His surprise election as president has raised hopes at home and abroad, but he will have to move cautiously to avoid alarming hardliners
It was a smart move by the campaign team of Hassan Rouhani to choose a key as the symbol of the politician’s endeavour to become Iran’s president – and a gift to cartoonists in the wake of a remarkable victory that has created rare optimism at home and abroad about the future of the Islamic republic.
In one recent image a smiling Rouhani was portrayed in his mullah’s robes and turban, holding out an old-fashioned key to a door with an unmistakably digital lock. It was a witty way of suggesting that for all the excitement, solving Iran’s problems could be beyond him.
Rouhani, 64, is most often described as a moderate rather than reformist leader. But he is also a senior cleric with impeccable revolutionary credentials who has been an adviser to the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and held highly sensitive posts in parliament and the regime.
Intriguingly, he served for two years as chief negotiator on the vexed issue of Iran’s nuclear programme, at the heart of the country’s tense confrontation with the west and the source of the sanctions that are crippling its economy – and was defrocked in 2005 for being too accommodating.
In his first comments after winning last Friday’s election, he projected calm and conciliation, pledging to “follow the path of moderation and justice, not extremism”. After the turbulence of the Ahmadinejad era, sighs of relief were audible, from Tehran to Washington.
“I am trying to maintain a degree of healthy scepticism in the face of Rouhani’s massive charm offensive, which is infectious and so needed after the bitter miseries of the last four years,” said one middle-class Iranian woman.
Many speak of his caution and attention to detail. “Rouhani is smart and moderate with a strategic outlook and thinks very carefully before making up his mind,” said Hossein Mousavian, a former colleague. “He would spend days or weeks writing a sentence or making a decision.”
Rouhani has long been close to Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, the powerful former president who was disqualified from running again this year. Still, the surprise winner has a reputation for avoiding the factions that plague Iran’s hybrid system – an Islamic republic based on theocratic authority but with a vigorous parliament and regular elections.
“Rouhani’s approach to governing is much closer to Rafsanjani’s than anyone else,” said an old friend. “He’s known as the second Hashemi.”
Early on in the campaign experts suggested Rouhani was not well enough known to win. But in the end he attracted support not only in Tehran but also in provincial towns where Ahmadinejad performed well in the disputed 2009 race.
Born in 1948, in Sorkhe, a small town in Semnan province, Rouhani was the oldest of five children in what he called a “religious and revolutionary” family who lived in a modest home surrounded by vines and pomegranates. His father owned a grocery. His mother, Sakineh, remembers him as a calm boy who excelled at school, read the Qur’an and enjoyed swimming and climbing.
He was educated in Qom, the Canterbury of the Shia Muslim world, and changed his family name – which originally was Feridoun – as a security measure to avoid the attention of the Savak secret police when preaching against the shah. (Rouhani means cleric in Persian).
Unusually for a cleric before the revolution, he studied law at Tehran University. In the 1990s he was awarded a PhD by Glasgow Caledonian University for a thesis on the flexibility of sharia law with reference to the Iranian experience.
Little is known of his private life. His wife’s name is not public knowledge. The couple had five children, one of whom, a son, was killed in mysterious circumstances.
Rouhani spent time in Paris with the exiled Ayatollah Khomeini and Rafsanjani and entered parliament after the revolution. During the war with Iraq in the 1980s he commanded national air defence. In 1986, as deputy speaker in parliament, he took part in secret talks with US officials as part of what became known as the Iran-Contra arms-for-hostages affair.
In 1989, the year Khomeini died and Rafsanjani became president, he was appointed secretary of the supreme national security council.
“He is the ultimate insider,” said a former Tehran-based diplomat. “He knows all Iran’s secrets.”
Rouhani acquired a reputation for staying cool in a crisis. When Iranian diplomats were murdered in Afghanistan in 1998, on the watch of the reformist president Mohammad Khatami, his was one of the rare voices in the regime to oppose a military response, despite public anger.
In 2003, with the region in turmoil after the US invasion of Iraq, he became Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator, agreeing voluntarily in talks with the EU3 (Britain, France and Germany) to suspend uranium enrichment temporarily.
Jack Straw, who was then UK foreign secretary, remembered him as “warm and engaging … a strong Iranian patriot [who] was tough but fair to deal with and always on top of his brief”.
He was a man with whom westerners felt they could do business.
An EU official recalled: “Rouhani was different from Ahmadinejad, who was a kind of loony populist who would have sold his grandmother to do a deal, though the supreme leader wouldn’t let him. Nor was he like [his successor as nuclear negotiator] Ali Larijani, who was a sophisticated fellow traveller of the revolution. Rouhani struck me as a kind of serious moderate who was methodical, thoughtful and conservative.”
Rouhani did not share the visceral anti-Americanism of the Iranian revolutionary tradition. In 2003 he attracted attention by visiting the scene of the Bam earthquake and thanking the US for its help. In 2005, after resigning his nuclear post when Ahmadinejad took power, he ran the centre for strategic research (CSR), a government thinktank that became a refuge for many sidelined by the abrasive president.
Later, according to a classified US diplomatic cable released by WikiLeaks, the CSR was asked to help the campaign of Mir Hossein Mousavi, the Green leader who claimed that his victory, four years ago, had been stolen by Ahmadinejad. But Rouhani failed to speak out publicly against the brutal suppression of the protests that followed.
During this year’s election campaign he was keen to display a moderate position on foreign affairs, citing Iran’s “active impartiality” during the 1991 Gulf war, a security pact with Saudi Arabia in the Khatami period, and Iran’s “reasonable position” in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the US.
“Rouhani will return many seasoned technocrats and diplomats to key positions and reinstate a sense of professionalism to the government,” said Bijan Khajehpour, editor of Iran Strategic Focus.
But excitement about his victory is tempered by the knowledge that he will need to move cautiously to avoid alarming conservatives and hardliners, including Khamenei and the powerful Revolutionary Guards. Khatami has already warned Rouhani’s supporters not to expect him to deliver too much too soon.
Ali Ansari, of St Andrews University, said: “Whatever people are now saying about him, Rouhani is no Khatami, and faces a degraded state structure populated by a rightwing establishment with a sense of entitlement from years of easy oil money.
“The task ahead of him is enormous and will in many ways be dictated by the strength of elite dissatisfaction, the maintenance of popular support, and last but by no means least the willingness of the leader to effectively take a back seat and give him space.”
It is clear that with the stakes so high, for Iran and for the world, this careful and experienced politician will be closely watched when he takes office in August. His first big test, many suggest, will be whether he can make good his pledge that Mousavi and another reformist, Mehdi Karroubi, be released from house arrest.
“It will take Rouhani some time to get his footing and work with the supreme leader, who can’t be too eager,” said a former senior US administration official. “But Rouhani is a pretty tough character, and moderate is a relative term in the Iranian political system. If he tries to reform he may find out, like Gorbachev did, that an authoritarian system is not reformable because it risks unleashing forces that may eventually bring it down. I sense that Khamenei knows that and will try to limit reforms. It will depend on how much repressed energy has built up and whether half measures will be too little too late.”
By The Guardian
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