Iranian voters rejected the hardline candidates in last weekend’s presidential election in favour of Hassan Rohani, a 65-year-old reformist-backed cleric.
Known as the “diplomat sheikh”, he is a former nuclear negotiator and convinced the regime to suspend uranium enrichment between 2003-2005. He has also served in Iran’s parliament and the security council.
Rohani “believes in the same pragmatic policies as Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, the former president who has been in alliance with reformist forces in recent years”, wrote Najmeh Bozorgmeh, the FT’s Tehran correspondent. “Mr Rafsanjani’s backing for his campaign, and that of reformist leaders, was crucial to his victory.”
The centrist politician studied law at the University of Tehran and gained his PhD from Glasgow Caledonian University. He wrote his thesis on the flexibility of Shariah law and has contributed to numerous books and articles on Islamic thought and national security, according to his personal website.
Roula Khalaf, the FT’s Middle East editor, said the surprise was not that Iranians voted for Rohani – “It is that the regime led by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader, who had banked on a fundamentalist victory, allowed Mr Rohani to prevail.”
So how did he manage to win and get the regime’s blessing along the way?
Suzanne Maloney, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, thinks that as a cleric, Rohani assuages the fears of the religious class – one of his campaign posters read “A man of faith has come”.
The campaign also caught the attention of a disaffected population:
“Rouhani’s [Rohani's] most powerful advantage was the bitter unhappiness of the Iranian people, who have witnessed the implosion of their currency, the return of austerity measures not seen since the Iran-Iraq War, and the erosion of their basic rights and freedoms over the past eight years”.
While Rohani supports Iran’s right to a nuclear programme, during the campaign he pragmatically stressed the need to find a way out of the impasse with the west over the issue.
Maloney wonders if perhaps “allowing Rouhani’s victory is his [Khamenei’s] way of empowering a conciliator to repair Iran’s frayed relations with the world and find some resolution to the nuclear dispute that enables the country to revive oil exports and resume normal trade.”
It wouldn’t be the first time that a practical approach has benefited him. Thomas Erdbrink looked at how his pragmatism has helped him to the top.
In one of his memoirs, Mr. Rowhani [Rohani] describes a perilous journey he took as an 18-year-old seminary student, sneaking across the border into Iraq to meet Ayatollah Khomeini in exile.
At one point, he recounts, a smuggler told him to immediately take off his turban, in order to be less visible inside their car. More dogmatic Shiite Muslim clerics would have ignored such a request, but the young Mr. Rowhani did not hesitate and quickly removed his white turban.
“We arrived safely, and that is what mattered,” Mr. Rowhani wrote.
Will his past benefit him when he becomes president?
“In Rowhani [Rohani], Iranians have elected a man well-versed in the country’s nuclear progam and a man who clearly wants to improve relations with the West”, says Elias Groll at Foreign Policy.”On the one hand, Rowhani argues that Iran should engage more directly with the West through diplomatic channels. On the other hand, he observes that Iran’s strategy of slow-playing the West through negotiations while covertly developing its nuclear program has largely served the country well.”
Since winning the election, Rohani has pledged greater transparency for the Islamic Republic’s nuclear programme and said he would work to ease sanctions. However, the immediate priority for Iranians is the economy.
The national currency, the rial, has fallen by more than 50 per cent since last year due to sanctions and the official inflation rate has hit 32.2 per cent – but is believed to be even higher.
The solution to tackle rocketing inflation and unemployment, said Mr Rohani, was to boost domestic production through channelling liquidity toward the industrial, agricultural and tourism sectors…
“The first priority is people’s livelihoods . . . and the immediate needs such as basic commodities,” he said. “Then, we need to plan in the coming months to stabilise the economy.”
- Rohani’s 2004 speech to the Supreme Revolution Council, in which he emphasises the importance of mastering the nuclear fuel cycle.
“If one day we are able to complete the fuel cycle and the world sees that it has no choice — that we do possess the technology — then the situation will be different. The world did not want Pakistan to have an atomic bomb or Brazil to have the fuel cycle, but Pakistan built its bomb and Brazil has its fuel cycle, and the world started to work with them. Our problem is that we have not achieved either one, but we are standing at the threshold.”
- An analysis by Shaul Bakhash, a professor of history at George Mason University, of Rohani’s campaign.
“He questioned the necessity of the expanding security state and the constant oversight of student and civil society associations by the security agencies. He spoke of the need for greater freedom of press and speech. He devoted attention to women’s rights issues and promised to establish a ministry for women’s affairs.”