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The Man and the Myth

The many faces of Hassan Rouhani

Jul 14, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 41 • By ALI ALFONEH and REUEL MARC GERECHT
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Urbi et Orbi, the city and the world, Tehran and the globe. In his turban and clerical robe, softly speaking of peace, Iran’s president, Hassan Rouhani, resembles a spiritual guide more than a modern politician. Western statesmen, scholars, and journalists have been impressed by the differences between the cleric and his predecessor: Rouhani is everything Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was not—intelligent, eloquent, elegant, sophisticated. Perhaps as a result, the White House has premised success in the current nuclear negotiations with Tehran on the moderation, vindicated at the polls, of this mullah and his more Westernized foreign minister, Muhammad-Javad Zarif. Although senior administration officials in private are not crystal clear as to why the supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, who controls the atomic program, or the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, the military overseer of the nuclear quest, would now halt a massive, 30-year industrial effort, it is plain that they regard Rouhani’s election as the deus ex machina that may offer a way out.



Certainly, without an Iranian president who values economic progress more than the bomb, nuclear negotiations are unlikely to be more successful than American diplomacy was with a duplicitous, nuke-hungry North Korea, a country with which the Islamic Republic has had significant scientific and military exchanges. If Barack Obama is serious about his repeated threat to attack Iran’s nuclear sites if necessary to prevent the clerical regime from building nuclear weapons, then the choice between war and peace may well rest on whether the zealously political Rouhani is antibomb and can carry the day with Khamenei and the Revolutionary Guards. 

Rouhani isn’t an open book: He has a layered, somewhat closeted personality. An attentive observer can’t help noticing something disingenuous or theatrical about him: His real family name is Fereydoun, but he goes by Rouhani, which means “pious” or “a cleric” in Arabic. He wears clerical garb, but two decades before receiving a long-distance Ph.D. from a Scottish university, he wanted others to call him “Doctor” rather than his clerical title, hojjat al-Islam va al-Muslimin, a rank below ayatollah. Beyond appellations, in the run-up to the 2013 presidential elections, Rouhani promised Iranians a “charter of rights.” Yet since 1979, throughout his entire political career, he has systematically violated what even hard-nosed Islamic jurists might consider sacred obligations that rulers owe their subjects.

Fereydoun or Rouhani? Theologian or doctor of laws? Restorer of traditional Persian civility and patron saint of the riyal, Iran’s currency, or systematic violator of the rights of man and false prophet? More-or-less trustworthy, pragmatic interlocutor with the West or deceptive enemy? Who really is the man at the helm of the self-declared “government of prudence and hope”? What is his story?

While Rouhani’s record as president is too short to offer answers, Persian sources unavailable in English provide important insights into his life and thought. This material needs to be treated with care. An autobiographical volume, Khaterate Hojjat al-Islam va al-Muslimin Doktor Hassan Rouhani (The Memoirs of Hojjat al-Islam va al-Muslimin Doctor Hassan Rouhani), covering his life from 1948 to 1980 was published by the Islamic Revolution Documents Center in 2009. A subdivision of the Ministry of Intelligence and National Security, the center often publishes works that mix fact with revisionism. The curious must use works by others to supplement and verify the auto-biography, as well as to cover Rouhani’s life since 1980. In addition, the journal Rouhani kept while he was Tehran’s chief nuclear negotiator between 2003 and 2005 was published in 2011 and gives a detailed account of his work in that position. His speeches, parliamentary addresses, and interviews with the Iranian and foreign press are also indispensable. (When we quote these works in what follows, the translations are our own.)

Childhood in Sorkheh,Theology in Qom

Rouhani was born on December 30, 1948, in Sorkheh, a dusty village of 3,000. It lies 100 miles east of Tehran in Semnan Province, a land of ruined caravanserai on the ancient Silk Road from China. Asadollah Fereydoun, his father, was an orphan with limited schooling, a devout believer, and an ambitious social climber. Asadollah’s military service coincided with the Allied invasion of Iran in 1941, and he witnessed the rapid collapse of Reza Shah Pahlavi’s modernized army. Asadollah deserted and returned to toiling on the land and small-time shopkeeping in Sorkheh. 

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