Iran's oil minister Bijan Namdar Zangeneh. Photo: Atta Kenare/Getty Images
ERBIL, Kurdistan Region – Bijan Namdar Zangeneh is the only Kurdish minister in the cabinet of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. Experts say his reappointment is not because of his Kurdish ethnicity. Rather, it is because of his experience in the area of energy. Due to his role as minister in twelve cabinets of the Islamic Republic of Iran, he is known as the sheikh of ministers. Rouhani has described him as an international brand.
Zangeneh was born in June 1951 in the city of Kermanshah in east Kurdistan. He is from the Zangeneh tribe who live in the Kurdistan Region and Kurdistan areas of Iran. He went to university in Tehran in 1971 and completed his master’s in reconstruction engineering in 1975. He was then employed as a member of the scientific body at the Khwaja Nasiruddin Toosi University of Technology.
He is a reformist in his political vision, the reason he did not hold a ministerial position during the terms of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Zangeneh’s first appointment was minister of development by Prime Minister Mir-Hossein Mousavi in the country’s third cabinet in 1984. He remained minister of development in the fourth cabinet too and was appointed minister of energy by Mousavi in 1988.
After Mousavi, the governance system changed in Iran. Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani became president of Iran in 1989. Rafsanjani introduced Zangeneh as energy minister to the parliament, which voted in his favor. Zangeneh was appointed as energy minister again in Rafsanjani’s second term as president.
In 1997, Mohammad Khatami became president of Iran. Zangeneh was in the list of suggested ministers for Khatami too, this time for the ministry of oil, and remained oil minister in Khatami’s second term as president, through to 2005.
Then parliament representative Jalal Jalalizadeh was one of the people who tried to secure confidence votes for Zangeneh as minister.
“Arab representatives were against Zangeneh. Oil areas in Iran are located in places where these Arab representatives live,” Jalalizadeh told Rudaw.
He had gathered all Kurdish representatives to support Zangeneh. In the meeting, they told Zangeneh: “‘You are the only Kurd in the government but have done nothing for the Kurds yet.’ In response, he said: ‘My father also tells me: Bijan, you have done nothing for the Kurds.’”
In the meeting, Zangeneh had promised to build a petrochemical line in south Iran, taking it to the east. He had also promised to open petrochemical factories in the cities of Ilam, Kermanshah, Sanandaj, and Mahabad. Zangeneh delivered on his promises.
“There is a powerful figure and group in the Islamic Republic of Iran that supports Bijan Zangeneh. He doesn’t have a big lobby behind him. Rather, he depends on his experience and personality,” Jalalizadeh added.
Hoshyar Rostami, an economic expert in Tehran, attributes the reason behind his long tenure as minister to the lack of another expert in the area of energy. However, he recognizes his intelligence.
Rostami doesn’t think Zangeneh’s project was as useful though.
“This petrochemical line has no benefit in terms of economy,” he said.
Zangeneh was the architect behind the oil pipeline between the Kurdistan Region and Iran.
“The Kurdistan Region was not as insistent on building this line as Zangeneh was,” Rostami said. According to Rostami, Zangeneh had wanted to connect both the Tawrez and Tehran refineries to the Kurdistan Region’s oil in order to provide more security to the Kurdistan Region.
Reformists lost in the 2005 elections when conservative Ahmadinejad became president of Iran. This meant the end of Zangeneh’s tenure with the government that had spanned 23 years.
In 2013, eight years later, the moderate Rouhani was elected president of Iran. According to Rouhani, Iran needed an experienced minister in order to improve the country’s sluggish economy. He called on Zangeneh and returned him to his position.
“We told him that we as Kurdish activists will support him, but you should appoint a Sunni Kurd as your deputy. And he promised that. He called for three candidates so he could pick one,” Jalalizadeh said.
Zangeneh delivered on his promise. He picked Hamid Hosseini as his deputy, who was previously representative to cities of Quraw and Degulan.
He has employed many Kurds in the ministry of oil. Journalists say: “Even gate keepers are Kurdish now since Zangeneh assumed office.”
Rouhani again picked Zangeneh as candidate for the position of oil minister. The parliament granted him confidence as oil minister on August 20.
In his defense of Zangeneh, Rouhani said: “He himself didn’t want to be picked for the position of minister. That is why he suggested a young person to be put in this position. And I told him: ‘Zangeneh, I want a person for the oil ministry who can gain $100 billion in revenues annually. Is the person you are suggesting able to do that?”
“We want someone for the ministry who is credible to the outside world, someone known to foreigners. Bijan Namdar Zangeneh has this characteristic and is a brand,” he added.