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Factsheet: Who is Iran's Next President Hassan Rouhani?

Rouhani, the next President of Iran, is a former nuclear negotiator and political insider who gained the backing of moderates and reformists by campaigning against what he called the "extremism" of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's government and pledging "constructive interaction with the world" and "reconciliation and peace".

On June 14, 2013, Iranians defied all expectations and managed to elect Hassan Rouhani—a moderate who campaigned to “pursue a policy of reconciliation and peace”—to be the next President of Iran. 

Rouhani, a former nuclear negotiator, is a political insider who gained the backing of moderates and reformists by campaigning against what he called the “extremism” of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s government and pledging "constructive interaction with the world.” He also criticized repression inside of Iran, saying that he would work to create a “non-securitized environment” in which those detained after the 2009 elections would be released. Rouhani’s ability to deliver may be greater than that of the previous reformist politicians because he is not a reformist—he is a centrist who has good relations with conservatives yet won the election with strong reformist support.

Actions will speak louder than words. But Rouhani’s election is a significant opening for moderate, pragmatic, and reformist elements in Iran. It signals a major potential opportunity for the U.S. to break the impasse over the nuclear issue, resolve human rights concerns, and address other important interests.

The United States must not close this window of opportunity on Iran’s moderates by imposing new sanctions or engaging in hostile rhetoric during Rouhani’s transition to power that could limit his ability pursue a new approach and weaken him in relation to hardliners opposed to a “policy of reconciliation and peace.”

On the Nuclear Issue

In 2006, Rouhani wrote in Time that it would be counter to Iranian interests to pursue a nuclear weapon and called for limits on enrichment and enhanced IAEA oversight of Iran’s nuclear activities: 

  • “A nuclear weaponized Iran destabilizes the region, prompts a regional arms race, and wastes the scarce resources in the region. And taking account of U.S. nuclear arsenal and its policy of ensuring a strategic edge for Israel, an Iranian bomb will accord Iran no security dividends. There are also some Islamic and developmental reasons why Iran as an Islamic and developing state must not develop and use weapons of mass destruction.”
  • “A negotiated solution still can and must be found if we intend to strengthen the non-proliferation regime and avoid an unwise and unnecessary conflict. To this end, we must dare to leave the emotions aside and avoid polluting the atmosphere with the baggage of immediate and long-past history of Iran-U.S. relations.” 

During his 2013 campaign, Rouhani called for a more constructive approach to nuclear diplomacy, sharply criticizing the confrontational approach of Ahmadinejad: 

  • “We have to enhance mutual trust between Iran and other countries... There is a fresh opportunity for interaction on the global level.”
  • “Basically, negotiations with P5+1 will hopefully be more dynamic. We believe that the nuclear issue will be solved only through talks, not sanctions and threats.”
  • “Relations between Iran and the United States are a complicated and difficult issue. It's nothing easy. This is a very old wound that is there, and we need to think about how to heal this injury. We don't want to see more tension. Wisdom tells us both countries need to think more about the future and try to sit down and find solutions to past issues and rectify things.”

On Human Rights

Rouhani’s campaign rallies were punctuated by calls from his crowds for the release of political prisoners, including the leaders of the Green Movement Mir Hossein Mousavi, Zahra Rahnavard, and Mehdi Karroubi. Rouhani has indicated he will work to create the conditions for their release:

  • “I hope the next government is able to bring about a non-securitized environment.  I don’t think it will be difficult to bring about a condition in the next year where not only those under house arrest [Mousavi and Karroubi], but also those who have been detained after the 2009 elections, will be released.”

Rouhani’s Nuclear Diplomacy (2003-2005)

  • With Rouhani as nuclear negotiator in the Mohammad Khatami government, the Supreme Leader agreed to a conditional and time-limited agreement to suspend enrichment activities from 2003 to 2005 and to implement the IAEA’s Additional Protocol, enhancing transparency by granting the IAEA enhanced powers of inspection, as confidence building measures.  This exposed Rouhani and Khatami to blistering attacks from conservatives who accused the reformist government of appeasement.
  • The suspension failed to produce benefits commensurate, in the Iranian view,  with Iranian demands.  The Europeans, under U.S. and Israeli influence, declined to negotiate conditions for Iran to restart their enrichment program and did not offer incentives deemed sufficient by Tehran. Overlooking the avoidance of reference to the Security Council for two years, and the benefits to Iran that would have accrued from the European proposals, Rowhani and President Khatami were blamed by hardliners for capitulating to European pressure without delivering results: some even accused them of treason.
  • In an effort to save face and mitigate the political damage of the suspension, Rouhani emphasized that Iran had continued to develop its nuclear capacity even as enrichment was suspended.
  • Conservatives argued that only resistance to pressure could secure Iran’s non-proliferation treaty rights to enrichment.  Ahmadinejad was elected in 2005 and quickly restarted enrichment—which led to European offers of incentives and the U.S. joining the talks. Ahmadinejad’s government later scrapped the Additional Protocol.

What Experts Are Saying

Vali Nasr: "Rowhani's election should give Congress pause in further intensifying sanctions. Washington need not lift any sanctions yet, but simply being willing to discuss the possibility in exchange for Iranian concessions would be a sea change in the nuclear negotiations. Failing that, nothing will change in the nuclear impasse and the reformist moment could just be that. The ball is in Washington's court."    

Paul Pillar: "The Iranian electorate has in effect said to the United States and its Western partners, “We've done all we can. Among the options that the Guardian Council gave us, we have chosen the one that offers to get us closest to accommodation, agreement and understanding with the West. Your move, America."

Suzanne Maloney (testifying before Congress): “The next step should be at the negotiating table, it should not be in this building because I think if there’s intensification of sanctions, Iranians themselves will read it as directed at their own action [in the election], and they, I will tell you, do not appreciate the sanctions.”

Trita Parsi: "The Iranians missed a major opportunity in 2009 when they assumed that President Obama would be no different from previous US leaders and then acted according to that assumption.  Tehran's non-responsiveness rendered Obama's job to change the relationship more difficult. Washington should be careful not to commit that mistake."

Mark Fitzpatrick: "In October 2003, (Rouhani) agreed to a partial suspension of the enrichment programme, and a year later, to a greater halt. To domestic audiences, he bragged at the time and again in this year's campaign interviews that the suspension was only a tactical ploy to enable the nuclear programme to advance in other ways. This explanation was partly true, but it was gilding the lily. Any deal has to be viewed as a victory for both sides…A further reason for optimism is to be found in last week's Reuters report that Khamenei had given a guarded OK to a request by Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi to engage bilaterally with the United States. There has been little evidence of such flexibility toward engagement to date, but Salehi will surely be kept on after Rowhani takes office on 3 August."

Ray Takeyh: "The Presidents have had enormous impacts on Iran's nuclear calculations and I would suggest between the years 2003 to 2010 some of the most important initiatives on the nuclear issue were actually initiatives of the Presidential office. The decision in 2003 to suspend the enrichment program was a Presidential initiative that the Supreme Leader agreed to. The decision in 2005 to resume enrichment was a Presidential decision--candidate Ahmadinejad had campaigned on it, obviously the Supreme Leader agreed to that. And much of the initiatives that we saw over the past couple of years including the Turkey-Brazil deal were the initiatives of the President that the Supreme Leader sometimes agreed to, or sometimes didn't, but he went along with it."

What the U.S. is Saying

Secretary of State John Kerry: "President-elect Rouhani pledged repeatedly during his campaign to restore and expand freedoms for all Iranians. In the months ahead, he has the opportunity to keep his promises to the Iranian people. We, along with our international partners, remain ready to engage directly with the Iranian government. We hope they will honor their international obligations to the rest of the world in order to reach a diplomatic solution that will fully address the international community’s concerns about Iran’s nuclear program."

White House statement: "We respect the vote of the Iranian people and congratulate them for their participation in the political process, and their courage in making their voices heard.  Yesterday’s election took place against the backdrop of a lack of transparency, censorship of the media, Internet, and text messages, and an intimidating security environment that limited freedom of expression and assembly.  However, despite these government obstacles and limitations, the Iranian people were determined to act to shape their future. It is our hope that the Iranian government will heed the will of the Iranian people and make responsible choices that create a better future for all Iranians.  The United States remains ready to engage the Iranian government directly in order to reach a diplomatic solution that will fully address the international community’s concerns about Iran’s nuclear program."

 

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