Admittedly, nobody in the world, not even Iran, was able to predict the victory in the presidential elections, a victory even more decisive since Hassan Rouhani, the «reformers’ protégé», had not even been reckoned a favourite. It really is true that «Persia is a country of miracles». Now that the initial delight of pro-Western liberals and the sprinkling of ashes on turbans among Iranian conservatives («principalists») has died down, the time has come to take stock. So was it the defeat of the ruling regime, as had been desired in the West, or in many ways a brilliant manoeuvre by the country’s Supreme Leader («rahbar») Ayatollah Ali Khamenei?
In one fell swoop, Iran has changed from being classed as a pariah to a country with which everyone now wants to negotiate and have dealings in anticipation of the probable forthcoming relaxation of sanctions. There has been an explosion of listings on the Tehran Stock Exchange. Everybody is waiting for August when international talks on Iran’s nuclear programme are due to resume, believing that the new president will fulfil his pre-election promises and cooperate with the demands of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) on this issue.
Meanwhile, the fact that Rouhani was the only cleric out of all the candidates (with the title of Hojatoleslam, which is only a little below a full Ayatollah) which, although the rahbar did not express a preference for any of the candidates, was evidence of their invisible link in and of itself, has somehow been kept to one side. In the presidential elections in Iran’s religious capital Qom, for example, Rouhani received 200,000 votes which left his rivals without a hope and is an indication of the significant support the Hojatoleslam has among clerics (1). Henceforth, the period of disorder and uncertainty is over in Iran and the power is fully in the hands of the senior Shiite clergy. The people were not against a specific theocratic democracy but in favour, having demonstrated a high level of consolidation.
In essence, there is no doubt that Rouhani, with Khamenei’s blessing, took on requests from reformers which he believed were perfectly reasonable and did not undermine the foundations of the regime, after depriving the opposition of their revolutionary zeal and returning them to the bosom of existing government institutions. The amnesty of political prisoners who had spoken out against Ahmadinejad only increased the Supreme Leader’s popularity. The additional civil rights that were promised to the voting population by the President fit seamlessly into an Iranian framework which is already more democratic than the majority of surrounding countries. The broad privatisation he announced far from anticipates a refusal by the state to control its strategic resources, but is aimed at bringing the enormous assets concentrated in the hands of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, which turned into an independent power long ago and is not completely accountable to the Supreme Leader, under more effective control. Willingness to make concessions regarding its nuclear programme will only strengthen Iran economically, once the country has economised on resources and the burden of international sanctions has been relaxed. Abandoning promises to «wipe Israel off the face of the Earth» and the Holocaust denial, which were peculiar to Ahmadinejad, is not evidence that Rouhani is retreating from the demands of the Middle East peacemaking process. For some reason this does not please anybody in the country’s current government, since it deprives Tel-Aviv of its usual arguments to justify putting pressure on Iran.
The conservatives are also having difficulty finding fault with Rouhani. His «revolutionary biography» is unblemished, while his educational and professional level is faultless. Hassan Rouhani was born on 13 November 1948 in the city of Sorkheh, Semnan province. He received his religious education in Qom and obtained a bachelor’s degree in judicial law at the University of Tehran. He defended his doctoral thesis on «Islamic law» at Glasgow Caledonian University (Scotland) and is fluent in English, French and Arabic.
He has been committed to reviving the country on religious principles from a young age and campaigned against Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, for which he was arrested more than once. In 1977, Rouhani called Ayatollah Khomeini «Imam» for the first time and the SAVAK secret police had Rouhani under surveillance. After fleeing Iran, he joined Khomeini’s inner circle in Paris, who was actively fighting against the Shah’s regime. Many Iranians believe that such a close connection with the leader of the Islamic revolution has given Rouhani high authority among the people. He has also done a lot of active work with university students in Great Britain and France. Rouhani has a good grasp of Western mentality and inspires faith in himself easily.
During the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq War, Rouhani occupied leading posts in the command of Iran’s military: he was a member of the Supreme Defence Council, deputy commander of the war, commander of the Iran Air Defence Force (good news for the manufacturer of compatible systems by Russian company Almaz-Antey) and Deputy Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces. Between 1980 and 2000, he was a Majlis deputy, as well as head of the defence and foreign policy committees, while from 1992 to 2000 he was deputy speaker of the Majlis. He was also secretary of the Supreme National Security Council between 1989 and 2005. Rouhani led the Iranian delegation in talks with the «six powers» on Iran’s nuclear programme and has been head of Iran’s Centre for Strategic Research since 1992. He has published nearly 100 books and articles on a broad spectrum of religious and political topics (2).
As Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator from 2003-2005, Rouhani acquired the nickname «the diplomatic sheikh» among his Western partners. For the last eight years, he has been a representative of Ayatollah Khamenei at the Supreme National Security Council as well as a member of the Assembly of Experts, which is responsible for electing the rahbar himself. It is interesting that five days before the elections, the Assembly could have removed him easily on the grounds of «divulging state secrets during debates on Iran’s nuclear programme». Khamenei did not take that step, however, which is evidence of the level of trust he has in Rouhani.
It is possible to say with confidence that a political figure with such a biography is not going to sacrifice the national and state interests of his own people, but will consistently strive to realise them, just on a more flexible and pragmatic basis. It is no coincidence that in Israel, for example, they are not concealing their anxiety with regard to the election of this particular candidate. «The new president of Iran was elected from a list put forward by Ayatollah Khamenei,» declared Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor. «Those candidates not in keeping with his extremist ideology were removed beforehand. It is Khamenei, not the president of Iran, who determines this country’s nuclear programme. After the elections, just as before them, we will judge Iran on its real actions regarding terror and the nuclear programme.»
Well-known military commentator Ron Ben-Yishai writes that Western politicians most probably want to give Rouhani the opportunity to augment his power and make certain concessions. This would give Iran extra time to work on creating a nuclear weapon. «Rouhani’s reputation as a moderate politician may dazzle Obama while the centrifuges continue to rotate,» warns Ron Ben-Yishai (3).
The leader of the Meretz party, Zahava Gal-On, announced that the election of Hassan Rouhani as Iran’s new president was as much of a blow for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as it was for extremists in Iran. The leaders of Israel are still in mourning following the dissolution of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s government (4). They evidently still need to make significant amendments to their Middle East strategy.
The first assessments of how Rouhani may try to remove the Iranian nuclear issue off the agenda, which is causing the greatest aversion in the West, are already beginning to appear. In particular, attention should be given to the fact that in the past, as chief nuclear negotiator, he had already declared a moratorium on all work in this area from 2003-2005 (the height of American aggression in Iraq), which was later broken by Ahmadinejad (5). It would be no trouble for Rouhani to go down that road now. Moreover, according to reports published in the London edition of Al-Hayat, which quote sources close to Rouhani, the new president of the Islamic Republic of Iran wants to develop a new plan, on the basis of which there will be a direct dialogue with each of the six countries individually, rather than together as a group. This would allow him to play on their differences and avoid being exposed to new demands for the removal of sanctions, as well as enter into direct negotiations with the US, a country which has so far managed to steer clear of them (6).
At the same time, there is much scepticism regarding how the US will behave. They may set forth yet more new conditions for the removal of sanctions, such as ending Tehran’s support for Bashar al-Assad’s government in Damascus. Some experts in the West have expressed the opinion that the «conciliatory team» in Tehran «still needs to convince others that its efforts to negotiate with the United States would improve the Islamic Republic’s security across all its dimensions. This may only happen if the US shows a willingness to ease the sanctions regime. And, given that the United States’ dual-track policy of coercion and diplomacy has been single tracked into a sanctions regime, there is some evidence that there won’t be any kind of flexibility on the part of the United States» (7).
However, Tehran is no stranger to such a position from the United States. Thus on their arrogant comments regarding the level of democracy present in the Iranian elections, Supreme Leader Khamenei declared: «To the Americans, I say, OK! To hell with you. Anyone who listens to you is a loser. The Iranian people have never attached any value to their enemies» (8).
As for Syria, it seems that Iran is not intending to leave it in the lurch either. The president of the Syrian Arab Republic, Bashar al-Assad, has sent a congratulatory telegram to Hassan Rouhani, in which he confirmed his country’s determination to «confront the plots of hegemony and aggression against the national sovereignty in our region. Such cooperation will reflect positively on the peoples of both friendly countries as well as the peoples of the region and the whole world» (9).
According to the Syrians, a special envoy arrived in Damascus on 16 June soon after the election results became known – special advisor to the Iranian Foreign Minister for Economic Affairs, Hassan Kazemi Qom. At a meeting with the head of the Syrian Council of Ministers Wael al-Halqi, he noted that «a visit by the Iranian delegation to Syria immediately after the elections is a powerful signal to the whole world that the new government of the Islamic Republic of Iran will remain Syria’s ally, as has always been the case» (10).
So it seems that the joy of some liberals in the West was in fact a little premature. Iran is going to be more flexible under its new president, but has no intention of stepping back from its principled positions.