Hassan Rouhani’s entry into June’s Iranian presidential race adds a new ingredient. In a crowded field of ‘principle-ists’, Rouhani offers a hardheaded option for voters seeking less populist economic management and a more nuanced handling of talks with world powers over the nuclear program.
Best described as a pragmatic conservative, Rouhani is a man “of the system”, a 64-year-old cleric who has since 1989 sat on the Supreme National Security Council (SNSC) as an appointee of the rahbar (leader), Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Rouhani’s record as the lead negotiator in nuclear talks with the European Union in 2003-2005 — when the reformist Shargh newspaper dubbed him the “diplomatic sheikh” — suggests his victory would increase the chance of a diplomatic breakthrough to ease Iran back from punitive sanctions and the United States and Israel back from attack.
His experience is rooted in the Islamic Revolution and Republic, but Rouhani has also looked outwards in a way that can unnerve ideologues. Born near Semnan, north of the central desert, he began jurisprudence studies at age 12, rising to the rank of hojjat al-Islam, one below ayatollah. After a degree at Tehran University, he began a Ph.D. in law in Glasgow in the 1970s but left to join Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in Paris as the 1979 Revolution loomed.
Rouhani was at one point in the 1980-1988 Iraq conflict deputy to the war commander — and later president — Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. He remains close to Rafsanjani, and shares the wily 79-year-old conservative’s belief that dialogue with the United States can serve Iran’s interests. Two of Rafsanjani’s children, Yasir and Fatemeh, attended last month’s press conference when Rouhani announced his candidacy.
There is a hint of déjà vu to his candidacy. In the run-up to the 2005 election, ultimately won by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Rouhani was seen as a frontrunner, a man who could not only manage nuclear talks with Europe but also deliver cautious domestic reform.
But the lack of progress with the Europeans led to domestic criticism of the negotiators. When Iran suspended uranium enrichment as a “goodwill” gesture, the Europeans demanded the suspension be extended and offered in return only mild assurances of economic and diplomatic benefits. This impasse undermined Rouhani, who decided not to stand in the 2005 poll, and led to his removal as lead nuclear negotiator when Ahmadinejad won.
Eight years later, Rouhani still serves on the SNSC and is an elected member of the Assembly of Experts, the clerical body that monitors the Supreme Leader and when necessary chooses a successor. But this has hardly put him in the public eye, and if he is to fare well in the election, Rouhani will need to make the economy and the international situation the prominent themes of his campaign.
Firstly, he will need to project himself as a competent manager with a technocratic approach to an economy lacking productive investment. This means exposing Ahmadinejad’s populist and inflationary policies — including his cash handouts to most Iranians. As Rouhani put it: “We need a new management…through unity, consensus and attracting honest and efficient people.”
With sanctions halving Iran’s oil exports in the last year, prospects for growth are bound up with the nuclear program, which means relations with the US will be some kind of election issue. Rouhani can turn this to his advantage. In a recent interview, he said nuclear strategy was the responsibility of Ayatollah Khamenei, but that government could “greatly influence the tactics and the method of execution.” Clearly Rouhani believes that with “strategy” not an election issue, he can portray himself as a trustworthy executive. This may work. Rouhani is respected as a tough operator both in Iran and by European diplomats who dealt with him in 2003-2005.
How will such realism play with voters? Three of the past four presidential elections — the exception being Mohammad Khatami’s second victory in 2001 — have thrown up surprises. This is due in part to a volatile public mood and Iran’s lack of political parties.
The field of around 12 ‘principle-ist’ candidates will thin out as frontrunners emerge. Ahmadinejad’s ally Efsandiar Rahim Mashaei may be the man to beat, if the Guardian Council allows him to run.
Rouhani’s advantage over his opponents, however, is his potential to woo reformists who might otherwise ignore the election. With election season heating up and a new era of Iranian politics set to begin, Rouhani’s addition to the ballot should offer Iranians a clear break from Ahmadinejad’s two terms in office.
Gareth Smyth has reported from around the Middle East for nearly two decades and is the former Financial Times correspondent in Tehran