31 Dec 2013

Hassan Rouhani – confounding expectations and inspiring rare hope

Just think: under a year ago, the very idea of direct contacts between the United States and Iran, still presided over in part by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, would have been to venture into the theatre of the absurd.

On the ground in Tehran for the July presidential elections we still didn’t spot it until the very last minute.


Sure, we had been to Hassan Rouhani’s exciting party headquarters, and even seen the tops of revolutionary green tee shirts peeping out from the purple wear of Mr Rouhani’s campaigners.

We even ran into individuals we had known from the heady days in 2009 when it looked as if the Green Revolution just might succeed.

But I don’t think we ever felt convinced that Mr Rouhani could win, let alone grab a 50%+ majority on the first round.

Iran elections

The elections, peaceful and to some extent pre-judged by many, were fought against a backdrop of some of the most ferocious sanctions ever implemented against any regime on earth.

They were fought against the bloody backdrop of the failed Green Revolution of 2009.

I was told by a source inside the government that they had been shocked by the violence and bloodletting that had had to be deployed in putting the revolution down.

Yet considering the slate of candidates that had been vetted – knocking out the controversial former President Rafsanjani – this first Presidential election since the 2009 disaster that had resulted in the re-election of Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, was peaceful and intense.

The campaign was short – in reality little more than three weeks.

Mr Rouhani had little recognition on the streets, despite his life as a nuclear negotiator in President Mohammad Khatami’s administration in 2003 and 2004.


The catalyst in Mr Rouhani’s election was unquestionably his stellar performance in the two widely watched television debates.

Even I, who has only the most basic grasp of Farsi niceties, was struck by how he owned the stage, and the confidence with which he tackled each question.

He ran rings round others – especially the fancied hardliner Saeed Jalili who until this year held that same nuclear job Mr Rouhani had held before him.

Indeed some said Mr Jalili was the man the Supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, wanted to see win.

My sense was that the Mr Khamenei recognised the desperate situation facing Iran, and was resigned to letting the people decide how to deal with it – within limits.

And it seems that Mr Rouhani was indeed himself within those limits.

Not only had he served well as a nuclear negotiator under the clerical but reformist President Mohammad Khatami, but he also enjoyed a long-term direct relationship with Mr Khameni himself.

On the ground, within the limits of the ‘vetting’ to which I’ve referred, the election was free and fair.

Nevertheless we were pretty stunned as the result of Mr Rouhani’s win was announced.

Nuclear deadlock

From the outset, Mr Rouhani has governed as he campaigned – with the objective of resolving the nuclear deadlock with the west, yet retaining the right Iran enjoys of being permitted the refine limited amounts of Uranium under the terms of the Nuclear non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) to which Iran is a long-term signatory.

The other objective has been to get the international sanctions eased.

With only a few months to go before the critical final negotiations, neither he not the west can contemplate failure.

With Syria aflame, Iraq in blood-strewn tatters, Afghanistan on the cusp, Pakistan dangerously unstable, Iran has never been more needed at a whole host of negotiating tables.

Despite the upheavals of the Islamic Revolution, Iran remains a powerful, essentially stable, and the historic power in the region.

Experiencing failure on virtually every front local to Tehran’s influence, the Americans in particular, and the West in general, need this breakthrough at least as much as Iran does.

Cometh the hour, cometh the man. We may have failed to engage with him first time round, but this time, despite all the hurdles and pitfalls, 2013 could prove to have been Mr Rouhani’s hour, with more to come.

For more on Hassan Rouhani and the other winners, losers and influencers of 2013, visit the Channel 4 News big fat graphic of the year

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