Hassan Rouhani

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You are the “Diplomat Sheikh,” Iran’s president, Hassan Rouhani.



“I say candidly that if you [the West] want a proper response, speak to Iran not with the language of sanctions but with the language of respect. The only way for interaction with Iran is dialogue on equal footing, mutual confidence-building, mutual respect and reduction of hostilities.”

“In our region, there's been a wound for years on the body of the Muslim world under the shadow of the occupation of the holy land of Palestine and the beloved [city of] Jerusalem.”

“The world must realize that we do not want to threaten anyone or meddle in any other country’s affairs.”

“Issue of Iran & US difficult and complicated. It has been an old wound and we must think of how to heal this injury” (tweet sent on 6-17-13)

Early Life

You were born into a religious family in Sorkheh, Iran in 1948. Your father, an activist opposed to the government of the Shah, was arrested many times as you grew up, and you would adopt his political orientation. You did your early schooling at a Muslim seminary, and you later earned a bachelor’s degree in judicial law from the University of Tehran (you would later earn a doctorate in law from Scotland’s Glascow Caledonian University). You became a supporter of the exiled cleric Ruhollah Khomenei (the man who led the Islamic Revolution in 1979) both in Iran, where you were frequently arrested by the secret police, and later in Europe, as you joined Khomenei in exile.

Political Career

You moved from activist to political leader with the coming of the Islamic Revolution in 1979. You were a member of the Iranian parliament, or majlis, from 1980-2000, and you served two terms as deputy speaker during this span. More significantly, you served as National Security Advisor (NSA) to two Iranian presidents. From 1989-1997 you served as NSA to President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and then from 2000—2005 you performed the same function for President Mohammad Khatami. During this latter period you gained your greatest international renown from serving as Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator from 2003 until Khatami’s presidency ended in 2005. Your diplomatic work focused on dealing with the “EU Three” of France, Germany and Great Britain, but you held negotiations with the entire “P5+1,” referring to the five permanent members—the P5--of the UN Security Council (Russia, China, France, Great Britain and the US) plus Germany.

You are said by many to have engineered at this time a halt in Iran’s clandestine nuclear weaponization program. These efforts were acknowledged by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in 2011 and, more recently, by the former French ambassador to Iran, Francois Nicoullaud, who wrote a piece for the New York Times in the wake of your election to the Iranian presidency. Nicoullaud stated that with the elimination of Iran’s primary enemy, Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, the Iranians were feeling less pressured to develop a nuclear deterrent, and because Rouhani had agreed to allow IAEA inspectors into Iran in 2003, he couldn’t risk having those inspectors discover active nuclear military work underway. Nicoullaud wrote that “Rouhani cannot claim credit for halting the weaponization program because officially it never existed. But the actions I believe he took in 2003 raise hopes that as president of the Islamic Republic he will be able to find and implement a negotiated solution for the continuing nuclear crisis.”

The 2013 Presidential Elections

The 2013 presidential elections in Iran were the focus of much attention, both in Iran and beyond. To fully grasp why this was so, we must go back to 2009 when the controversial Mahmoud Ahmadinejad ran for and won a second term as president. Ahmadinejad, the preferred candidate of Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, faced unexpectedly strong opposition from two reformist candidates, Mir-Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karoubi. Ahmadinejad ultimately won the election, but many people suspected that the election results were fraudulent, a sentiment that was deepened when Mousavi and Karoubi were placed under house arrest by the Ayatollah, where they remain as of this writing.

In addition, President Ahmadinejad’s second term was a tempestuous one. With the Ayatollah’s support he took a bold stand on behalf of Iran’s right to develop nuclear energy, an assertion that many believe masked Iran’s active development of nuclear weapons technology. These fears and suspicions led to an increasingly harsh regime of economic sanctions placed against Iran by western nations, led by the United States, with the avowed purpose of forcing Iran to the negotiating table. Leaving aside the politics for just a moment, there is no question that the sanctions severely damaged Iran’s economy, and many criticized Ahmadinejad for responding ineffectively to these economic difficulties. In addition to the economic hardships, tensions grew between Ahmadinejad and Khamenei related, at least in part, to people close to Ahmadinejad who were thought by the Ayatollah to oppose the involvement of clerics in politics.

As the 2013 presidential elections approached, those who held doubts about the legitimacy of Iranian elections felt that their suspicions were borne out when the centrist former President, Hashemi Rafsanjani, was denied a place on the ballot by the Ayatollah’s “Guardian Council.” Given this, most election watchers felt it was a foregone conclusion that one of the conservative candidates would win the election, which only magnified the shock when you, the most centrist candidate, not only finished first in the polling, but received more than 50% of the vote, a margin so big that the expected runoff between the two top finishers was canceled. You were widely credited with savvy management of your campaign, successfully persuading the main reformist candidate to drop out of the race, while several conservative candidates split up the vote between them. In addition to calling for a lessening of diplomatic tensions, your winning formula included advocating for increased freedom of the press and of speech, as well as greater rights for women. Many Iranians had clearly grown tired of an economy in tatters, as well as ultra-conservative social policies, and they’ve investing high expectations in you.

Your Foreign Policy

In the early weeks of your presidency you’ve given many conciliatory signals, indicating your willingness to pursue negotiations over Iran’s nuclear technology, even to the extent of proposing direct negotiations with the United States. Many people wonder how the Americans and the Europeans will respond to your taking this initiative. In the United States, there are many voices loudly calling for enhanced economic sanctions, and turning around this momentum would be a challenge for President Obama should he choose to try to do so. Similarly, voices from the Netanyahu administration in Israel have warned that your mild words are calculated to lower the defenses of Iran’s opponents, and are ultimately designed to smooth the path to Iran becoming a true nuclear threat. There are many people, however (like the French ambassador quoted above) who see your ascension to the presidency as a real opportunity to defuse the long-standing tension over Iran’s nuclear stance, and they are encouraging the West to dial back the rhetoric and give the hard-line skeptics in Iran reason for optimism that Rouhani’s diplomatic approach will net better results for Iran in the long term.

It is also well worth noting that you are interested in reducing tensions with Saudi Arabia. You know that Iran sees itself at the forefront of the Islamist movement in the region, and particularly of the Shi’ite Muslims, and this has caused a great deal of tension with Saudi Arabia, the wealthy and visible leader of Sunni Islam in the region. It should be noted, however, that your efforts to dial back tensions with the Saudis are complicated by the conflict in Syria. Iran sees the Assad regime as one of its strongest allies in the region and, together with the Lebanese Hezbollah movement (which Iran supports, both financially and militarily) has stood with the government against the rebels, many of whom have been supported by the Saudis. If you can relax tensions with the Saudis in this time of regional conflict, while fending off domestic critics who worry that Iran needs to maintain an aggressive stance regionally, you will surely buttress your reputation as a skilled diplomat.

Finally, although there in no reason to expect any significant changes in Iran’s stance regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the way that you handled an incident very early in your presidency seems to indicate that you will take a less overtly provocative approach than that taken by your predecessor, Mr. Ahmadinejad. You had been quoted by some as referring to Israel as a “wound…that must be cleansed (from the body of the Muslim world),” but your official press service was quick to disseminate word that this was an inaccurate translation, and that the wound to which you referred was the occupation of Palestine, rather than Israel itself.

Character Playing Notes

You are in a delicate political circumstance, as your election was clearly rooted in a desire for change, but your actions will be closely monitored (and likely regulated) by the Ayatollah. Keep in mind that the Ayatollah is the ultimate decision-maker on all matters, including foreign policy, so if you diverge from previous policy it will be at the pleasure of Ayatollah Khamenei, whose favor you must maintain. The fact that you yourself are a cleric will help in this regard, as does your 40 year+ relationship with Ayatollah Khamenei. You will also be watched, both in Iran and outside of it, to see that you are not simply a slightly less conservative mouthpiece for the Ayatollah. Observers will monitor whether you can provide tangible benefits (both geopolitically and economically) for Iran in exchange for the expected concessions on the nuclear front.

You are a sensible and prudent centrist who has earned the trust of many in the West. You have the opportunity to make a huge political impact, but to do so both your political and your diplomatic skill will be thoroughly put to the test.


“Until proven otherwise, Iran's Hassan Rohani deserves the West's trust” by Zvi Barei (Haaretz, 8-4-13) http://www.haaretz.com/news/middle-east/.premium-1.539566

“Rouhani and the Iranian Bomb” by Francois Nicoullaud (New York Times, 7-26-13). http://www.nytimes.com/2013/07/27/opinion/global/rouhani-and-the-iranian-bomb.html?_r=0

“Iranian president-elect Rowhani misquoted on Israel” (The Globe and Mail, 8-2-13) http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/world/iranian-president-elect-rowhani-misquoted-on-israel/article13586070/

“Wrapped in Surprise, Stuffed with Politics” by Arang Keshavarzian (MERIP-- Middle East Research and Information Project Blog, 6-17-13) http://www.merip.org/wrapped-surprise-stuffed-politics

“Iran’s Man in the Middle” by Haleh Esfandiari (New York Review of Books NYR Blog, 6-22-13) http://www.nybooks.com/blogs/nyrblog/2013/jun/22/rouhani-irans-man-in-middle/

“Getting to 'Yes' With Iran” by Robert Einhorn (Foreign Policy Magazine, 7-10-13) http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2013/07/10/getting_to_yes_with_iran

“Iran’s new president: Will he make a difference?” (The Economist, 6-22-13) http://www.economist.com/news/middle-east-and-africa/21579826-irans-new-president-hassan-rohani-has-been-hailed-abroad-reformist-breath/print

“Why Rouhani Won -- And Why Khamenei Let Him” by Suzanne Maloney (Foreign Affairs Magazine, 6-16-13) http://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/139511/suzanne-maloney/why-rouhani-won-and-why-khamenei-let-him

Hassan Rouhani Biographical Page on Wikipedia. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hassan_Rouhani

“Rouhani’s Surprising Election” by Shaul Bakhash (Woodrow Wilson Center’s Viewpoints No. 28, June 2013) http://www.wilsoncenter.org/publication/rouhanis-surprising-election

“Rouhani Tweets! Change in 140-characters?” by Garrett Nada (United States Institute of Peace’s Iran Primer, 7-24-13) http://iranprimer.usip.org/blog/2013/jul/24/rouhani-tweets-change-140-characters

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