When I interviewed Hassan Rouhani in Tehran back in 2005, the toughness underneath the white turban was evident. It seems glib now for Iran’s president-elect to be called a ‘moderate’ but he is certainly more pragmatic than the officials that have dominated Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s presidency.
Probably, the turning point in the 2013 presidential election came in the third televised debate when Ali Akbar Velayati lambasted the lack of flexibility shown by Saeed Jalili in his conduct during talks over the nuclear program since 2007. “You have not gone forward even one step, and the pressure of sanctions still exists,” said Velayati, a long-time senior advisor to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader.
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Suddenly gone was the consensus that the nuclear program was not an election issue, as Velayati bluntly addressed the realities understood by Iranian voters: that tightening United States-led sanctions over the past year, due to Iran’s disputed nuclear ambitions, have badly squeezed the economy, and that such difficult times require a more measured and informed hand on the diplomatic tiller.
Hassan Rouhani did little to propose specific economic policies, much less any kind of clear plan, but his stress on the importance of a more conciliatory international approach and a more relaxed domestic political atmosphere contrasted sharply with those candidates – especially Jalili – who recited a mantra of “resistance” as the answer to all problems.
The scale of Rouhani’s victory – with over 50 percent on a first ballot with six candidates in the field – was emphatic, as was a voter turnout of around 75 percent, much higher than expected.
Rouhani won the votes of millions of people who backed Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2005 and 2009, and this should finally bury the notion beloved by many foreign analysts that voters fit into categories like ‘reformist’ or ‘conservative’. Voters attracted in 2005 by Ahmadinejad’s campaign against corruption and promise to “put the oil money on the sofreh [the square carpet on which poorer Iranians eat meals]” turned away from the follies of populist economics.
Arguably, Ahmadinejad’s replacement of the state subsidies of every day items such as bread and gasoline with cash payments to most Iranians did reduce inequalities. But prices jumped 40 percent last year on official figures, and unemployment has reached 15 percent, with around 30 percent of young people jobless. Many medicines have been in short supply, and the Iranian rial has lost half of its international value in a year.
Whatever steps the Iranian authorities have taken to boost domestic growth have been swamped by reckless economic management and by the effect of tightening sanctions that since early 2012 have halved oil exports to around 1.1 million barrels a day.
Hassan Rouhani’s international credentials are clear. In handling negotiations with the Europeans over the nuclear program back in 2003-2005 as secretary of the Supreme National Security Council (SNSC), he brought Iran closer to a substantial diplomatic agreement with the West than at any time since the 1979 Islamic Revolution.
But the simple fact that Rouhani failed — the 2003 agreement with the European Union broke down — illustrates the mighty challenges he now faces as president in reaching out for understandings, perhaps even a deal, that can reduce international tensions around the nuclear program and around the regional rivalries now centered on Syria.
Firstly, Rouhani was undermined then by domestic critics who asserted he was “selling out” Iran’s interests by suspending uranium enrichment as a “goodwill gesture” during the talks with the Europeans. Interestingly, Rouhani defended himself against such charges in the recent presidential election by saying he successfully gave time for Iran to improve its technology while also avoiding, at that stage, Iran’s referral to the United Nations Security Council.
But Rouhani will again face such criticisms if he reaches out towards Europe and the United States. His electoral mandate will strengthen his hand and we should not forget his close relationship with Ayatollah Khamenei, who appointed him to the SNSC and who personally entrusted him with negotiating with Europe.
Secondly, Rouhani will need to deliver, and this means he will need someone to negotiate with. He will need a United States that recognizes Iran, like any country, has national interests and concerns. As he said when we met in 2005, “a country which expresses interest to hold talks at the same time cannot be working for regime change … so the US must clearly announce its strategy towards my country.” Regionally, Rouhani will need a Saudi Arabia that understands that Shia-Sunni tensions are leading the region ever deeper into battles with no victors.
Rouhani is thick-skinned and intelligent. But just as important will be the “hope” and “prudence” that were the watchwords of his campaign; hope and prudence in Iran, and hope and prudence elsewhere.
Gareth Smyth has reported from around the Middle East for nearly two decades and is the former Financial Times correspondent in Tehran