What To Expect From President-Elect Hassan Rouhani

The world has been astir with Iranian commotion since the public revelation of its nuclear program in 2003, and it has only intensified during the tenure of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (2005-2013). Now the scene is changing as a new leader takes the stage. This time, neither the U.S. which imposed the Shah in 1953 nor the Ayatollah who propped up Ahmadenijad since 2005 made the call. The people spoke, and it remains to be seen how the man they chose will answer.

Hassan Rouhani at his first press conference after the election [Al Jazeera / EPA]
Cleric, commander, academic, and diplomat. President-Elect Hassan Rouhani is all of these. Will the balance of these varied positions bring stability to a tumultuous country? Or will an altogether different identity arise?

Hassan Feridon was born on November 12, 1948 and grew up in a family opposed to the Shah, who was installed five years after Hassan’s birth. At the age of twelve (1960), he began religious studies and it seems probable that he assumed the last name “Rouhani”, which means “spiritual” or “cleric”, in this period of development (the official date is unknown). Rouhani began following Ayatollah Khomeini and consequently speaking publicly in 1965 in opposition to the Shah. He later made a public first and buzz by using the venerating reference, “Imam”, for Khomeini who was in exile at that time (1977). With thirty years of religious training in tow, Hassan Rouhani was ready for the Islamic Revolution of 1979, which fulfilled his pursuit of the Shah’s overthrow, severed U.S. relations, and transitioned this cleric into a commander and administrator.

Beginning with Iran’s military bases, Rouhani sought to stabilize his country and thus avoid the continuing upset that remains when regime changes are not succeeded by strong leadership (cf. Libya in recent times). ¬†Legislatively, he served faithfully for five terms as a representative in the Majlis (Iran’s parliament) from 1980 to 2000. Concurrently, during the Iran-Iraq War (1980-1989), Rouhani held several executive posts in the military, including Commander of the Iranian Air Defense Forces and culminating in his appointment as Deputy Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces (1988-1989). This last post is significant, given that the only higher rank is that held by Ayatollah Khamenei himself as Commander-in-Chief.

The ties between Hassan Rouhani and Ayatollah Khamenei only grow stronger when one looks at the former’s role within the Supreme National Security Council (SNSC) from its formation in 1989 to the present. Of the twelve members, Rouhani alone represents the Supreme Leader (Khamenei) to the Secretary of the SNSC.

In the midst of all of his government activities, Rouhani also resumed his studies and completed a Master’s in Philosophy (1995) and Doctorate in Psychology (1999) from Glasgow Caledonian University in Scotland. His doctoral thesis was curiously entitled, “The Flexibility of Sharia (Islamic Law) with Reference to the Iranian Experience.” The text has yet to be found online, so little more can be drawn beyond that.

Moving on, as part of his role in the SNSC, Rouhani led the nuclear negotiation team after the public revelation of Iran’s nuclear program in 2003. In light of the high tension following the events of September 11, 2001, and the U.S. invasion of Iran’s neighbors on both the east and west, it seems only right that Rouhani conceded to Western powers and suspended uranium enrichment after two years of negotiations. That decision, however, led to some criticism of his foreign policy skills in the recent (2013) election, since Iran gained nothing in return for Rouhani’s concession. (Al Jazeera)

The election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to the presidency in 2005 marked a turn for Hassan Rouhani’s front-line participation in governmental affairs. While Rouhani had been close to and served as national security advisor for 13 years to former presidents Hashemi and Khatami, Ahmadinejad’s confrontational policies were incongruent with one sometimes called “diplomat Sheikh.”¬†Ahmadinejad’s failed challenging of the clerical establishment in 2009 could only have deepened the rift of differences between these two leaders.

So with this condensed history presented, what can the world expect from the new leader of Iran? He is clearly a cleric and notably the only such member of Iran’s nuclear team. But he is also a scholar, still serving on the boards of universities and as managing editor of scientific publications. Then there’s his military experience commanding Iran’s armed forces in several forms through the span of an eight year war. And finally the diplomat-negotiator who showed flexibility on the global stage.

“I thank God that once again rationality and moderation has shined on Iran. This is the victory of wisdom, a victory of moderation and a victory of commitment over extremism.” ~Hassan Rouhani (AP News)

This quote and the one following were taken from speeches in the hours and days immediately following the election. Viewed together, they seem to paint a picture of a man who is neither naive nor unteachable. He has rejected the West-imposed dictator of 1953 as well as the West-defying radical of 2005. Furthermore, he saw what it gained to unilaterally back down in the nuclear realm.

But Rouhani also ruled out a halt to his country’s controversial enrichment of uranium. “This period is over,” Rouhani said, referring to international demands for an end to the programme. (Al Jazeera)

Finally, and returning to his earliest roots, President-Elect Hassan Rouhani is a respectable cleric, observably unwavering in his morals and convictions. Could he bring unity to the sacred-secular divide of recent years?

In agreement with the Persian people, this is indeed an exceptional moment for Iran, and Hassan Feridon Rouhani has great potential to breathe new life into his world.

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