TEHRAN, Iran (AP) — Iran’s first government minister born after its 1979 Islamic Revolution is a carefully manicured, charming internet engineer who posts Instagram pictures of his weekends with his family and spends 30 minutes a day reading letters from his constituents.
He also used to work for the Intelligence Ministry.
Meet Mohammad Javad Azari Jahromi, whose quick rise through the Islamic Republic’s carefully managed political system already is generating speculation he could be a candidate for Iran’s 2021 presidential campaign.
From his current post as information and communications technology minister, Jahromi oversees Iran’s tightly controlled internet and a satellite program that the US alleges serves as a cover for experiments on intercontinental ballistic missiles capable of carrying nuclear warheads.
Despite being heralded as a new, accessible civilian face in a Shiite theocracy that is now 40 years old, Jahromi’s past as an intelligence officer has raised political concern. The 37-year-old politician doesn’t see it that way.
“Many politicians around the world have served in their intelligence services,” Jahromi said in an interview with The Associated Press in Tehran this week. “The current US secretary of state has worked as the CIA chief. Mr. (Vladimir) Putin as the Russian president used to be at the KGB. Is there any problem with background in the Iranian intelligence apparatus?”
Jahromi made a point several times in the interview to simply describe himself as an engineer. However, during his parliamentary confirmation hearings in 2017, he acknowledged helping design the ministry’s surveillance systems. He left the ministry in 2009, the year of former hard-line president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s disputed re-election, which sparked mass protests that were violently suppressed.
European nations and Iranian exile groups accuse the Intelligence Ministry of involvement in assassinations abroad and spying campaigns since its founding. In Iran’s political system, it serves under the direction of elected officials headed by the president, now the relatively moderate cleric Hassan Rouhani. That’s contrasted to other intelligence services like those under Iran’s paramilitary Revolutionary Guard, which answers only to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
The Guard and the Intelligence Ministry routinely find themselves at odds. The Guard has been behind the internationally criticized arrests of Iranian dual nationals and those with Western ties.
Jahromi defended his work, but did not go into detail in describing it.
“Other politicians who might consider this as a negative point have taken part in operations against the people and there is lots of evidence on their actions against humanity,” Jahromi said, without elaborating.
So far, Jahromi has been able to avoid widespread criticism and “appears to represent a new generation of technocrats in Iran’s political elite,” said Adnan Tabatabai, an Iran analyst based in Germany who is the CEO of the Center for Applied Research in Partnership with the Orient.
“He has managed to overcome this negative image,” Tabatabai told the AP. “He is very interactive with ordinary social media users on Twitter and Instagram, doesn’t shy away from back-and-forth messages on both platforms.”
From his post at the ministry, Jahromi oversees the internet in Iran. He maintains a Twitter account, like other top Iranian officials such as Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, and interacts with those messaging him. Jahromi occasionally makes news in a country where all radio and TV stations remain state-controlled.
Twitter has been banned for the Iranian public since the 2009 unrest, something many circumvent by using virtual private networks and other workarounds. Jahromi says Twitter should be unblocked and blames the judiciary’s fears of the microblogging site for keeping the block in place.
“We believe that this is a very effective network and the fact that I use it means that we think it is effective,” he said. “I believe efforts should be made to make access possible for everyone.”
Jahromi also framed the block as a national security risk, saying Gulf Arab states and Iranian exile groups exploit the absence of Iranian voices on the site. About 46 million Iranians use the internet and access unblocked social media, predominantly through mobile phones.
“Today, the small states of this region, which are the cradles of dictatorship and have no free elections in them, are investing a lot in social networking to promote Iranophobia in the region,” Jahromi said. “They have organized networks and do psychological work to mislead (world leaders) about what the Iranian public is thinking.”
Iran plans to launch three satellites this year, two that do remote-sensing work and another that handles communications, Jahromi said. While his ministry is responsible for building the satellites, the Guard’s aerospace program launches them from the Imam Khomeini Space Center in Semnan province. Two satellite launches earlier this year failed to reach orbit.
The US alleges such launches defy a UN Security Council resolution calling on Iran to undertake no activity related to ballistic missiles capable of delivering nuclear weapons.
Iran, which long has said it does not seek nuclear weapons, maintains its satellite launches and rocket tests do not have a military component. Tehran also says they don’t violate a UN resolution that only “called upon” it not to conduct such tests.
Jahromi stressed that Iran’s program is “peaceful.”
“Iran’s missile program is transparent and it doesn’t have any hidden dimensions,” he said.
His ministry also controls internet access in Iran, where Western websites are slowed or otherwise filtered. He acknowledged reports of a recent uptick in US cyberattacks on the country amid tensions over the unraveling of the 2015 nuclear deal with world powers, but said Iran has continued to fend off such assaults.
“No one doubts America’s evilness in attacking our infrastructure,” Jahromi said, mentioning the suspected US and Israeli Stuxnet attack targeting its centrifuges prior to the nuclear deal. “They always use cyberweapons against other countries and they are carrying out cyberterrorism in the world as a government.”
Jahromi appears to have aspirations beyond his current position. Tabatabai and others suggest he could run in the 2021 presidential election, assuming he’s allowed to by the candidate-vetting Guardian Council.
“I believe that Iran’s security and military establishment has been more active in creating a new modern political breed,” Tabatabai said. “This is bad news for questions like political liberalization and meaningful social and cultural reform. But it may in fact be good news for that vast majority of Iranians who are desperately hoping for a government that can get deeply rooted structural and economic problems solved – with corruption and unemployment being central parts of it.”
Jahromi started a program allowing people to write him postage-free at his office and he said he spends 30 minutes a day reading and responding to letters, a habit of former US President Barack Obama. Two letters hung taped to the wall in his office, one including a child’s drawing of an Iranian fist punching through a US flag.
“Those who do not want to be up-to-date with the current world where everyone is connected to each other might like to say that Mr. Jahromi’s activities are aimed at future purposes,” he said in Farsi, referring to those who criticize his online activity. “I have no problem with their speculations.”
Pressed on his answer, Jahromi smiled and answered in English: “I think I said something that is good for you.”