In October 2013, the Washington Institute for Near East Policy published Reading Rouhani: The Promise and Peril of Iran’s New President, a nuanced political profile of Hassan Rouhani by Steven Ditto, an independent Middle East researcher fluent in Persian.
Through his reading of Persian sources and historic press clippings, Ditto traces Rouhani’s trajectory from his youth as Hassan Fereydun in the poor village of Sokhreh in the 1960s to his adoption of his nom de guerre as an impassioned Khomeinist in the 1970s to his long career as a regime insider in an array of roles, including secretary of the Supreme National Security Council, parliamentarian, president of the Expediency Council’s Center for Strategic Research, nuclear negotiator and, since June 2013, president of the Islamic Republic.
Ditto’s biography presents alarming details of Rouhani’s role in censorship and surveillance, his crushing of dissent, his endorsement of Khomeini’s call for the murder of Salman Rushdie, and his embrace of conspiracy theories – most notably his claim that on September 11, 2001, United Airlines flight 93 was shot down by a US missile.
Excerpts from Rouhani’s writings and speeches – including those on nuclear matters – reveal striking inconsistencies, but Ditto finds regularity in Rouhani’s pursuit of economic development, diplomacy, and national “unity” as a means of preserving the Islamic Republic.
Where do you locate Rouhani on Iran's political spectrum now?
Officially, Rouhani has been typified by those close to him as representing "independent, principlist, and moderate reformists". Essentially, it’s exactly how Rouhani has portrayed himself: a consensus candidate, not tied to a specific faction, who nonetheless represents the interests of the Iranian regime and larger system, and who believes in reform as a means to bolster its domestic and international legitimacy.
Unofficially, however, Rouhani envisions himself as beyond any of these labels. He considers himself an independent and intellectual personality whose political positions are [borne] out of personal research and erudition, and adopted if they are most expedient for Iran's interests. The glue that holds this together is his fealty to the Velayat-e Faqih, Iran's system of religious government.
How would you compare him with Mohammad Khatami in terms of his popularity and his attitude to social freedoms?
Khatami, on some level, signaled that he believed reform efforts were virtues and ends in their own rights. On a level beyond Khatami, Rouhani envisions an integrated conception of politics, economics and culture.
Social freedoms, therefore, are not ends in themselves, but rather measures which, if adopted within the framework of Iranian law, can serve to support the legitimacy of the regime by engendering greater fealty, and less hostility towards it among normal Iranians.
How Rouhani's promises about social freedoms are playing out in reality has yet to be fully seen. However, it is the fact that Rouhani sees reform efforts as a means to an end, rather than an end and good in and of themselves, that seems to differentiate him from Khatami.
In April 2013, Rouhani told reformist newspaper Etemaad that he wouldn’t run as a candidate in the presidential the election unless he was assured victory. In Reading Rouhani, you write that Rouhani essentially planned his candidacy with Khamenei and Rafsanjani. Is this approach somewhat routine for all candidates, or are you suggesting that Iran's elites put Rouhani forward with a special plan in mind?
Consultation with other political figures is certainly common, and for Rouhani – who had served as Khamenei's personal representative on the Supreme National Security Council, and has a personal relationship [with him] dating back to 1968 – it is possible to see how such consultations with even Khamenei could have been routine.
The earliest reports indicate that Rouhani started consulting senior figures in preparation for a presidential run in January 2013, if not earlier. It is possible that Khamanei saw the opportunity that Rouhani could [present], given his unique political outlook and experience, rhetoric, and fealty to the Iranian government.
Whether there was any special coordination to put him forward as a candidate is unknown, but it does not necessarily appear to be the case.
Has he succeeded in boosting the legitimacy of the "system" he seeks to preserve? Has the "system" recovered from June 2009?
In surveying what normal Iranians think, it becomes clear that they are not so much beholden to Rouhani as relieved that someone has "put their foot on the brake" from the downward spiral of the Ahmadinejad years.
Even Iranians who do not accept the legitimacy of the current Islamic government still seem hopeful that Rouhani will bring about a change in prospects for the country, and more fully reconcile Iran with the world community.
But the short answer is no, at this time Rouhani's measures have not served to boost the legitimacy of the system, nor has Rouhani had the chance yet to bring about the grand synthesis in politics, economics, and culture that he wishes in order to do so.
Although Rouhani's fealty to Khomeini and the "system" emerge as (rare) consistent themes in his writing and commentary, he seems remarkably inconsistent on much else. Is this because he has to satisfy the expectations of different political factions in Iran, or is it a problem of intellect? Do you see him as an intelligent man?
Rouhani is one of the more intelligent figures within the political and intellectual system he embraces – namely, Revolutionary Shi'ite Islam. He possess a nuanced understanding of his religious tradition, and a type of pragmatism that understands both the importance, but also limits of, bookish understandings of religion, international relations and government. Within the environment he inhabits in Iran's political hierarchy, he has exhibited an intelligence and erudition above others.
However, in comparison to many normal Iranians, and other individuals who live their lives outside the sphere of ideologies and governments, Rouhani has demonstrated his intellectual paucity on numerous occasions, in addition to displaying [a] sometimes-unsavory temperament. This includes his endorsement of Khomeini's fatwa on Salman Rushdie; some rather fantastic claims about the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the United States; and general ignorance or incredulity on other global issues.
Rouhani has proven his loyalty to Iran's ruling elite over a 30+-year period, in which Iran has undergone many changes. In order to have survived this long, and even tolerated being an accessory to the Iranian government for this long, Rouhani would have had to exercise a pragmatism, and in a sense moral disregard for many unsavory events and happenings associated with the Iranian government.
Rouhani's preoccupation, as you describe it, with preserving the "system" while modernizing Iran reminded me a little of China. Has he shown interest in other post-revolutionary states as models?
Similar to Iran, Chinese intellectuals have also termed its foreign policy as "development-oriented". Therefore, there are parallels between all regimes that try to balance ideological considerations with the constraints placed on them by economic development and global interaction. However, the Iranian government does not look towards China as a model for its development.
Rouhani, along with Iranian foreign policy thinkers in general, have specified India, Malaysia, Indonesia, and South Korea as countries [that] have achieved the technological development that Iran seeks to emulate. These, however, are developing countries (some of them being Muslim), rather than post-revolutionary states.
Rouhani emerges from your study as a duplicitous ideologue. Are you offering policy-makers a warning about his reliability as a negotiating partner? What was your impression of last November's interim nuclear deal?
Through Rouhani's history we see not questions of his reliability, but rather his long-term sincerity. For instance, in his dealings with Europe in the 1990s, Rouhani demonstrated amazing shifts in his rhetoric and posture towards European countries, which occurred in a short period of time. One year he might visit Germany and laud greater cooperation, and the next he would denounce the German government for something and make exorbitant financial or political demands.
Rouhani tends to not shy away from engagement and dialogue, but has shown he cannot sustain it for long periods, and moreover he has also shown a lack of gratitude in the long-term towards countries that have sought to compromise with Iran. Most specifically, this is manifested in Rouhani's rhetoric with neighboring countries, such as Saudi Arabia. Rouhani's desire to engage is there; what is in doubt is the longevity of his commitment to any political deal or rapprochement that is achieved.
There are several factors that remain to be seen in the nuclear deal, including the necessity of the Iranian parliament to approve the IAEA's Additional Protocol, a necessary measure in the ending stages of the deal. The fact that final authority to approve the deal rests upon a government body outside the negotiating team – and which at the moment is not very amenable to negotiations with the United States – appears to be potentially problematic.
It is possible that P5+1 countries will face a situation similar to Iran's acceptance of the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty, which was acceded to by the Iranian government, but never ratified by the parliament. The role of the Supreme Leader in speaking out in support of the nuclear team's work will take on much greater importance in the coming months.
Beyond these structural concerns, over the past decade Rouhani has also shown a particular interest in diplomatic strategies that can geopolitically isolate the United States and its clout over the "Iran issue”. Outreach to European countries, for instance, are not just gestures of goodwill, but measures that Rouhani knows will increase Iran's international legitimacy, and also isolate the geopolitical agenda of the US vis-a-vis Iran.
Rouhani has termed this strategy "creating gaps in the Western front". Therefore, there are existential concerns in the current P5+1 proceedings about how Rouhani's push for European engagement will play out. Perhaps more importantly, if a nuclear deal does not materialize, [there are considerable concerns about] the gaps that can be created between Europe and the United States concerning the continuance of the sanctions regime, and broader questions of how to ultimately deal with Iran's nuclear program.
Reading Rouhani: The Promise and Peril of Iran’s New President can be downloaded from the Washington Institute’s website.