Iranian President-elect Hassan Rohani once complained that the Islamic Republic’s leaders tend to take extreme positions in negotiations with the West and find it hard to compromise. Rohani is about to get a chance to prove he can do better.
The former negotiator, who wrote a book about his experience as a nuclear diplomat, will be inaugurated as president on Sunday. He won the June 14 election promising to ease a standoff with the U.S. and revive an economy crippled by sanctions that reflect Iran’s growing isolation under outgoing President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Failure risks exposing Iran to a military attack by Israel, which says it considers a nuclear-armed Iran as an existential threat, or the U.S. Success may depend on Rohani’s ability to leverage connections with Iran’s powerful non-elected bodies and most of all with Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the top decision-maker, whom he first met four decades ago during the early days of Islamist opposition to the Shah.
“Rohani can do a deal because the Supreme Leader trusts him,” said Peter Jenkins, the U.K. Ambassador to the International Atomic Energy Agency in the period when Rohani was Iran’s negotiator. “He is a defender of Iranian interests and will drive a hard but honest bargain.”
Rohani, 64, may need to reach a deal rapidly. The Washington-based Institute for Science and International Security said this week that the Islamic republic may achieve the “critical capability” to process low-enriched uranium into material for a nuclear weapon without detection by inspectors by mid-2014. That’s something Israel and the U.S. have signaled they won’t allow.
The new president takes over after several rounds of talks with world powers that produced little progress. Rohani has experience of negotiating standoffs when he held the nuclear portfolio a decade ago, when tensions were lower.
Talks with European ministers in 2003 were bogged down in a dispute with European ministers over three words in the proposed deal, “all related activity.” and his interlocutors were threatening to head for the airport, when Rohani demonstrated his ability to convince the Iranian political elite to trust him.
He sought guidance from Khamenei and then-President Mohammad Khatami. “Do as you think is best, but don’t let talks fail,” Khatami said, according to Rohani’s book “National Security and Nuclear Diplomacy,” published in 2011. The outcome was an agreement by Iran to partially suspend uranium enrichment, which lasted until 2005.
Now, the U.S. and other European countries are seeking an initial agreement to halt Iran’s production of 20 percent enriched uranium -- one processing step short of bomb grade -- and removing stockpiles so that they can’t be diverted for weapons. Iran says its program is for peaceful purposes.
Iran’s uncompromising stance under Ahmadinejad led the U.S. and European Union to impose sanctions that have crippled the economy. Oil revenues have fallen by 50 percent over the past year as output fell to the lowest level since 1990, and the rial has lost more than half its value.
“Rohani will have more freedoms to act on foreign affairs because the regime has reached a dead-end and needs to make concessions,” said Mohsen Kadivar, a professor of Islamic Studies at Duke University, and a dissident cleric who worked closely with Rohani for five years before being jailed in 1999. “He needs that freedom to ease the sanctions and repair the economy.”
The economy will shrink 1.3 percent this year, extending a 1.9 percent decline in 2012, the International Monetary Fund predicts.
Inflation is above 30 percent and unemployment about 12 percent, twice that among young people. Rohani and aides say those official figures mask an even worse reality, accusing Ahmadinejad of massaging the data.
The U.S. House of Representatives passed a measure yesterday subjecting more goods and services to sanctions, and authorizing President Barack Obama to penalize foreign entities that maintain commercial ties with Iran. The legislation hasn’t yet been approved by the Senate.
Rohani was born Hassan Fereidon in 1948 to a family of shopkeepers in Sorkheh, a desert town in the north of Iran. He was sent at 13 to study at a seminary in Qom, the center of Iran’s Shiite Muslim establishment, where he would befriend many of the leading figures of the Islamic Republic. He lived on 30 tomans (about $2.50 at the time) a month, sometimes surviving on just bread and yoghurt, and in winter had to use a hammer to crack the ice on a cistern to obtain water for washing, according to his writings. He took the name “Rohani,” which means spiritual, officially changing his name in 1981.
Qom was a center of agitation against Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, led by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic Republic. Rohani helped, distributing secret pamphlets denouncing the Shah. Later, he moved to Tehran to study law, a step that marked him out from his peers.
“It was rare for a cleric to attend university during the Shah’s time,” said Patrick Clawson, director of research at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. The universities were a hotbed of secularism and “it just wasn’t done.”
Rohani became friends with Khamenei during military service near Mashad after completing his degree in 1972, according to his memoir. After anti-Shah speeches put him on the secret police’s wanted list, he moved to England, from where he regularly visited the exiled Khomeini in Paris.
In London in 1978, he was arrested alongside a dozen activists after a police raid. Rohani punched and kicked his cell door, then told the police officer who opened it that as a lawyer he knew his rights and demanded to be charged or released, according to the memoir. He was freed four hours later and received an apology.
After the 1979 revolution, Rohani returned to Iran and was given the task of organizing the Iranian army.
“He’s remained close to the center of power ever since,” said Majid Tafreshi, an Iranian historian who was a Rohani adviser during his campaign. “He has had a hand in almost every major foreign policy decision over the past three decades.”
Rohani was head of air defenses and later deputy war commander during the eight-year conflict with Iraq. He served five terms in parliament and was secretary of the Supreme National Security Council for 16 years. He also found time to write six books and obtain a PhD from Glasgow’s Caledonian University for a thesis entitled “The Flexibility of Shariah with reference to the Iranian experience.”
Little is known about his private life. At 20 he married his cousin, Sahebeh Arabi, who was 14 at the time. She has rarely been seen in public. The couple have had five children.
Even an insider like Rohani won’t always be able to get his way in the complex politics of the Islamic Republic, said Kadivar. He’ll have to contend with unelected bodies such as the Guardian Council and the Revolutionary Guards, which wield enormous influence and can obstruct campaign promises such as releasing political prisoners and curbing state intrusion into private life, according to Reuel Marc Gerecht, a former case officer in the Central Intelligence Agency and a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies in Washington.
“The odds are poor that Rohani will diminish the Supreme Leader’s power or change the Islamic republic,” Gerecht said. “Khamenei has built shadow ministries and unregulated bodies, such as foundations, that have veto powers over their official counterparts.”
Rohani supporters such as Zahra, 25, a law student in the capital, are looking forward to his presidency without getting expectations too high.
“I think he can manage to solve one or two problems such as unemployment, because it’s our right to have decent jobs in our country,” said Zahra, who declined to give her surname. “I know he can’t solve all the problems.”