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With economy faltering, Iran appoints new head of central bank

(Reuters) - Iran’s cabinet approved a new governor for the central bank as the country, facing renewed U.S. sanctions pressure, grapples with a faltering economy and a sliding currency that have stirred street protests.

The Tasnim news agency reported on Wednesday that the head of the Management and Planning Organization of Iran, Mohammad Baqer Nobakht, had also been replaced. But he said separately that President Hassan Rouhani had not accepted his resignation.

Rouhani, a pragmatist who reduced tensions with the West by striking a nuclear deal with world powers in 2015, is now facing a backlash from rival hardliners over Washington’s pullout from the pact in May and reimposition of tough sanctions that seek to throttle Iran’s economy including its lifeblood oil exports.

Hardliners have pressed him to reshuffle his economic team to better shield the economy from U.S. President Donald Trump’s moves and tamp down public discontent, and senior government officials had suggested a shakeup was imminent.

The new appointment suggests Rouhani, who has mostly touted the moderate economic successes of his tenure since global sanctions were lifted under the nuclear deal, is conceding a need for change to defuse criticism.

“The situation today requires that a new force with fresh breath be brought in,” Rouhani said, according to the official Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA). “I hope that by choosing appropriate tactics and methods, we can witness good developments on monetary, economic and banking issues.”

Ordinary Iranians have taken his government to task on social media, emphasizing the difficulties they face in making ends meet amid high unemployment, inflation and perceived graft.

IRIB news agency said Rouhani’s cabinet had approved Abdolnaser Hemmati to replace Valiollah Seif as governor of the central bank. It did not explain why Seif was dismissed.

In May, the Trump administration slapped sanctions on Seif himself, accusing him of “moving millions of dollars” for Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, the hardline elite security force that reports to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, not Rouhani.

Hemmati was formerly the managing director of Bank Melli and Sina Bank, IRIB said.

Under the 2015 deal reached under Trump’s predecessor Barack Obama, Iran limited its disputed nuclear energy program in exchange for relief from international sanctions. But Trump denounced the deal as one-sided in Iran’s favor and repudiated it, nudging Rouhani towards the position of Iranian hardliners.

Separately, Nobakht said that he had submitted his resignation but Rouhani had not accepted it, according to reports on the website of the Management and Planning Organization and IRNA.

IRNA quoted Mahmoud Vaezi, Rouhani’s chief of staff, as saying that reports of Nobakht being replaced were untrue.

Reporting by Babak Dehghanpisheh; Editing by Mark Heinrich