Man of the Hour: Hassan Rouhani

At the UN General Assembly, the new Iranian President is enjoying a honeymoon that will soon be tested

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Ebrahim Noroozi / AP

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani gives a speech during an annual military parade in Tehran on Sept, 22, 2013

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani is the belle of the ball at this week’s opening of the United Nations General Assembly. A new Iranian President always causes something of a stir, but in Rouhani the U.S. hopes they have finally found a partner with whom they can deal. So who is Iran’s new leader, and why does the U.S. think he presents an opportunity for diplomacy?

Rouhani, who won the presidency in a surprise landslide this summer after campaigning on easing relations with the West, is better positioned than previous Iranian leaders to have an impact on relations between Washington and Tehran. He was one of the original clerical revolutionaries, exiled with the first Ayatollah to Paris in the 1970’s. He has known Iran’s supreme religious leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei for 40 years. And he’s sat on the Supreme National Security Council for 25 years. He has shown a mastery for Iranian politics, creating a team of rivals that draws from almost every Iranian political camp.

Rouhani has also been sending loud signals of outreach since he was elected. He said in an op-ed in the Washington Post on Sept. 20, that he wants “constructive engagement” in a “changed” world in which “cooperation and competition often occur simultaneously. Gone are the blood feuds. World leaders are expected to lead in turning threats into opportunities,” he wrote. In an interview with NBC Sept. 22, he vowed Iran would “never” pursue nuclear weapons. And when asked if he believed Obama’s cautious diplomatic moves in Syria were weak, Rouhani replied, “on the contrary, we see it as a sign of strength. Those who seek war are weak.”

There are hard-headed reasons why Rouhani might want to cut a deal. What Iran wants more than anything is to get out from under crippling economic sanctions. In the last two years, oil exports have dropped from 2.4 million barrels a day to less than 1 million barrels a day. Inflation, by official estimates, is over 40%; unofficially estimates are much higher. At least one in four young people is out of work. The economy has seen a bit of relief with Rouhani’s election. Food prices, which had climbed mover 50% in the past year, have started to level out. The rial, which peaked at over 40,000 to the dollar, has come down to 2,950 to the dollar on Monday.

Breadth of foreign and diplomatic experience is another reason optimists look to Rouhani as a possible figure of conciliation. He was born into a religious family and studied law at the University of Tehran before fleeing the Shah’s regime in 1977. He earned a masters degree and a PhD from Glasgow’s Caledonian University, and is said to speak fluent Persian, English and Arabic, and some French, German and Russian. In 2003, he was named Iran’s top nuclear negotiator, the only cleric to hold that role. He successfully suspended Iran’s clandestine military nuclear program in 2003.

Seyed Hossein Mousavian, a former close deputy of Rouhani’s who fled Iran in 2007, says Rouhani married when he was about 20 and had five children, one of whom was killed in his early 20s in an unexplained attack. Rouhani gets up at 7 am and works until 10 pm, Mousavian says.

Skeptics abound. In the NBC interview, Rouhani declined to say whether he believed the Holocaust had occurred. “I am a politician, not a historian,” he said. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has called him a “wolf in sheep’s clothing.” The U.S. has reassured Israel that it will remain firm on its stance that they will not allow Iran to get a nuclear bomb, while focusing on a diplomatic solution with Iran. “We’ve always made clear that we’ll make judgments based on the actions of the Iranian government, not just their words,” Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes said on Sept. 20. Thus far, in terms of deeds, Iran has only released a dozen political prisoners, including Nasrin Sotoudeh, a famed human rights lawyer.
The initial diplomatic test of Rouhani’s intentions will come in the wake of his U.N. debut. His foreign minister will be spending three weeks stateside and as early as Thursday it could be apparent how serious Iran is about negotiating. The Foreign Minister, Mohammad Zarif, will meet to discuss Iran’s nuclear program in New York with the foreign ministers of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council—the U.S., Britain, France, China and Russia—plus Germany in the highest-level talks Iran and the U.S. will have held in 34 years. The group has already scheduled a follow up meeting in Geneva in October.