Publicly he seems to be a man with a mild temperament, with an image certainly different to those who preceded him over the years. However Hassan Rouhani, the elected president of Iran, despite being a less conservative politician than others and certainly more open to dialogue and diplomacy, has also demonstrated a degree of firmness. In particular he has recently done this with the President of the United States, Donald Trump. At one point he even called him, in a derogatory way, just a “tower builder “.
Mr Rouhani has many faces, but his distinguishing characteristic concerns his political positioning. At least according to the criteria that govern Iran, he can be considered a centrist, since he has been the main supporter of the moderates for years. Before being elected president of one of the most complex political systems in the world (for the first time in 2013 and the second in 2017), Mr Rouhani held several leading positions in many Iranian national security organizations, among others.
He has been a member of the Assembly of Experts since 1992, a member of the Expediency Discernment Council of Iran since 1991, a member of the National Security Council since 1989 and head of the Centre for Strategic Research since 1992. But principally he was also Iran’s chief negotiator with the International Atomic Energy Agency, with regards to the Iranian nuclear program. In total he speaks five languages as well as his own Persian (English, German, French, Russian and Arabic) and has represented, at least at the beginning, the link between the reformist faction (which has always supported him) and the conservative one. He has been married for 51 years to the same woman, his cousin Sahebeh Arabi, with whom he had four children. In April 1992 they suffered their first great loss, when their eldest son Hossein took his own life.
Hassan Rouhani was born in 1948 in Sorkheh, near the city of Semnan in northern Iran. His family were said to be opponents to the Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, who was dismissed on February 11 1979, after the Islamic Revolution. His father, Asadollah Rouhani, was an important businessman in his hometown (where part of his family still lives). The young Mr Rouhani began his religious studies at the Semnan seminary in 1960 and then moved, in 1961, to that of Qom, a holy city and symbol of Shiite Islam. As well as spiritual training, the current Iranian president also followed a more secular education and was admitted to the University of Tehran in 1969. Three years later, in 1972, he obtained a law degree.
His studies continued in Europe, at Glasgow Caledonian University, where he graduated with a thesis on Islamic legislative power, with reference to the situation in Iran. Numerous questions still persist over his studies in Europe: in fact some assert that Mr Rouhani secretly completed his doctorate in Glasgow in the Seventies, under the false name of Hassan Feridon/Fereydoun (which for many analysts is merely his birth name). Others, however, believe that he gained his doctorate later in adulthood, in 1995.
Probably also because of his family background, he immediately became a supporter of the Islamic Revolution of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in 1979 (a quality formally required of all Iranian presidents), during which the country was overcome by fundamental, impressive social change. Many young people (both secular and religious) were fascinated by the insurrection, which caused the Pahlavi family to flee and brought back one of the most important figures of Iran at the time (Mr Khomeini). Among these was also a young Mr Rouhani, who began his political career in his youth, supporting the religious leader Mr Khomeini. From 1965 onwards, he began travelling around the country holding public speeches against the Shah’s government. At various points he was arrested and for a long time the local authorities (before the revolution) prevented him from giving public speeches. In 1977, at a ceremony, he is said to have referred to Mr Khomeini (still in exile in France) using the term “imam”. This gesture earned him surveillance from the SAVAK, the secret police that the Pahlavi dynasty used to keep the country under control. Some religious figures advised him to leave Iran and so, in exile, he resumed his speeches among groups of Iranian students and, later, joined Mr Khomeini in Paris.
After the official dismissal of the Shah and the establishing of the Islamic Republic, Mr Rouhani’s career also took shape: he dedicated himself to the reorganisation of the army and some military bases. In 1980 he was elected to the Islamic Consultative Assembly (the Iranian Parliament) and remained a representative for five consecutive terms (until 2000), holding the presidency of the committees for defence and foreign policy, and vice-presidency of the advisory body. During the war between Iran and Iraq, Mr Rouhani was nominated as member of the Supreme Defence Council (a position he held from 1982 to 1988), member of the High Council for Supporting War and then onto its Executive Committee, deputy commander for the war, commander of the Khatam al-Anbiya Operation Centre, of the Iran Air Defence Force and eventually became deputy to Second-in-Command of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
At the end of the war with Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, Mr Rouhani received the second-grade Fath medal, and was honoured by the then Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces, Ali Khamenei, with the Nasr medal following the liberation of Khorramshahr. After the constitutional reform of 1988, he became secretary of the Supreme Council for National Security, representing the Supreme Leader Khamenei, who had succeeded Mr Khomeini. He held this position for 16 years, until 2005, when significant conflict with the then President of the Islamic Republic, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, led to his replacement with a more conservative exponent. In the same year, however, Mr Rouhani gained another fundamental role within contemporary Iran, becoming its chief negotiator for the discussions with the IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency) over nuclear power. Alongside his political activity, which over time became more comprehensive, Mr Rouhani maintained his academic commitments, becoming a member of the board of the University of Tehran (from 1995 to 1999) and presiding over the Centre for Strategic Research (also taking care of three scientific and research publications).
The IAEA role was his most important before his appointment as President of the Islamic Republic. He was nicknamed the “diplomatic sheikh“, a term first used in 2003 and subsequently re-used extensively by the Iranian media. His career of negotiation with the International Atomic Energy Agency began under the government of President Hashemj Rafsanjani and also continued under his successor, Mohammad Khatami, but his role as top negotiator ended with Mr Ahmadinejad’s arrival as president, even if during that period Mr Rouhani and his team were named as the best diplomats by the Iranian Foreign Ministry, based on their efforts to resolve the nuclear crisis and their ability to build relationships of trust at international level. One of Mr Rouhani’s greatest successes was that under his mandate he managed to avoid Iran’s case being brought before the United Nations Security Council. To achieve this some parts of the nuclear programme were temporarily suspended. However, the country still managed to complete the nuclear cycle and take important steps in the realisation of the non-military nuclear programme. But President Ahmadinejad, once elected, formally criticised Rouhani’s actions, condemning his choices, which he considered too accommodating towards the West.
On March 11, 2013, Mr Rouhani announced his candidacy for the presidential election, officially registering his name on May 7 of the same year. He was widely considered an ideal candidate because of his centrist position and his good relations with both the Shiite clergy and the reformist Green Movement, which had opposed Mr Ahmadinejad’s government since 2009. Thus began his rise within national politics. He received the support of all previous reformist presidents of Iran, such as Khatami and Rafsanjani, along with other supporters of the more progressive movements, after Mohammad Reza Aref’s decision to withdraw his candidacy from the presidential elections (under Mr Khatami’s advice). For some, the recommendation to step aside was aimed at increasing Mr Rouhani’s chances of victory. This strategy achieved victory against the conservatives.
Since it was clear that he was the only one capable of fighting the most reactionary parties, during his election campaign in 2013 Mr Rouhani appealed for votes among both traditional conservatives and reformist voters. Furthermore, being the only candidate belonging to the Shiite clergy out of the six admitted to the elections by the Guardian Council (the most powerful and influential body in Iran), he managed to win over even the most reluctant pockets of the conservative electorate. According to the Italian online publication Il Post, Mr Rouhani was perceived as a pragmatic conservative, who benefited from quite a wide and stable support network. During that election campaign, he succeeded in attracting large crowds, also thanks to his natural ability to invent symbols and slogans, which became popular with his supporters (this was an ability developed in his youth, when he gave public speeches before the revolution). In 2013 he excited the electorate by promising the release of political prisoners and detained journalists. But above all, he made a commitment to guaranteeing greater civil rights, which was popular among the many young people who had long opposed President Ahmadinejad’s repressive policies.
During his 2013 election campaign, international relations set him apart from the other candidates. This is because, while Mr Rouhani at least initially confirmed that Iran remained an opponent of the United States, he specified that this rivalry had to be constructive to the country’s interests. Thus, during his first election campaign, he addressed the most complicated issue and its consequences: nuclear power and the isolation from the international community in which Iran found itself. While Mr Rouhani was carrying out negotiations on the Iranian nuclear programme with the West, in fact, the conservatives accused him of being too accommodating (between 2003 and 2005, the country decided to suspend activities related to the enrichment of uranium, to obtain economic concessions).
In the end, however, on June 15, 2013 Mr Rouhani comprehensively won the elections in the first round, obtaining just over 50% of the votes (corresponding to about 18.6 million ballot papers, double those obtained by his opponent Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf), according to the figures communicated by the then Iranian Interior Minister, Mohammad Mostafa Najjar. Most of those votes came from the middle classes and young people, with majority support in more religious cities like Mashhad and Qom, but also in small villages. The wide margin of victory achieved was seen as surprising, even if the administration led by the then US President Barack Obama, while respecting the political outcome, underlined the lack of transparency and the censorship of the media during the election campaign, and denounced some episodes of intimidation. But it was precisely with Obama’s America that Mr Rouhani pledged to re-establish relations, which had deteriorated during the eight years under Mr Ahmadinejad. In his first press conference, Mr Rouhani repeated his promise to make profound changes in the country’s relations with the rest of the world. He promised openness, more transparency in the nuclear programme and underlined the desire to restore Iran’s international image, which had certainly been compromised by his populist and conservative predecessor. In September 2013, Mr Rouhani wrote an article for the Washington Post asking for a “constructive approach” regarding weapons and nuclear power.
According to analysis by the ISPI (Instituto per gli Studi di Politica Internazionale, an Italian think tank), it would be unfair to remember the former president only as an ultra-conservative who merely resorted to aggressive rhetoric against Israel. Mr Ahmadinejad, in fact, was also the politician who, under pressure from international economic bodies, supported subsidies to some essential goods such as petrol, with the aim of alleviating the suffering Iranian economy. Furthermore, according to the ISPI, Mr Ahmadinejad was among the main drivers, after years of stalemate, of the reactivation of nuclear negotiations with the IAEA and with the UN Security Council’s 5 + 1. Therefore, despite us remembering Ahmadinejad certainly as a more aggressive leader, like Mr Rouhani he also allowed the pragmatism of survival, useful for the (economic) emancipation of the country. In stark contrast to his predecessor, however, Mr Rouhani, in 2013, condemned the actions of the Nazis and the persecutions during the Holocaust.
However, surely at national level Mr Rouhani’s most important success was that of never disappointing the Iranian clergy. He is a cleric and his religious title is that of Hojatoleslam, a middle-ranking figure within the religious hierarchy. During his first election campaign, in fact, he spoke of reforms without ever contradicting the guidelines of the most important religious authorities or those of the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khomeini. According to Il Post, which cited the official Iranian Fars News Agency, Mr Rouhani at his first election explained that his victory should be considered as “the victory of duty and religiosity”. His first victory, which represented a significant change of course compared to the government of his conservative predecessor, had represented the return to power of a member of the Shiite clergy and had thus strengthened the clerical institutions that, in 2005, had been divided precisely over the election of Mr Ahmadinejad. Before him, in fact, the country had had several presidents representing the Shiite clergy: from the ultra-conservative Mr Khamenei, to Mr Khatami, undoubtedly a reformist.
In May 2017, Mr Rouhani was re-elected president of the Islamic Republic, with 56% of votes. Again at that time his re-appointment was assisted by the people’s will to move towards a more open political system, also to help the economy. His re-election was seen as possible, but far from certain.
Mr Rouhani, while departing from the most radical positions and the most incendiary rhetoric of the ultra conservatives, in the past opposed some student demonstrations which protested against the closure of a reformist newspaper in 1999. On that occasion, according to Il Post, Mr Rouhani had said that those responsible for acts of sabotage and those who destroyed state property should be punished, even with the death penalty. Over the years, however, Mr Rouhani has declared himself openly in favour of improving conditions for women and of greater inclusion of women in society. “There must be equal opportunities. There is no difference between women and men in creation, in their humanity, in their search for knowledge, in their understanding and intelligence, as well as in religious virtuosity in serving God and the people,” Mr Rouhani said in a speech after his election. In September 2013, the president ordered the release of 11 political prisoners, including seven women, lawyer and activist Nasrin Sotoudeh and Mohsen Aminzadeh, a reformist politician. The order arrived a few days before his trip to the United States for the UN General Assembly.
In both mandates, as is usual in Iran, presidential policy is heavily influenced by the figure of the Supreme Leader, who is, in fact, the most important political representative of the state. In the Iranian system, the president is actually the second most important authority and holds executive power. In reality, however, control is managed by a restricted group made up of about 50 people who limit presidential power.
Translation by Laura Flower