Iranian President-elect Hassan Rouhani

Jun 19, 2013

Iranian President-elect Hassan Rouhani

Update from AIJAC

June 19, 2013
Number 06/13 #04

This Update is devoted to analyses of the impact of the surprise election of Hassan Rouhani (spellings in English are currently varying widely across international media), the most “moderate” of the eight candidates permitted to run in the Iranian Presidential election. 

We open with a good biography of Rouhani put together by the Israeli thinktank, The Meir Amit Intelligence and Terrorism Information Centre, which has an ongoing program devoted to assembling intelligence and analysis concerning Iran. The bio goes beyond looking at Rouhani’s history as a Western-educated cleric who joined forces with Ayatollah Khomeini in exile, became one of the founders of the 1979 Islamic Republic, and has held various senior positions in the regime even since. It also looks at his public stated stances on a variety of issues, including economic issues and domestic personal freedom, relations with the US, Israel and the Arab states, and of course, most crucially, Iran’s illegal drive for nuclear weapons capabilities. For this solid, dispassionate look at what is known about the man who will be the public face of Iran over the next few years – though of course distinctly subordinate in policy decision-making to the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei – CLICK HERE. Meanwhile, a report of a dark secret from Rouhani’s past – the 1992 suicide of his son, with a suicide note addressed to his father saying, ” I hate your government, your lies, your corruption, your religion.” 

Next are the views of Canadian legal scholar and parliamentarian Irwin Cotler. Prof. Cotler stresses that while Rouhani is certainly less incendiary rhetorically than predecessor Mahmoud Ahmedinejad, he has boasted about his strategy and track record of “using negotiations – or negotiations about negotiations – as a cover for the uranium enrichment program.” Cotler suggests that any cause for optimism in the wake of the election comes not from Rouhani, but from the demonstration by the Iranian people that they want a more democratic system and a regime which is better able to meet their real needs, but argues that it is far from clear that any resulting change will be more than one of tone and rhetoric. For Cotler’s argument in full, CLICK HERE. Also, journalist and commentator Michael Totten put together a detailed rundown of evidence – sourced from numerous authors – that Rouhani is hardly a “moderate”.

Finally, Mark Dubowitz, expert on sanctions and the Iranian nuclear program from the Foundation for the Defence of Democracy, also argues that any Western euphoria over Rouhani’s win is occurring in ignorance of his history and role. He reviews in more detail the strategy pursued by Rouhani as nuclear negotiator, as described by both Rouhani himself and others close to him,  including an explicit policy of feigning moderation to divide Europe from the US and thus facilitating the import of  needed foreign technology for the nuclear program. Dubowitz predicts that Rouhani’s strategy, to the extent Khamenei allows him to formulate one, will be the one he has long pursued: “Playing for time in order to reach an industrial-size nuclear weapons capacity and a nuclear breakout.” For the rest of Dubowitz’s analysis, CLICK HERE. More advice on the policy stance world leaders should take in response to Rouhani’s election comes from Michael Singh of the Washington Institute. Meanwhile, in contrast to Dubowitz, who sees the Rouhani election as ” a temporary political setback for Khamenei”, other authors, including Avi Issacharoff of Haaretz, American scholar Harold Rhode, and Jonathan Tobin of Commentary, suggest Khamenei may actually be pleased with the result as Rouhani’s reputation as a “moderate” may help diffuse pressure on the regime both domestically and internationally.

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Who is Hassan Rowhani, Iran’s president-elect?


The Meir Amit Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center , June 17, 2013

The June 14 Iranian presidential election was won by Hassan Fereidoun Rowhani. With approximately 51 percent of the votes, he was far ahead of the five other candidates.

Rowhani was born in 1948 in the north Iranian city of Sorkheh, Semnan Province. He is a cleric who carries the title Hojjat-ol-Eslam. In 1960 he began studying religion in Semnan Province and then transferred to the religious seminary in the city of Qom. As a young man he was involved in the revolutionary movement against the Shah, for which he was arrested on several occasions by Iran’s security services. In 1978 he joined Ayatollah Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic revolution, who was living in exile in Paris.

He has received extensive Western education in addition to his religious training. He has a B.A. in law from Tehran University as well as an M.A. and Ph.D. in law from Glasgow Caledonian University, Scotland.

Rowhani is one of the founders of the Iranian regime and, even though his political status has declined over the past several years, he still holds several important roles in the regime. In 1980-2000 he was a Majles member. Since 1991 he has been a member of the Expediency Discernment Council and head of its Center for Strategic Studies. Since 1999 he has also been a member of the Assembly of Experts, which oversees the activity of the Supreme Leader. In addition, he has held a number of security positions, including chairman of the Majles Defense Committee (1985-1989), deputy commander-in-chief during the Iran-Iraq War (1988-1989), supreme commander of civil defense (1985-1990), and commander of the Khatam-ol-Anbiya Headquarters.

His most notable position so far has been secretary of the Supreme National Security Council (1989-2005). He is still Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s personal representative on the council. As secretary of the council, he was put in charge by Khamenei of Iran’s nuclear case and represented Iran in the nuclear talks with the international community. During his term as secretary he was a key partner in directing the nuclear policy and was instrumental in Iran’s decision to suspend the enrichment of uranium in 2003. His conciliatory approach drew criticism from conservative circles, and he resigned from the council after Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was elected as president in 2005.

Rowhani is considered a close ally of former President Ali-Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. He is affiliated with the pragmatic wing of the traditional-conservative camp, but also has the support of the reformist camp thanks to his moderate positions.

His views on the nuclear issue are considered relatively pragmatic. While he does stress that Iran has the right to peaceful nuclear energy, he supports a more lenient stance on achieving that right and conducting the nuclear negotiations. In the June 7 presidential debate, Rowhani expressed support for his country’s uranium enrichment program but said that it’s not only about keeping the centrifuges in motion—it’s also about making sure that Iranians can live well. He also said that the nuclear program should not be pursued if it means closing down factories. He criticized the uncompromising approach taken by Sa’id Jalili, the current secretary of the Supreme National Security Council, in the nuclear negotiations with the world powers and argued that it is the government’s extremist policy over the past several years that led to the U.N. Security Council’s decision to impose sanctions on Iran. He also reiterated his stance, which he has expressed in the past several years, in favor of the nuclear policy pursued by Iran during his term as secretary of the Supreme National Security Council.

Rowhani has also taken a moderate stance on the issue of Iran’s relationship with the United States and called for an improvement in Tehran-Washington relations. In a recent interview to the London-based Saudi daily Al-Sharq al-Awsat, Rowhani said that he strives for a dialogue between the Iranian and the American people to achieve mutual respect between the two nations.

During the presidential campaign he also discussed regional issues in Iran’s foreign policy, calling for a de-escalation of tensions between Iran and its Arab neighbors, particularly Saudi Arabia, and announcing his intention to strengthen Iran’s ties with Arab countries. In the interview to Al-Sharq al-Awsat, Rowhani reiterated Iran’s official stance on the crisis in Syria, based on supporting the Syrian regime and accusing foreign governments of fanning the violence in the country and supporting radical Islamic groups working against President Asad. However, he also called for free elections in Syria in 2014 and for the election of a government that will be able to restore stability and security to the country.

As for the Israeli-Arab conflict, Rowhani stated that the Palestinian issue has a prominent place in Iran’s foreign policy, and that Iran will continue supporting the Palestinians after the presidential election. He said that the only solution to the Palestinian problem is to realize the aspirations of the Palestinian people and fully restore their rights.

In the economic sphere, Rowhani holds liberal views supporting the decrease of the government’s involvement in economy. He is partial to the policy pursued by Rafsanjani during his presidential term (1989-1997), based on privatization, deregulation, and economic openness. During the presidential campaign he announced his intention to reopen a number of economic institutions closed down in recent years by President Ahmadinejad, including the Management and Planning Organization and the Supreme Economic Council. He noted that he intends to continue the subsidy policy reform launched by Ahmadinejad, with changes designed to make it more successful and effective.

In the area of domestic policy, Rowhani declared his support in principle for expanding individual rights and the freedom of the press and expression, and for loosening censorship restrictions. He also called for the release of political prisoners, including those detained in the 2009 riots.

Rowhani’s ability to promote domestic policy reforms, advance political initiatives in the regional and international scene, and make a real change in Iran’s policy depends on how much leeway he will get from the Supreme Leader to implement his plans.

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The Iranian election: Have the people really won?


Jerusalem Post, 06/17/2013

Though Rohani’s tone is undoubtedly less incendiary, he is the same person who presided over the secret advance of the nuclear program.

In elections heralded as being neither free nor fair – with the candidates preselected for their loyalty to the supreme leader, and the voters suffering under massive domestic repression – Iranians overwhelmingly elected a “moderate” cleric, Hassan Rohani, as president, an outcome that has been hailed as a harbinger of positive change.

It is true that, during the campaign, Rohani appeared to reject the hard line favored by his predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. He spoke in debates of improving relations with the West, of establishing a ministry for women’s affairs, and of creating more opportunities and freedoms for the country’s youth. His tone is undoubtedly less incendiary than that to which the world has become accustomed from Iranian leadership, and his message has been one of responsiveness, inclusiveness and accountability.

However, Rohani is the same person who struck a conciliatory posture as Iran’s top nuclear negotiator, under another reformist president, Mohammed Khatami, while presiding over the secret advance of the nuclear program. Rohani was the one who boasted that, even when Iran had suspended uranium enrichment, it was able to make its greatest nuclear advances, saying, “While we were talking with the Europeans in Tehran, we were installing equipment in parts of the facility in Isfahan,” a crucial nuclear site. “In fact, by creating a calm environment, we were able to complete the work in Isfahan.”

Simply put, Rohani had patented the strategy of using negotiations – or negotiations about negotiations – as a cover for the uranium enrichment program.

And more: Rohani is the same person who, while calling in campaign speeches for greater responsiveness to the needs of young people, had presided over the crackdown on student protesters in 1999, declaring then that student demonstrators who had damaged public property were “enemies of the state,” a charge that carried with it the threat of execution. The person who seeks a new conciliatory approach with the world – and an end to confrontationist rhetoric – also referred to Israel as “the great Zionist Satan” in an address last year.

Most important, Rohani was a party to an undemocratic election charade, one of a vetted group of candidates, all supreme loyalists to Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, all with ties to the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, all supportive of the Iranian nuclear program.

Indeed, while two of the leaders of the democratic opposition, Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karoubi, languished under house arrest, two of the approved presidential candidates had been indicted for terrorist acts and were under an Interpol arrest warrant. At the same time, numerous would-be candidates, particularly women, were barred from participating. Indeed, for many Iranians, Rohani may merely have been the most palatable option among those permitted to run.

As such, if there is cause for optimism in the wake of the Iranian elections, it likely has less to do with the man Iranians chose, and more to do with the Iranian people themselves. Indeed, it bodes very well for the country’s democratic future that, despite widespread repression in the run-up to the vote – and despite the fraud and violent aftermath of the elections in 2009 – Iranians turned out in large numbers and cast ballots for the candidate seen to be the most reflective of their values and their desire for freedom.

In particular, a little-known – but highly relevant – recent study of the democratic sensibility of the Iranian people found that Iranians’ democratic impulses are comparable to those of, for example, Eastern Europeans prior to the democratic revolutions of the late 1980s, or South Koreans in the lead-up to their country’s democratization several years earlier. Accordingly, notwithstanding rampant repression and the violent stifling of dissent, the Iranian people selected the most acceptable candidate on offer. In so doing, they have sent a strong message to the ayatollah about the resilience of their democratic spirit.

Let there be no mistake about it, Iranians are as conscious as anyone that true decision-making power in Iran remains with Ayatollah Khamenei. If Rohani is to follow through on promises to lift Internet restrictions, to free political prisoners, to limit the activities of the morality police, and to improve relations with the West, it will only be with the consent of the supreme leader.

However, given the demonstrable enthusiasm of Iranians for Rohani’s professed platform – and with two-thirds of the 70 million Iranian people under the age of 35 – perhaps the ayatollah will calculate that the cause of preserving his regime is best served by giving the people more of what they want and deserve.

Rohani is probably not as moderate as his campaign speeches suggest, and Khamenei remains the repressive autocrat he has always been. Yet, the new Iranian president has clearly been successful by reflecting the democratic sensibilities of the population, while the ayatollah desires to legitimate the aging theocratic regime; perhaps both will begin to see the benefits of a softer tone.

But will a change in tone presage a change in substance? When Rohani, in a campaign speech, called for “an end to extremism,” saying, “We have no option but moderation,” did this signal a change in both domestic and foreign policy? As a Rohani supporter – shocked that her vote really counted – put it, “It is unbelievable. Have the people really won?” And so the questions become: Will Iran verifiably halt its illegal pursuit of nuclear weapons? Will it end its incendiary incitement to hate and genocide? Will it renounce its state-orchestrated international terrorism? Will it cease and desist from its massive human rights violations? In a word, will the Iranian critical mass of threat – and violations – come to an end? The Iranian people have spoken. The Iranian regime has yet to act. The whole world is watching.

The author is a Canadian MP, emeritus professor of law at McGill University, and co-chair of the Inter-Parliamentary Group for Human Rights in Iran, and of its Iranian Political Prisoner Global Advocacy Project.

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Why You Shouldn’t Get Too Excited About Rouhani

The new president is technically a “moderate,” but in Iran, that doesn’t mean much.

Mark Dubowitz

The Atlantic, 17th June 2013

Good riddance: The end of the Mahmoud Ahmadinejad era should be welcomed by all who want to see a free and democratic Iran and a peaceful resolution to the ongoing nuclear crisis with Tehran. But the election victory of Hassan Rouhani as Iran’s new president has revived a myth as old as that of the revolutionary theocracy, itself: The myth of moderation.

The White House cautiously expressed hope that the regime now will “make responsible choices that create a better future for all Iranians,” and declared its readiness to “engage the Iranian government in order to reach a diplomatic solution” to “the international community’s concerns about Iran’s nuclear program.” The press and the pundits were less cautious in their enthusiasm, describing Rouhani as a “moderate,” a “centrist,” and a “reformist,” whose tenure as nuclear negotiator demonstrated a “more cooperative” Islamic Republic.

It is understandable to hope that Rouhani’s victory might usher in more freedom for Iran’s brutalized people. Indeed, those who genuinely care about Iranian human rights abuses should be testing Rouhani’s moderation by insisting that he free all Iranian political prisoners, including 2009 presidential candidates Mir-Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, who have been under house arrest for over two years without trial.

But, the euphoria for Rouhani ignores his history. Rouhani is a supreme loyalist, and a true believer, who lived in Paris in exile with Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and followed him to Iran. He was a political commissar in the regular military, where he purged some of Iran’s finest officers, and a member of the Supreme Defense Council responsible for the continuation of the Iran-Iraq War, at a great cost in Iranian lives, even after all Iranian territories were liberated. He rose to become both Secretary of Iran’s powerful Supreme National Council in 1989, and Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator, under former Iranian presidents Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and his successor Mohammad Khatami.

More recently, on the nuclear issue, Rouhani’s campaign statements are nothing to celebrate, either.

Rouhani’s record as Iran’s lead negotiator with the EU3 — Britain, France and Germany — demonstrates more deception than moderation. If Ahmadinejad, and Iran’s most recent nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili, were infamous for their bluntness, Rouhani has masterfully wielded temperate rhetoric to mask an iron determination to expand Iran’s nuclear program.

In 2004, Rouhani described Iranian nuclear policy as a twin strategy of “confidence-building and…build[ing] up our technical capability,” with the goal of “cooperating with Europe” in order to divide Europe from the United States. Rouhani’s deputy at the Supreme National Security Council, Seyed Hossein Mousavian, described this as the “widen the transatlantic gap” strategy. In the third presidential debate of the most recent election, in a discussion on Iran’s nuclear program, Rouhani bragged that Iran was able to “import foreign technology from abroad,” and stressed that Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei guided his nuclear diplomacy.

In 2008, former Khatami administration spokesman Abdollah Ramezanzadeh described Rouhani’s nuclear strategy during a panel debate covered by the Fars News Agency: “During the confidence-building era we entered the nuclear club, and despite the suspension [of uranium enrichment], we imported all the materials needed for our nuclear activities of the country…The solution is to prove to the entire world that we want the power plants for electricity. Afterwards we can proceed with other activities…”

Ramezanzadeh further elaborated on Iran’s strategy: “As long as we were not subjected to sanctions, and during our negotiations we could import technology, we should have negotiated for so long, and benefited from the atmosphere of negotiations to the extent that we could import all the technology needed. The adversary wanted the negotiations to come to a dead end and initiate a new phase. But we wanted to continue negotiations until the U.S. would be gone from the circle of negotiations.”

Ramezanzadeh summed it up this way: “We had one overt policy, which was one of negotiation and confidence building, and a covert policy, which was continuation of the activities…in the field of confidence building, Japan is the most advanced country in the world but Japan can produce a nuclear bomb in less than a week.”

In supporting the argument for Rouhani’s moderation, much is made of his role in Iran’s decision to temporarily suspend uranium enrichment in 2004. But it is worth remembering that this decision was not only a diplomatic feint to head off sanctions and continue importing nuclear technology as Ramezanzadeh suggests. It was also inspired by a genuine fear that the “mad-bomber Bush” would target Tehran after quickly disposing of Saddam and the Iraqi military in 2003.

To be sure, during the election campaign, Rouhani projected moderation relative to his competitors. He ran on a “policy of reconciliation and peace,” and criticized nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili and outgoing president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad for reckless diplomacy that united the U.S., Europe, and the international community in support of unprecedented global sanctions to punish Iran for its uncompromising nuclear stance.

In the face of increasingly crippling sanctions, Iranians appeared to embrace the “anyone-but-Jalili” vote, if only to counter the candidate who appeared to be Khamenei’s first choice. Rouhani, after all, promised that his moderate positions could bring the West around to authorize sanctions relief before the Iranian economy collapses.

Rouhani, however, is only the most moderate of the eight hardline candidates who were hand-selected by Khamenei. And even if he truly were committed to nuclear reconciliation, Rouhani, like Ahmadinejad, lacks the power to alter Iran’s nuclear trajectory. As Rouhani acknowledged during the campaign, Khamenei remains in charge of Iran’s nuclear policy.

Rouhani’s victory may be a temporary political setback for Khamenei, who might have preferred a more politically pliant president like Jalili who would help preserve the interfactional power balance between the supreme leader, the clerics, the Revolutionary Guards, and the bazaaris (middle-class merchants).

But on the question of Iran’s nuclear policy, the election might be a godsend for the supreme leader, who can now offer up a more soft-spoken, cosmopolitan, and diplomatic president to convince the West to ease sanctions, even while Khamenei is unprepared to relinquish his nuclear program.

Accordingly, Khamenei will likely allow Rouhani to engage with the five permanent members of the Security Council and Germany (the P5+1) in another round of nuclear negotiations. If Rouhani starts sounding too conciliatory, Khamenei will blame his new president for selling out Iran’s interests. But he also could allow Rouhani to rope-a-dope the P5+1 by offering a deal to minimize Iran’s stockpile of 20 percent-enriched uranium.

Such an offer, if presented by Rouhani as a step toward “reconciliation and peace,” may be enough to tie up the West for sufficient time to undermine international support for sanctions, get Iranian oil flowing again, stabilize the economy, and even help Rouhani deliver on his election promises. But an offer that only limits Iran’s 20 percent-enriched uranium stockpile, without other more rigorous nuclear safeguards, would not be sufficient to arrest Iran’s nuclear weapons development.

Iran’s new president knows this and he will negotiate to “widen the P5+1 gap” on these nuclear demands. He will remain focused on an objective that he, Khamenei, Rafsanjani, Khatami, Ahmadinejad, and the Revolutionary Guards have been committed to for years: Playing for time in order to reach an industrial-size nuclear weapons capacity and a nuclear breakout which will allow Iran, without detection, to produce enough weapons-grade uranium or separated plutonium for one or more bombs.

In other words, the election of Rouhani, a loyalist of Iran’s supreme leader and a master of nuclear deceit, doesn’t get us any closer to stopping Iran’s nuclear drive.

Mark Dubowitz is executive director of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, where he leads the foundation’s Iran projects on sanctions, human rights, and nonproliferation.

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