4 Aug 2013

What have we learnt about Iran’s Hassan Rouhani?

As Hassan Rouhani is inaugurated as Iran’s president, Channel 4 News explores what we have learnt about the “moderate” cleric since his election.

It has been a busy week for Dr Rouhani. Preparations for his inauguration aside, the cleric has been in the headlines twice over two of Iran’s most fractious relationship – with Israel and the United States.

The first story, on Wednesday, was that the US House of Representatives had voted in favour of imposing “mega-sanctions” on Iran – cutting its oil exports by one million barrels a day in a bid to starve the country’s nuclear programme of finance.

Rouhani will be no more likely to submit to pressure or offer capitulation than Ahmadinejad. Dr Christian Emery

The second story was an inaccurate report of comments by Dr Rouhani, which said he had called Israel “a wound that has sat on the body of the Muslim world for years and needs to be removed”. Video footage later showed that Dr Rouhani did not call for Israel’s “removal”.

Both stories would have been unhelpful to the Iranian leader, who is building diplomatic momentum that has raised hopes across the world of easier international relationship with the Middle Eastern country.

‘Optimism remains’

In almost two months since Dr Rouhani’s election, there has been little evidence to dampen western optimism over improved relationships with Iran, argues Dr Christian Emery, a lecturer at the University of Plymouth.

“The sense of optimism remains that Rouhani offers a real chance for the west,” he said. “Not only is he reasonable and highly intelligent, but he also has a large public mandate to moderate both the tone and substance of Iran’s international relations.

“More importantly, and unlike (Mahmoud) Ahmadinejad, he is succeeding in building a broad coalition that includes reformists, centrists, some hardline elements, and, critically, the supreme leader.

“The Iranian system is most likely to produce significant policy change when there is consensus amongst elites. The success of Rouhani thus depend in large part on whether he can keep this coalition together.”

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And changes will need to be made – the Iranian economy is in a dire state, with inflation running at 42 per cent, something attributed to the sanctions placed on the country by the West.

‘Running room’

It is a commonly held view that Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, is the real driver of Iranian policy. However, Dr Gary Sick, a senior research scholar at Columbia University, who served on the US National Security Council under Presidents Ford, Carter, and Reagan, argues that this is a simplistic view – and that evidence suggests Rouhani will be allowed to bring about real change.

“I really think it’s a mistake if you start with the assumption that a leaf can’t fall in Iran without the supreme leader willing it,” he told Channel 4 News.

“He (Khamenei) is in a position where he can, if he wants to, turn down or veto any action by the government, but the reality is he doesn’t normally do this.

“Khamenei is giving him (Rouhani) running room. However, if Rouhani challenges Supreme Leader, as all the previous presidents have done at some point, that is when the supreme leader is going to fight back.”

He added that Mr Rouhani is a “sophisticated operator” who “knows the system extremely well.”

A new meritocracy?

With his “running room”, Dr Rouhani has begun assembling his cabinet – and Dr Sick says the expected appointments show a real desire to go in a new direction from the “bombastic, confrontational approach” that pervaded under Mr Ahmadinejad.

Dr Sick said: “The clearest evidence we have of change from the past is the cabinet he has named. Mohammed Javed Zarif as foreign minister is a clear signal.

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“He was fired by Ahmadinejad because he didn’t reflect the bombastic, confrontational approach Ahmadinejad was taking.

“He is one of the most consumate diplomats in Iran and he is highly regarded across the world – certainly by America but also others.”

Anything that he does that is interpreted as being positive towards Iran is going to be criticised very strongly by a large number of political figures in the US. Dr Gary Sick

Other expected appointment suggest that Iran is abandoning cronyism in favour of a meritocracy, Dr Sick says, with the government likely to consist a technicians who have “proven skills.”

Dr Emery added: “Zarif has a doctorate from the University of Denver, speaks fluent English, and is known to favour rebuilding relations with Washington.

“He has arguably the best contacts amongst American political elites of any current Iranian politician; as a junior diplomat he helped secure the release of American hostages in Lebanon and is believed to have helped draft the infamous 2003 ‘Grand Bargain’ Iran offered to the George W Bush administration.

“A skilful and sensitive diplomat, it’s difficult to think of anyone better suited to negotiate a rapprochement.”

‘Political realities’

Despite tentative signs that the US and Iran could meet around the negotiating table, improving relations will be difficult, as shown by the House of Representatives vote.

“(The vote) reflects the political realities in the United States, ” said Dr Sick. “A vote against Iran is always a popular thing to do.

“That is the reality President Obama will have to face. Anything that he does that is interpreted as being positive towards Iran is going to be criticised very strongly by a large number of political figures in the US.

“He will be treading carefully. He will be looking for positive signals from Iran just as Rouhani will be looking at the signals coming out of the US. It is a very delicate dance they are engaged in.”

Healing wounds

This opportunity could also be derailed by Israeli-Iranian relations, Dr Emery says. On Friday Dr Rouhani was reported by an Iranian news agency as saying: “The Zionist regime is a wound that has sat on the body of the Muslim world for years and needs to be removed.”

However, Dr Rouhani was seen in video footage broadcast by Press TV as saying: “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 al-Qods (Jerusalem)”.

Dr Rouhani’s rhetoric has been markedly different from his predecessor. Gone is the phrase “Zionist entity”, Dr Sick argues, and Dr Rouhani refers to Israel by its name.

However, the enmity has not dramatically softened.

“Israeli President Bibi Netanyahu, who for the last eight years could rely on Ahmadinejad to faithfully play the vital role of bogeyman, wasted little time in launching a PR campaign against ‘going soft’ on Iran using his traditional tactic of high-profile interviews on US TV,” Dr Emery said.

“Netanyahu warned that Rouhani’s election is just a PR coup for Iran and that Khamenei will exploit the west’s naive belief that Rouhani is a moderate in order to ameliorate the international pressure aimed at preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon.”


Israel aside, Dr Rouhani does seem to court the international stage. He has a widely read Facebook page and two Twitter accounts, on which he, or at least someone in his office, posts in Farsi and English.

The Twitter account is used to spread his international image, as well as pictures of himself at rallies an even an image of himself as a teenager. It is a far cry from the secrecy and suspicion of Ahmadinejad’s era.

Any negotiations with the international community, if they occur, will be focused on oil and Iran’s nuclear programme. Success will be dependent on “flexibility from both sides”, Dr Emery says.

“Rouhani will be no more likely to submit to pressure or offer capitulation than Ahmadinejad,” he said. “The basic dynamics of any successful negotiated settlement remain the same: it will have to address Iranian security concerns, acknowledge that Iran has a right to enrich uranium under the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty, and include the substantial sanctions relief Iranian negotiations need to sell diminished enrichment and greater supervision to domestic audiences.

“The only alternative is more conflict.”

Dr Rouhani is clearly keen to emphasise that Iran is, internationally, a more open place than it was previously. On Twitter he has boasted of some of the guests, including deputy-general of the UN Jan Eliasson, Afghan president Hamid Karzai and Tamim bin Hamad, the Emir of Qatar.

Whether or not negotiations with Mr Rouhani will be fruitful remains to be seen, but the signals, are giving the West cause for cautious optimism.