked in Kayhan daily under the management of Mohammad Khatami, who later became Iran’s President in 1997. Marzieh also frequented the office, but as a student with political activism, unlike many of her peers she was affiliated with the right, making her an outsider to journalistic circles that later became the building block of reform. According to late Hashemi Rafsanjani’s memoir, on October 29, 1984, when he served as parliament speaker, Marzieh walked into his office to complain about what she called moral perversion and the isolation of the pious in academia. It was only later that she would learn about her chance of a long and close collaboration with another president, which also ended on a bitter note.
During the last year or so of the Iraqi-imposed war, Marzieh Vahid-Dastjerdi was appointed to the High Social and Cultural Council for Women, a major decision-making center. Almost at the same time, she received her degree in OB/GYN.
The fourth Majlis, 1992 to 1996, offered plenty of room for the right in the absence of a rival. Marzieh Vahid-Dastjerdi ran from Tehran in a mid-term election and was voted in. As an MP, she advocated participation of women in different social scenes but remained loyal to the necessity of hijab. Then, she was a fiery critic of policies that encouraged population growth. A mother of two in July 1992, she slammed these policies as potentially drawing a bleak future for the country. She predicted in a parliamentary address that Iran’s excessive rate of population growth could mean a 100-million large country in 2011, which would have to deal with poverty, unemployment, illiteracy, delinquency, and malnutrition due to imbalanced growth in other areas including agriculture, industry, education, housing and social welfare.
Politics concerned, she had grown into an outspoken censor of the Rafsanjani administration. On September 29, 1993, she told her fellow lawmakers that people were sniveling of the difficulties imposed on them by the administration. Two months later, she lambasted what she deemed unnecessary imports that wasted the country’s resources. “Considerable amounts of money flow out of the country each year in order to import 500,000 tons of paper, eventually wasted in useless paperwork, cards, invitation letters, and different kinds of magazines,” she said.
She was reelected in the fifth parliament in the runoff, though her ballots dropped by 200,000. Toward the end of her term, she shifted onto medical management affairs. She later served in several key posts such as membership in healthcare ministry’s Board for OB/GYN Examination and Assessment, the board of directors for the Family Planning Association, healthcare ministry’s policy-making council, and faculty membership in the family planning committee of the healthcare ministry, all under presidents Hashemi Rafsanjani and Mohammad Khatami.
First female minister, sandwiched between Larijanis and Ahmadinejad
After the upset ascend of the Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to office, Marzieh Vahid Datjerdi’s profile did not undergo much change. Vahid-Dastjerdi had not even voted for Ahmadinejad but was appointed director for international affairs in Tehran University of Medical Sciences, under Bagher Larijani’s deanship.
Ahmadinejad’s reelection after a much-disputed race in 2009 was followed by his decision to break the taboo of a lady minister in his cabinet, when he nominated Vahid-Dastjerdi as his healthcare minister and proposed her to the parliament for a confidence vote. As she has recalled in different interviews, she had her own hesitations to accept the post but finally decided in favor of an affirmative, as she figured any refusal could be a negligence of women’s rights in the country.
She won the vote of confidence, on September 03, 2009, despite opposition in the parliament that drew on religious interpretations to bar her from the position. Against all odds, she was not met with much cynicism among the healthcare community, nor in the ministry now under her control.
Major developments in the country’s healthcare scene under her little shy of four-year ministerial term include the controversial merger of Iran and Tehran faculties of medical sciences, a win for her ally from the Larijani family, Bagher Larijani, who served as the dean of the latter, and revocation of a controversial medical residency exam in 2009. Turning away from the cause she had gone through fire and water for, she also eliminated all budget lines allotted for family planning, following the Supreme Leader’s decree to cease birth control programs.
One main line of criticism against her was the role Bagher Larijani played as her counselor and deputy. Some observers went so far as to call him the real person in charge. This was an NP for the Ahmadinejad administration until the Larijani family got openly on the wrong side of Ahmadinejad after February 03, 2013, dubbed the Black Sunday of the parliament. On that day, Speaker Ali Larijani ushered President Ahmadinejad out, over a footage he played to the open session of the parliament, which was also on in state-run radio. The footage, secretly recorded in the pro-Ahmadinejad attorney and now convict Saeed Mortazavi’s office, showed another Larijani brother, Fazel, discussing a proposal for Mortazavi to work with Iranian tycoon, now sentenced to death, Babak Zanjani and promising to convince brothers Ali and Sadegh, chiefs of the legislative and judiciary branches of the government.
Surprisingly, the whole episode happened during an impeachment session held to discuss Social Welfare Minister Abdolreza Sheikholeslami, the man who was Ahmadinejad’s bureau chief when he invited Marzieh Vahid-Dastjerdi to join the cabinet.
Soon afterwards, she fell into a series of public disagreements with the Ahmadinejad administration. In the midst of media speculations that she would soon be sacked, Ahmadinejad initially vowed to back her and even went to the length of lending her backhanded support, calling her “the only man in the cabinet”, meant as a compliment signifying her authority. However, when she openly criticized the administration over a shortage of medicines in the sanction-stricken country, attributed to the administration’s mis-prioritization and allocating foreign currency to import unnecessary products ranging from luxury cars to dog food, Ahmadinejad chose to dismiss her. As she later confessed, a main backdrop of all those disagreements was the pressure she resisted to replace her deputy, Bagher Larijani.
It did not take the Larijanis too long to come back for help. Kazem Jalali, a close ally of Ali Larijani and then the director of Majlis Research Center, appointed Marzieh Vahid-Dastjerdi as his advisor and head of the center’s Strategic Council on Healthcare and Welfare. Another appointment came on October 21, 2013, this time by Judiciary Chief Sadegh Larijani, who also named her his advisor.
Why she seems to be eligible
Her popularity is expected to be on rise because her image is of one who split ways with the Ahmadinejadite, thus undergoing purgation in public opinions as a heroine who fought for her people. This year, she ran in the parliamentary race of February 26, as always confidently trying her vote base in the capital. If only it was a race between the Principlists led by former parliament speaker and presidential candidate Gholam Ali Haddad Adel, she would have finished as the fifth popularly voted MP with her 860,000 plus ballots. However, her camp was kicked out in a 30-0 defeat.
Less than a year since then, she is now making more and more appearances in news, as a leading figure and the spokeswoman of the recently established Popular Front of Revolutionary Forces (PFRF), a self-proclaimed extra-partisan umbrella, which is increasingly wining endorsements from Principlists.
Candidates will have to go through the funnel of a tough vetting process by the Guardian Council in order for their qualification to be confirmed. If the Council decides to allow women for the first time in the history of the Islamic Republic, Marzieh Vahid-Dastjerdi will have a unique opportunity to get past the tight mesh. In fact, she has already received the early sing of her endorsement. Last September, Guardian Council Secretary Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati appointed Marzieh Vahid-Dastjerdi as the chairwoman of the “Women and Family Committee” of the Iran’s headquarters for enjoining good and forbidding wrong.