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Who Is Hassan Rouhani?

Paul Rahe has written a thoughtful post, The Iranians Will One Day Be Free, in which he muses on Iran’s long-term prospects in light of the election of a relative moderate following the long nightmare of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. I thought I’d supplement Prof. Rahe’s reflections with a closer look at the winning candidate, Hassan Rouhani.

One of the main sources I used in composing this was Omri Ceren, who writes about the struggle between Western civilization and political Islam at Commentary and on his blog, Mere Rhetoric. He’s also senior adviser for strategy at The Israel Project. Any theorizing, speculating, or conclusion-reaching is my own, however.

It might be easiest to distill all this as a question-and-answer, so let’s have at it.

Q. What are Hassan Rouhani’s political allegiances?

A. Rouhani comes from the camp of former Iranian President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, a figure generally classified as moderate but whom Ceren identifies as more of a “conservative pragmatist”. (Rafsanjani believes in a free market economy and objects to the deliberate antagonizing of America and the West, but was also instrumental in the selection of Ali Khamenei as Supreme Leader.) Rouhani was Rafsanjani’s Secretary of the Supreme National Security Council in 1989 and continued in that position under Rafsanjani’s successor, Mohammad Khatami. Rafsanjani endorsed Rouhani for the presidency following his own disqualification.

Q. How did Rouhani become a nominee in the first place?

A. I’m speculating here, but it looks as though this might have been a miscalculation for the sake of credibility — although not necessarily a dangerous miscalculation from the point of view of the mullahs. Iran’s Guardian Council culled the original list of candidates severely, slashing it from about 680 names down to eight. The candidates left standing were all connected in some way either to the Supreme Leader or to the security forces.

Hassan Rouhani’s bona fides go all the way back the Iranian revolution, during which he was a follower of Ayatollah Khomeini. He stayed close to Khomeini while in exile and then moved up the political system once Khomeini seized power back in Iran. The regime might well have anticipated a result that was close enough to require a runoff, with Saeed Jalili — Iran’s nuclear negotatior under Ahmadinejad and the Supreme Leader’s choice for president — emerging the victor. Rouhani’s landslide win precluded the possibility of a runoff.

As I say, though, the result is not necessarily ominous for the theocracy. Rouhani’s name would not have remained on the list of candidates if the mullahs had any serious doubts about either his loyalty or his willingness to remain largely powerless.

Q. What does Rouhani’s election imply about Iran’s nuclear ambitions?

A. It’s good news for Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

Rouhani was Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator with the EU3 (Britain, France, and Germany) during Khatami’s presidency. His willingness to conciliate the West has been perceived in some quarters as hampering Iran’s nuclear progress, an accusation he emphatically denies. The simple fact of Rouhani’s election will take a great deal of heat off Iran, and will thus enable it to continue apace on its nuclear program — whatever the true nature of that program might be. It’s certainly going to be much harder now to impose sanctions, or even to suggest them. Remember that for all Rouhani’s good p.r., all final decision-making about Iran’s nuclear program lies, as it always did, with the ruling clerics.

Q. What can we expect from Rouhani in terms of foreign policy?

A. He’s pretty much the antithesis of Ahmadinejad, in that he promotes (or says he promotes) a policy of “reconciliation and peace” with the West. Ceren makes the important point, though, that Iran has a long history of reaching out to the West while doing what it wants at home, and that it knows how easily the West can be divided against itself:

Skeptics, meanwhile, are likely to read Rouhani’s call for dialogue with the West against a historical strategy of expanding Iran’s nuclear program while conducting negotiations, especially negotiations with Europe. In September 2004 he described Iranian policy as pursuing both “confidence-building and… build[ing] up our technical capability… simultaneously” (http://is.gd/9UGVBp). Also in 2004, he bragged that “cooperating with Europe” allowed Iran to split the Europeans from the Americans so that Iran could keep pursuing its policies (http://is.gd/JCL060). During the election he boasted that his strategy allowed Iran to “complete[] the technology” it needed for its nuclear program (http://is.gd/uO1G3f). Iranian officials even had an internal codename for Rouhani’s strategy: it was described in a book by Rouhani’s deputy at the Supreme National Security Council, Seyed Hossein Mousavian, as the “widen the transatlantic gap” strategy (http://is.gd/xOqN9X).

Q. What does the election result mean for Israel’s plans (if they exist) to take out Iran’s nuclear installations?

A. The likely eagerness of the United States to welcome Iran into the community of civilized nations will put some daylight (or perhaps I should say more daylight) between the US and Israel on the need for a military strike. (Note that I am not in a position to confirm that Israel has any such plans, but if they do exist, they depend on a uniformity of vision with the US.) At Ahmadinejad’s worst, most fire-breathing moments, President Obama could scarcely stomach the prospect of a strike, so I doubt he would even consider it under this new Iranian administration.

Again, speculation alert: it would be dangerous in the extreme for Israel to conduct a strike without the concrete support of the US, so she’ll have little choice but to move any plans to the back burner.

Q. But maybe that’s okay. If a sane man has ascended to the presidency of Iran, isn’t it possible that Israel can stop worrying about Iran’s ultimate intentions toward her?

A. To answer that, I’ll point out that on Syria, President-Elect Rouhani has not wavered in his support for the regime of Bashar al-Assad. Why the staunch support? Because Rouhani admires Assad’s absolute rejection of any kind of rapprochement with Israel, ever.

This election, while certainly heartening in many respects, is unlikely to herald a new dawn of good relations between Iran and Israel, or at least not any time soon. A nuclear Iran is still a most unnerving prospect indeed.

Q. Is Rouhani a “Green”?

A. No. He was the beneficiary of a great many reform votes, primarily since all the other reform candidates were forbidden by the Guardian Council to run and the other reform contender, Mohammad Reza Aref, dropped out of the race. The candidates to his right divided their vote, while Rouhani was the only man standing to receive anti-government protest votes of every variety.

He is hardly a Green, though. During the student protests in 1999, he gave a speech in which he vowed to “crush [them] mercilessly and monumentally”. He also called for the execution of those who had been arrested. In February 2011, during pro-democracy protests, he instructed the public to desist from demonstrating and obey Khameini. He also said at the time that the protests were meant to distract the public from the true enemy: the US and Israel.

Q. Can we expect Rouhani to accomplish anything?

A. He may well accomplish a good deal domestically — he has declared his intention to construct a “civil rights charter” and has plans to restore the economy, which is the primary concern of many Iranian voters — but on the international front, he’s unlikely to accomplish much. Anything he might want to do will be trumped by Supreme Leader Khameini, who remains the last word on everything. Khameini decides what Iran’s nuclear policy is, and he’s already warned Rouhani not to make concessions to the West on that (or any) score. In February, remember, Khameini threw the Americans’ offer of direct talks back in their faces. Expect the Americans and the West at large to reach out, Rouhani to record some pleasing sound bytes in response, and nothing significant to change.

  1. HVTs

    The simple fact of Rouhani’s election will take a great deal of heat off Iran, and will thus enable it to continue apace on its nuclear program … It’s certainly going to be much harder now to impose sanctions, or even to suggest them. Remember that for all Rouhani’s good p.r., all final decision-making about Iran’s nuclear program lies, as it always did, with the ruling clerics.

    Well said and (sad to say) dead-on point.  In short, the mullahs have learned  how gullible the Western powers can be, how feckless we can become, and they are shrewd enough to play to those weaknesses.

  2. Skyler

    Could you explain what a “green” is?

  3. Judith Levy, Ed.
    C

    Skyler, the Green movement in Iran arose in response to the stolen election of 2009, when Ahmadinejad fraudulently took office. Huge numbers of people participated in rallies and demonstrations protesting the results. The regime responded with a harsh crackdown that swept up former senior government officials along with many students. Rouhani’s affiliation with the regime, rather than with the popular movement that evolved into the Greens, goes back many years. While he shared the Greens’ aversion to Ahmadinejad (he resigned his post in protest shortly after Ahmadinejad took office), I don’t think either he or the Greens would consider him a kindred spirit. 

  4. Group Captain Mandrake

    So Haman has fallen but Rouhani is no Cyrus.

  5. Paul A. Rahe
    C

    Thanks for this. Most of it I had a pretty good inkling of. The one piece of information that I did not know was that Rouhani had been very close to Rafsanjani and Khatami.

    Of significance, I believe, is the size of the vote he received. Khamenei calls the shots, but he cannot fully ignore public opinion, and these elections provide an occasion for the expression of public opinion. Rouhani’s appeal to the green movement may in some measure bind him.

  6. R. Craigen

    Q. But maybe that’s okay. If a sane man has ascended to the presidency of Iran, isn’t it possible that Israel can stop worrying about Iran’s ultimate intentions toward her?

    We must remember that the Iranian President is a sock-puppet,  an attention-grabber to distract from those who actually dictate the actions of the regime.  Khamenei remains ensconced in power and the Velayat e Faqih still runs the show.  Rouhani is a softer face for the regime, but the regime has not changed.

    To use a cold-war metaphor, the President does not have a finger on “the red button”.  The Velayat, and more specifically the Supreme Leader, Khamenei, does.  If you’re worried about whether the trigger finger responds to a sane or insane actor, keep your eyes on Khamenei.

  7. James Gawron

    Judith,

    As a matter of faith I agree with Dr. Rahe.  As a matter of fact your article doesn’t make me think much of this election.   This is a change in style rather than policy.  The new regime may sound a little less hard line but the net result could be no change at all.

    Internally-psychologically expectations have been raised inside Iran.   From the sound of Rouhani these expectations could be crushed again. Until the absolute control of the Mullahs is rescinded there will be no real freedom in Iran.

    Regards,

    Jim

  8. Zafar

    Absolutely.  

    Paul A. Rahe:

    Khamenei calls the shots, but he cannot fully ignore public opinion

    Though what that public exactly wants, of course, remains somewhat obscured by the vetting of presidential candidates by the Ulema Council.

  9. Paul A. Rahe
    C
    Zafar: Absolutely.  

    Paul A. Rahe:

    Khamenei calls the shots, but he cannot fully ignore public opinion

    Though what that public exactly wants, of course, remains somewhat obscured by the vetting of presidential candidates by the Ulema Council. · 1 hour ago

    True. But what is interesting is that Rouhani chose to make an appeal to the themes sounded by the green movement. That, in a way, is what happened in June, 2009. The candidates that time were vetted in the same fashion. They were all insiders. But one of them decided to make the sort of appeal that Rouhani made this time. There is a dynamic to contested elections featuring public debates. It is that which interests me. It yields an unfolding logic, which points to a post-Islamic political order.

  10. Leslie Watkins

    This is so informative, Judith. Thanks so much. I’m wondering what this says about Ahmadinejad (I admit I haven’t done much reading on this, so forgive me if the answer is obvious.)  In particular, does it say anything about his relationship with the mullahs? Will he have any power in any segment of the elite? … This is probably a shallow comment, but Rouhani does not look thoroughly evil to me, whereas Ahmadinejad does, but I’m not heartened by that fact because it may not work out any better for us in the West; could make things worse but not apparently so. Kinda creepy. I hope you’re having a podcast soon and will discuss this.

  11. Joseph Stanko
    Judith Levy, Ed.: Skyler, the Green movement in Iran arose in response to the stolen election of 2009, when Ahmadinejad fraudulently took office.

    One thing that has puzzled me: why did they rig the 2009 election?

    If the president is a mere sock-puppet, and all the candidates are vetted to remove anyone who might rock the boat, they why rig the outcome?  Seems like all downside (resulting protests) with no benefit.

    Perhaps they fear that a reformist president with popular backing might wrest power from them, no matter how toothless the office is on paper?

  12. Foxfier
    Joseph Stanko

    Judith Levy, Ed.: Skyler, the Green movement in Iran arose in response to the stolen election of 2009, when Ahmadinejad fraudulently took office.

    One thing that has puzzled me: why did they rig the 2009 election?

    If the president is a mere sock-puppet, and all the candidates are vetted to remove anyone who might rock the boat, they why rig the outcome?  Seems like all downside (resulting protests) with no benefit.

    Perhaps they fear that a reformist president with popular backing might wrest power from them, no matter how toothless the office is on paper? · 40 minutes ago

    Saving face or giving plum assignments? 

  13. mike in state college
    Judith Levy, Ed.

    Rouhani comes from the camp of former Iranian President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, a figure generally classified as moderate but whom Ceren identifies as more of a “conservative pragmatist”. (Rafsanjani believes in a free market economy and objects to the deliberate antagonizing of America and the West, but was also instrumental in the selection of Ali Khamenei as Supreme Leader.) Rouhani was Rafsanjani’s Secretary of the Supreme National Security Council in 1989 and continued in that position under Rafsanjani’s successor, Mohammad Khatami. Rafsanjani endorsed Rouhani for the presidency following his own disqualification.

    Let’s not forget that Rafsanjani is the one who said that if Iran and Israel got into a nuclear exchange, it would have the happy result of destroying Israel, while only wounding the Islamic world.  He seemed to think  this was a reasonable turn of events.

    He’s also wanted for murder in Argentina.

    And he’s the pragmatic, non-antagonizing one.

  14. mike in state college
    Paul A. Rahe: Of significance, I believe, is the size of the vote he received. Khamenei calls the shots, but he cannot fully ignore public opinion, and these elections provide an occasion for the expression of public opinion. Rouhani’s appeal to the green movement may in some measure bind him. · 15 hours ago

    This line of reasoning assumes that the count is accurate.  Ahmadinejad “won” by a huge margin in 2009, when Khameini called the result less than 5s after the pools closed (i.e., before any reasonable count could be conducted).  Maybe they learned from that fiasco and waited a decent interval before calling this one?

  15. Duane Oyen

    I suspect that Israel, regardless of the US position, is not inclined to sit still for passive suicide.  This does complicate things a bit on the surface, though the presence of Obama makes that complication total no matter what he may say.  The Iraq retreat will be seen in the future as one of the dumbest foreign policy decisions in history.