The Magazine

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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Many students opposed Beheshti’s reforms and left. Hassan stayed, and so did a group of his close friends and classmates, all of whom, at least in part thanks to their connection with Beheshti, rose to prominence after the revolution of 1979: Mohammad Mohammadi Reyshahri became the first head of the Ministry of Intelligence, while Gholam-Hossein Mohammadi Golpayegani, Mohammad-Hassan Akhtari, and Mousavi Kashani all now serve in the Office of the Supreme Leader, which is in practice a shadow government overseeing the elected one.

While Hassan was busy studying the classics of Islamic law, succession politics—the struggle for the mantle of the late Boroujerdi—roiled Qom. Among the Shiites, the most senior ayatollahs compete for the allegiance of the faithful worldwide. Traditionally, one ayatollah rises to be the “source of emulation” above all others. After Boroujerdi’s death, the grand ayatollahs dispatched their representatives to the remotest corners of the Muslim world to proselytize among the devout and increase their share of the khums money. 

This struggle intensified as Mohammad-Reza Shah Pahlavi launched his ambitious 1963 modernization scheme, the White Revolution. The shah’s reform program distributed the lands of the rural aristocracy and religious endowments among peasants. To fight illiteracy, it organized young men and women with a high school diploma into the Wisdom Corps, and more controversially it introduced the vote for women.

While the traditional clergy grumbled about the reforms, then little-known Ruhollah Khomeini eyed a historic opportunity to lead a revolution of his own: By attacking the land reform and women’s suffrage, Khomeini not only managed to establish himself as the leader of the opposition to the shah, he also used his newfound popularity to bypass the traditional clerical hierarchy, with its unwritten but rigid deference to seniority. Establishment mullahs realized Khomeini’s motives, and politically cautious ones like Beheshti did their utmost to keep seminarians out of politics. The Iranian Savonarola’s vitriol, however, resonated with younger theologians. 

Rouhani writes that Khomeini awakened him politically when he was 15. There are, however, manifold reasons to doubt this. Rouhani’s account of the March 21, 1963, clashes between antiriot forces and theology students in Qom is based on memoirs of other students present in the city at the time. Rouhani admits that his father, anticipating unrest, came to Qom and took him back to Sorkheh after Khomeini was arrested in June. There is no information concerning Hassan’s whereabouts as Khomeini’s exile to Turkey became public knowledge in the fall. Most likely, while he was studying under Beheshti, Rouhani kept clean of politics, and his autobiography recounts a fabricated early revolutionary history.

Later, when Beheshti left Qom to advise the Ministry of Education on religious curricula, Hassan may have engaged in small-time political activism. He left Alavi and enrolled at more politically active schools within the seminary. Around this time, he assumed the Arabic family name “Rouhani.” His claim that he secretly distributed Khomeini’s leaflets, and even the radical publication Enteqam (Revenge), among fellow students, may be true. Nevertheless, Rouhani’s claim that he was aware of religious radicals’ taking shooting lessons in preparation for the January 22, 1965, assassination of Prime Minister Hassan-Ali Mansour seems highly doubtful. Equally unbelievable is Rouhani’s memory of attacking the shah in his first sermon, which he gave in Toyserkan, in northwestern Iran, at the age of 17. Rouhani writes that he was arrested by the local police but somehow managed to hide his identity from the police chief and return to Qom. The local police, backed up by SAVAK, the shah’s intelligence and internal-security service, would have done better than this.

Marriage, University, and Military Service 

"The wedding ceremony, which ended my single life and marked the beginning of family life and new conditions, took place on September 6, 1969.” A private man, Rouhani does not mention the name of his wife in the 696-page autobiography, let alone how he got to know her. The weekly Mehr has disclosed that Sahebeh Arabi, Rouhani’s cousin, was born in 1954, which means she was 15 at the time of her wedding.

Since the marriage coincides with Rouhani’s admission to the Faculty of Law at Tehran University, the two may well be connected: Rouhani’s father may have arranged the union as a condition for allowing his son to leave Qom for morally dangerous Tehran. Among religious families, marriage and siqeh, or temporary marriage, where a man marries a woman for a specified time for a price, are not uncommon for young male students ready to go into the world. 

Rouhani’s autobiography reveals that by January 1966 he was secretly preparing for the Tehran University entrance exam. Rouhani admits that his decision was controversial. After all, his fellow seminarians considered Qom the center of sunnah, or the proper practice of the prophet, and Tehran the source of innovation and heresy. Just as the seminary was the guardian of doctrine, the university was the institution most effectively questioning their faith. An inferiority complex among seminarians was usual since university students in the Pahlavi era had greater prestige. Many of Rouhani’s fellow seminarians probably considered his decision an act of defection or outright treason.

Why did Rouhani run the risk of isolating himself from his peers? He does not provide a clear motive for his decision. In an obvious attempt to please his fellow seminarians, Rouhani makes the risible claim that the university actually had lower academic standards than the clerical schools. Apart from ambition and a desire for broader recognition, which he likely inherited from his father, the young man from Sorkheh had become better-traveled. He’d gone on missionary work to the Caspian Sea, seen verdant beach towns with Westernized bikini-clad “naked women” and been both repelled and fascinated. He likely now found Qom socially suffocating and the seminary hopelessly old-fashioned. As important, moving to Tehran allowed Rouhani to be closer to his mentor Beheshti and Morteza Mottahari, another modern cleric who taught at the Faculty of Theology at Tehran University and would play an important role after the revolution as one of the theoreticians of the Islamic state. 

Needless to say, there is no mention of the nightclubs and cabarets of Tehran in Rouhani’s autobiography—he was, despite all the intimations of curiosity about and envy of the other side, a cleric from Sorkheh. The university didn’t prove uncomplicated for him. Too worldly for the seminary, Rouhani was too primitive for many of his classmates. They ridiculed his clerical garb. He found himself at odds with his Islam-skeptical professors: the criminologist Reza Mazlouman; Parviz Owsia, who taught family law; but also faculty dean Manouchehr Ganji, who was kind enough in a dispute between Mazlouman and Rouhani (the student shouted down his teacher in class) not to refer the passionate defender of the faith to the university’s disciplinary committee. For the offending lectures, Mazlouman would apparently pay with his life after the revolution.

And the insults Rouhani endured at university kept on coming. In 1971 he started his mandatory military service. Every time he entered the garrison in clerical garb, Rouhani says he was ridiculed by officers and enlistees alike. Pointing at the mullah’s beard, a colonel nicknamed him “Fidel Castro.” When the young cleric tried to organize group prayers, leftist conscripts would sing and dance in front of him and his small flock. Little did they know that the vengeful Fidel would become the army’s chief commissar within 10 years.

Preacher Turned Demagogue 

From 1973 until the revolution, Rouhani toured Iran delivering anti-shah sermons. He’d given up the academy. His autobiography provides epic accounts of fiery sermons, invariably ending with SAVAK agents chasing Rouhani in vain. SAVAK documents reproduced in the autobiography reveal a somewhat more prosaic past. Rouhani’s name first appears in SAVAK archives in a document dated September 1975 reporting on the attendees of a sermon by Mohammad-Reza Mahdavi-Kani, later one of the most influential clerics of the Islamic Revolution. The second document mentioning Rouhani is from October 1977. This in itself strongly suggests that SAVAK was not intending to arrest an obscure preacher from Sorkheh. The documents also provide insights into how Rouhani’s peers viewed him. “Most theology students are of the belief,” SAVAK reported, “that [Rouhani’s] sermons are dull and uninteresting, but he manages to attract crowds because he uses the title ‘Dr.’ before his name.” (In Iran, as elsewhere in the Muslim Middle East at this time, having a Ph.D. was uncommon and prestigious.)

It was Rouhani’s speech on the occasion of the death of Khomeini’s son that provided the unknown preacher a ticket to revolutionary fame. The 46-year-old Mostafa Khomeini’s death in Najaf, Iraq, in 1977 is still shrouded in mystery. While the Ayatollah Khomeini’s supporters accuse SAVAK of assassinating him, Parviz Sabeti, then SAVAK’s internal-security director, in his recently published memoir dismisses any such involvement. Khomeini’s reactions at the time, too, have contributed to the speculation. The ayatollah denied Iraqi police permission for an autopsy and issued a 40-word statement that did not call his son a martyr. Khomeini walked in Mostafa’s funeral procession for only five minutes and skipped the burial.

Khomeini, however, realized the usefulness of his son’s death for propaganda purposes and later called his passing “a blessing in disguise.” Predictably, the revolutionaries, with Rouhani in the lead, trumpeted the charge that the shah’s regime had murdered Mostafa. It was Mottahari, who like Beheshti had avoided confrontations with the monarchy, who asked Rouhani to speak at the memorial service in Tehran. This was the opportunity of a lifetime, and Rouhani delivered. Thundering from the pulpit, he claimed the ayatollah had sacrificed his son to God, alluding to Abraham and Isaac. Rouhani elevated the revolutionary leader to the status of imam, apparently the first time any of Khomeini’s followers did so publicly. The audience went into a frenzy, and tape recordings of Rouhani’s speech made him a minor celebrity among revolutionaries.

Rouhani was certainly aware of the significance of calling Khomeini an imam. An honorific title describing the person who leads prayers among Sunnis, imam among Persians refers to Ali and his charismatic descend-ants, who have acquired a semi-divine status within Shiism. Khomeini didn’t discourage believers from hoping he might be the “hidden imam,” the messiah who would come forth to reward the virtuous and punish the rest. By using imam, Rouhani not only fueled the growing personality cult around Khomeini, he also introduced the idea of the ayatollah’s being infallible and above written law. Many traditional clerics were disgusted. Such acts of sycophancy would play no small part in the degeneration of the revolutionary regime into a lawless tyranny.

The sycophancy paid off. Rouhani became a rising star in the revolutionary firmament and soon found himself among the founding members of the influential Combatant Clergy Association, an Oxford Union for politicized mullahs. He joined his mentors Beheshti and Mottahari, along with Abdul-Karim Mousavi-Ardebili, who later became a sanguinary judiciary chief, Ali-Akbar Nategh Nouri, a stalwart of the socially conservative revolutionary clergy in parliament, and other figures destined for power after the fall of the shah.

Pleasure and Propaganda in London and Paris 

In April 1978, encouraged by Mottahari, Beheshti, and Mousavi-Ardebili, all of whom offered to cover his expenses and probably did, Rouhani left Tehran for London. Rouhani claims he was wanted by SAVAK, but according to SAVAK documents released in his autobiography, Rouhani had shown up voluntarily for an interview with the Tehran branch of the security service in February, after which he’d been allowed to return home. The fact that Rouhani left Iran legally through Mehrabad Airport further contradicts his claim. If escaping the clutches of SAVAK was not the motive, why did Rouhani leave his homeland?

According to his autobiography, Rouhani enrolled at Merton College, Oxford, to learn English but was also offered a position teaching Islamic law and Eastern philosophy at Lancaster University. Rouhani does not explain how he was supposed to teach in Britain without English. He also writes he was admitted to Harvard but chose to study philosophy at the London School of Economics. All the while, Rouhani allegedly was also working feverishly with Beheshti’s network in Britain, making speeches at the Islamic Students Association in London and elsewhere, among other things assuring female revolutionary activists that the hijab would not be an issue after the revolution. And he made 10 visits to Neauphle-le-Château, the first in late September, just before Khomeini made the village outside Paris his headquarters. (In a colossal bad call, the shah had asked Saddam Hussein to boot the ayatollah from his exile in Najaf, thinking the mullah would cause less trouble farther away.) All these amount to Herculean achievements, considering that Rouhani arrived in London in April 1978 and returned to Tehran the following February. 

In France, Rouhani renewed his bonds with two radical friends: Mohammad, the son of Grand Ayatollah Hossein-Ali Montazeri, and Ali-Akbar Mohtashamipour, who would become the regime’s ambassador in Damascus in 1982, was a founding father of the Lebanese Hezbollah, and was probably instrumental in the bombing of both the U.S. embassy and the Marine barracks in Lebanon in 1983. Rouhani’s frequent visits to France, however, did not secure a place for him in Khomeini’s inner circle, and he was devastated to learn that Abol-Hassan Bani-Sadr, the future president, had denied him a seat on Khomeini’s famous flight back home. It was an insult Rouhani didn’t forget. 

Settling Scores in Tehran 

Upon his return to Tehran, Rouhani found a country very different from the one he’d left. When the shah fled, the Pahlavi state rapidly collapsed. The ancien régime’s elites packed their luggage or shifted their allegiance to Khomeini. The military declared its neutrality early in the revolution. The police quickly surrendered. A power vacuum emerged, with forces and factions competing, sometimes violently, for supremacy.

Rouhani immediately contacted Beheshti, who was busy establishing the Islamic Republican party for the ruling clergy, and Mousavi-Ardebili, who was involved in organizing the militia later known as the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. Beheshti and Mousavi-Ardebili were both searching desperately for reliable and capable people. Rouhani, however, eventually found another boss—Ali Khamenei.

The memory of the 1953 coup that had toppled Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddeq was still fresh in the minds of many. In spite of the army’s neutrality, the clerics perceived it as the single greatest threat to the new order. In his first of many broken promises, Khomeini had the shah’s top generals executed, though he’d granted them amnesty before his return home. He then made Khamenei the head commissar tasked with subjecting the sorry remains of the shah’s army to clerical control.

Rouhani’s motives for working with Khamenei rather than Beheshti or Mousavi-Ardebili aren’t known. No one could have guessed then that Khamenei would succeed Khomeini as supreme leader. It’s clear that the basic training Rouhani had acquired in military service made him useful as a commissar in the army. It’s also possible that Beheshti wanted to plant his own man at the Joint Forces Staff. And Rouhani may have had a personal motive. 

Rouhani’s autobiography stresses his intention to reorganize and enforce discipline in the new army. Other sources, however, depict him as vengeful and ruthless, a commissar less interested in revitalizing the army than in getting even with the officers who’d ridiculed him when he was in uniform. By July 1980, “Fidel Castro” had purged 12,000 servicemen. Rouhani even demanded abolishing the Army Special Operations unit and called for the public hanging of officers to terrorize the military, though Mostafa Chamran, defense minister in Prime Minister Mehdi Bazargan’s moderate transitional government, prevented this. Chamran, who’d trained as a guerrilla leader in Egypt and Lebanon and commanded his own armed militia, wasn’t a kind soul, but even he found Rouhani too exuberant. 

Bazargan and his supporters, however, proved to be the Kerenskys of the upheaval. His government resigned when Khomeini endorsed the seizure of the American embassy on November 4, 1979. At the time of the attack, Rouhani was on pilgrimage to Mecca, where he was trying to incite Muslims from around the world to join Khomeini’s cause. He was not involved in the hostage taking, though he later extolled the “great event.” “A superpower called the United States,” Rouhani proudly recalled, “was crushed. The idol of America was smashed.”

While he was still a military commissar, Rouhani ran for parliament in his native Semnan and won. He was soon elected to a parliamentary committee controlling the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting. Here, too, Rouhani’s primary task was to purge, and he did it zealously. 

Rouhani’s War 

Khomeini infamously praised the September 22, 1980, Iraqi invasion of Iran as “a divine blessing.” A disaster for his country, the eight-year war indeed proved a blessing for the regime, which used the long emergency to consolidate its rule. The shah’s centralized state served as a blueprint for the mullahs, who with the war raging effectively rallied Iranians around the flag and the faith, damning dissidents as traitors and “enemies of God.” 

The Iraqi invasion gave birth to a managerial class of revolutionaries capable of handling the day-to-day demands of an immense, savage conflict. The Islamic Republic’s first president and commander in chief, Bani-Sadr, increasingly found himself at odds with radical clerics. He was impeached in June 1981. When the parliament railed against him, Rouhani took a lead role, accusing the lay, Sorbonne-educated leftist of “incompetence” and “plotting” against the revolution. Facing the real possibility of execution, Bani-Sadr fled back to Paris. 

After Beheshti was killed in a massive bombing of the Islamic Republican party’s headquarters by an unknown perpetrator on June 28, Rouhani started looking for a new protector. Demonstrating his father’s unerring sense for choosing powerful patrons, he found a new father figure in Ali-Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani, the genius speaker of the parliament and future president, the major-domo of the revolutionary clergy who quickly emerged as the helmsman of the Iranian war effort.  

Rafsanjani’s memoir testifies to the lasting bond of tutelage that formed between the two men. Rouhani not only adopted Rafsanjani’s politics, but also gladly fought his battles, some of which remain defining struggles within the Islamic Republic. With Rouhani as his point man in parliament, Rafsanjani tried to reinstate some of the military men that Rouhani had purged. This didn’t go down well with the Revolutionary Guard, who had no trust in the army built by the shah. The two men also fought a bitter parliamentary fight against Revolutionary Guard commanders over the “Statute of the Guards.” They lost: When the statute became law in September 1982, the Corps obtained vast powers and independence from parliamentary and presidential oversight. 

In an attempt to breach the Corps’s monopoly on intelligence, Rafsanjani and Rouhani managed with great difficulty to establish in 1984 a new intelligence ministry, with Reyshahri, Rouhani’s old friend from Qom, as its head. Most of the personnel, however, came from the Guard. Rafsanjani made Rouhani his “eyes and ears” at the war front, and to judge by Rafsanjani’s journals, Rouhani’s reports on the Revolutionary Guard’s performance were usually scathing. Rouhani even tried to intervene in battlefield deliberations, which further infuriated Revolutionary Guard commanders. 

In addition to his struggles with the Guard Corps in the 1980s, Rouhani was enmeshed in the Iran-contra affair. He was one of the “moderates” that CIA memoranda to then-director William Casey said were on the other end of the weapons pipeline. According to Rafsanjani’s memoir, on November 3, 1985, Rouhani reported to his boss that he would soon be inspecting the newly delivered Hawk missiles, which the clerical regime had demanded in return for some half-dozen Americans held hostage in Lebanon (the number of hostages changed from time to time). In March 1986, according to Rafsanjani, Rouhani suggested that Iran should extort more Hawk missiles in return for the hostages. Rafsanjani authorized his deputy to help with “administering the political issues and the negotiations” with the visiting officials from the Reagan White House. 

Reconstruction, Terror, and Nuclear Negotiations

"Haj-Mohsen, pack up your things and leave. You were useful during the war and aren’t of any use in peacetime,” whispered Rouhani, according to Mohsen Rafiqdoust, the minister of the Revolutionary Guard Corps, when Ahmad Khomeini briefed senior Guard commanders about his father’s decision to end the Iran-Iraq war in 1988. Rafsanjani and Rouhani clearly saw the end of the war as an opportunity to rein in the unruly Guard. They wanted to merge the Corps with the regular army. Senior guardsmen struck back, thwarting the effort and developing an alternative history of how the conflict with Iraq was lost: The valiant Guard Corps was stabbed in the back by the corrupt clergy in Tehran, for whom peace was more important than victory and martyrdom. Within the Corps at least, this became a popular, passionately held, and durable myth. 

With the death of Khomeini in 1989 and the succession of Khamenei, who’d been close to and dependent upon Rafsanjani for years, Rafsanjani and Rouhani tried to reach a modus vivendi with the Revolutionary Guard: Khatam al-Anbia, the Guard’s wartime corps of engineers, could become a big player in postwar reconstruction and be free to accumulate unaudited funds in its own financial institutions in return for the Guard’s abstention from politics. Senior commanders pocketed the offer but didn’t abstain from politics. 

In an effort to centralize and better manage domestic and foreign national-security issues, Rafsanjani established a Supreme National Security Council in 1989 and, with Khamenei’s approval, appointed Rouhani as its first secretary. It became the arena for decisions in foreign policy, on the Islamic Republic’s growing economic ties with Europe, oil, Khomeini’s fatwa against the British author Salman Rushdie, the nuclear program, and terrorism. The council became the inner circle of Rafsanjani’s cabinet. Discussions with the North Koreans about the delivery of “sensitive materials” from Pyongyang took place there in 1991 and 1992, with the involvement of the Atomic Energy Organization, the Iranian ministries of defense and intelligence, and the Revolutionary Guard. In a volume of memoirs published this spring, Rafsanjani writes that on March 11, 1992, these “sensitive materials” were “unloaded in Bandar Abbas and the second ship arrives in Chabahar tonight. The Americans are really fooled.” 

Persian sources and U.S. intelligence point to this council as the venue where the ruling elite deliberated the expatriate assassination campaign, which claimed dozens of victims in Europe, and the attacks on Jews worldwide, most spectacularly in Buenos Aires in 1994, when a truck bomb exploded next to the city’s Jewish community center, leaving 85 dead and 300 wounded. Many in the West now want to believe that Rouhani and Rafsanjani were not involved in these decisions, that Iranian terrorism was the work of rogue or “hard-line” forces beyond their control, even though there is no evidence whatsoever that the two mullahs lost control of the intelligence ministry, which they’d worked so hard to create, or the intelligence ministers, who came from their circles. 

The “not Rouhani’s fault” apologia would suggest a dysfunction in the clerical regime at a time when it was operating much more coherently precisely because of the efforts of Rafsanjani and Rouhani to rationalize and centralize foreign-policy and national-security decisions. Even when Rafsanjani started to lose influence in the last years of Mohammad Khatami’s presidency (1997-2005) and especially during Ahmadinejad’s tenure (2005-2013), the hierarchy and institutions that he had created continued to function. The Supreme National Security Council remained all-important; Khamenei just came to dominate it. And it’s important to remember that Khamenei appointed Rouhani to the council as his personal representative in 2005 after the latter had resigned because of serious disagreements with Ahmadinejad over nuclear diplomacy. Rouhani’s longstanding and by all accounts amicable relationship with the supreme leader held. 

Terrorism hasn’t just been statecraft for the Islamic Republic; it’s been soulcraft—a means by which the regime could satisfyingly combat the omnipresent “conspiracies” arrayed against it. In some cases, it’s difficult to distinguish between personal revenge and raison d’état. In 1996 Reza Mazlouman, Rouhani’s Islam-skeptical teacher, was shot to death in Paris. One of the present authors knew Mazlouman. It wasn’t entirely clear to French authorities why the former law professor had been murdered by the Iranian government; they had no doubt, however, that the Iranian Ministry of Intelligence was behind his assassination. He’d been involved in exile dissident activities, but his stature was second-tier, and the great wave of expatriate Iranian assassinations in Europe had ebbed. By 1996 the French, engaged in commercial outreach to Tehran, were trying hard to forget the 1991 assassination in a Paris suburb of Shahpour Bakhtiyar, the last prime minister appointed by the shah. In Germany in 1996, Tehran was still under judicial fire for the Mykonos murders of 1992, when Kurdish Iranian dissidents were gunned down in a Berlin restaurant. But German businessmen and the German government were aggressively seeking to expand trade with Tehran, while Hossein Mousavian, the Islamic Republic’s ambassador in Berlin who would later be on Rouhani’s nuclear negotiating team and still later a lecturer at Princeton University, was energetically trying to whitewash Tehran’s culpability for the murders. (In 1997, a German court found the Iranian government responsible.) The Islamic Republic’s economic concerns, however, have rarely outweighed matters of state and the faith. 

Ali Younesi, who was President Khatami’s intelligence minister from 2000 to 2005 and was severely criticized by some in Iran’s elite for being too lenient, has recounted that Rafsanjani came to him twice to complain about how he was running his office. “The management style that you have established in the ministry of intelligence,” Rafsanjani warned, “makes it appear like an ineffectual municipal office that no one fears.” A big reason Rouhani and Rafsanjani gelled as the most effective team in the history of the Islamic Republic is that they instinctively thought alike on most matters. For a revolutionary regime, fear is a crucial tool. And, as Hannah Arendt pointed out about totalitarianism, terror only begins in earnest after the opposition has been wiped out. (By 1996 in Iran, the Marxist, Islamo-Marxist, monarchist, and clerical opposition had been smashed.) The occasional assassination of dissidents keeps the elites in check. Rouhani’s autobiography, which details Mazlouman’s sins against Islam and insults to Rouhani, actually explains, almost glibly, why Mazlouman was assassinated. “Among the professors of the faculty, one of the professors who would in class attack the laws of Islam, was Reza Mazlouman,” Rouhani remarks, adding, “who several years ago was killed in Paris.” What Rouhani is surely doing here, with the approval of the Ministry of Intelligence’s ghostwriters, is bragging. He finally won his classroom debate. 

Terrorism abroad coincided with periodic campaigns against loosening morals at home, at a time when college-educated women were pushing the boundaries of what was acceptable under Islam. Some campaigns became uglier—notably the serial killing of intellectuals during Khatami’s presidency, which the investigative journalist Akbar Ganji concluded was the work of Rafsanjani and Ali Fallahian, Rafsanjani’s minister of intelligence, who had a close relationship with Rouhani. Rouhani isn’t the worst revolutionary zealot about Persian mores, culture, and intellectual curiosity. But he has had an acute sense of the politicization of youthful exploration and dissent. In 1999 he castigated pro-democracy university students in Iran when their protests threatened a broader movement against the government. He backed Khamenei’s decision to “crush mercilessly and decisively” student unrest. 

During Rafsanjani’s presidency, hostility towards the United States hardly diminished. As Rouhani put it on the eve of the first Gulf war, “the foreigners who have come to this region, and at their helm the United States, one of their goals is hegemony over this region. .  .  . This is a disgrace for the region and the world of Islam if [Muslims] don’t resist this conspiracy and don’t counter it.” But unlike many ardent revolutionaries, Rafsanjani and Rouhani believed passionately in divide and conquer. To defeat American designs, every angle should be played. “Because of the fierce competition between Europe and the United States,” Rouhani explained in 1994, “we must expand our relations with Europe and counter America’s conspiracy.” On June 25, 1996, Iranian-backed members of the Saudi Shiite Hezbollah detonated a truck bomb in the American military compound at Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia. U.S. intelligence quickly tracked the bombers’ flight from Arabia to Syria, then to Iran. Not long after the attack, in a talk with political researchers at the Expediency Council Strategic Studies Center, an outfit designed to support the ruling elite overseeing the Iranian parliament, Rouhani outlined why he thought the clerical regime was still safe from U.S. military action. Rouhani’s insights are astute and perhaps even more apposite today.

Any development that leads to delay in the realization of U.S. threats against us is desirable. The threats will not go away anytime soon, but delaying the threat is possible. .  .  . Buying time should be our policy. .  .  . I believe that any type of military aggression against Iran is outside of the consensus of public opinion in the United States. Here I mean consensus among the decisive majority of the American people and political consensus. The Americans cannot easily reach such a consensus. .  .  . The willingness of important Western countries and their authorities is also needed, and the acceptance of our smaller neighbor states, meaning that the Americans also need to achieve the approval of our neighbors. Our neighbors’ acquiescence is important even for a mid-size military attack. .  .  . Fundamentally, whenever the tension is high between us and the United States, before anyone else it is the smaller neighboring states that will be harmed. .  .  . I believe we must work on relations with countries like France and Germany and make them into close and friendly countries. [But] finding friends is hard and keeping friends even harder. 

Rouhani remains proud and sensitive about his 2003-2005 nuclear tenure, for which he has been severely criticized within the ruling elite, even by the supreme leader. In his mind, he protected Iran’s nuclear progress at a time when George W. Bush was on a rampage. Any concessions he made or advocated were necessary, temporary, and in no way compromising to the atomic program. “You remember well the conditions two years ago, after the September [U.N.] resolution [in 2003],” Rouhani told his audience at a meeting of the Expediency Council and the National Security Council staffs: 

Everything in the country was locked. Our economic relations with the Western world, our political relations, the issue of investment in our country and even productivity and domestic commerce, everything had come to a halt. Back then [the United States] was drunk with pride and victory. Had we shown passivity or radicalism, we would have given the knife into the hands of a drunk Abyssinian [George W. Bush]. We managed to put that phase behind us by prudence. .  .  . We managed to pass through that perilous curve. .  .  . Concerning technology, in the past two years we managed to create an opportunity so our great scientists and thinkers could complete our nuclear technology. In those fields where our technology was incomplete, we did not accept suspension. .  .  . Don’t forget, the [September 2003 U.N.] resolution was that Iran should suspend all enrichment-related activities, but we didn’t accept that for the production of parts and the assembly of centrifuges, both of which the resolution demanded that we suspend. We did not accept it and did not suspend it since we had few working centrifuges. But with the infusion of gas, we accepted suspension because we’d perfected our technology. That was artful. .  .  . We accepted suspension in fields where we no longer had technical problems. Simultaneously, we didn’t allow suspension to become a legal commitment. This is the secret behind the Tehran declaration. .  .  . This was very difficult for Europe, but because of our steadfastness, they were forced to give in.

It was the lack of artfulness in Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the urban peasant who’d risen from the front lines in the Iran-Iraq war to Tehran’s mayoralty to the presidency in 2005, that drove Rouhani and so many within the revolution’s managerial class nuts. Ahmadinejad was simple, blatant, and brave. He was the first Shiite populist, lower-class president of the republic, who increasingly voiced egalitarian views about God and man that left the clergy on the sidelines. In Rouhani’s and Rafsanjani’s eyes, Ahmadinejad was botching everything. In his book on the nuclear negotiations, Amniyat-e Melli va Diplomasi-ye Hastehi (National Security and Nuclear Diplomacy), Rouhani dryly expresses his contempt for Ahmadinejad, who at least until he started to question the privileged political dispensation of the clergy had Khamenei’s backing. Rouhani’s first and last meeting with Ahmadinejad as Iran’s nuclear negotiator didn’t go well.

[Ahmadinejad] asked, “Why does [the IAEA] want to have an extraordinary session?” I answered that they wanted to investigate the reactivation of [the nuclear plant at] Isfahan. He said, “The agency has no right to do so; we have not done anything wrong. You go talk with El Baradei.” I then replied that it’s not so that the director general [of the IAEA] can make all the decisions. The Board of Governors of the agency consists of 35 ambassadors who make decisions based on the director general’s report. [Ahmadinejad then] asked, “How come the agency is so influenced by them?” I told him it is so because they cover most of the budget at the agency, and because they can influence most member states. He asked, “What is the annual budget of the agency?” I said I did not know, but probably a few hundred million dollars. He said, “Call El Baradei right away and tell him we will cover the entire budget of the agency.” I answered, “.  .  . we don’t have the right and authorization to provide such assistance and the parliament should pass it.” He answered, “I’m authorizing you—you let the rest be!” I then said that this is not my way of working. “If you insist, you speak with El Baradei yourself. .  .  . If you would like to issue such orders .  .  . well, it is better that you appoint a new [Supreme National Security Council] secretary really soon and give him these orders.” After that I called Mr. Ali Larijani and said, “It appears that you should get ready to take over the secretariat.”

Rouhani’s Bomb?

Rouhani’s journey from dusty Sorkheh to the Office of the President on Tehran’s Avenue Pasteur has been long. He has matured, and mentors like Beheshti, Mottahari, and Rafsanjani may even have made a pragmatist out of the once radical theologian; but pragmatism does not equal moderation. 

Those who argue that Rouhani has abandoned the nuclear ambitions that he has so proudly defended and advanced would be well advised to consider more closely the cleric’s words, deeds, associations, and pride. Most probably Rouhani wants the nuke as much as any officer in the Revolutionary Guard or Saeed Jalili, the one-legged, shrine-loving war veteran who so enjoyed ignoring and belittling European and American diplomats as Ahmadinejad’s nuclear negotiator. Rouhani just wants to be cleverer about how the regime becomes a nuclear state. The deal that he has likely cut with the supreme leader is a variation on what Rouhani believes he tried with the West after the clandestine nuclear program was revealed by an opposition group in 2002: temporary concessions on those things that no longer need further research, no concessions at all in areas requiring further work. To get the sanctions lifted—and Rouhani is convinced that once they start coming down, they are unlikely to go back up—the Islamic Republic should slow its nuclear program without diminishing its capacity to produce a bomb and the ballistic missiles to deliver it. 

This time round, this approach may work with the West. It may not work at home. Although Khamenei has solidly backed Rouhani’s diplomatic offensive, referring to the need for “heroic flexibility” when confronting the enemy, his support is undoubtedly conditional. The supreme leader is surely aware that Rouhani’s nuclear memoir is, among other things, a criticism of his preferred confrontational approach during Ahmadinejad’s presidency. And Khamenei today doesn’t give the impression that he considers 2005-2013 wasted time. For cause: The nuclear program’s greatest technical and industrial advances have been made in the last eight years. True, sanctions have mounted; the supreme leader may believe they were unavoidable. And Rouhani has to worry that the Guard Corps’s longstanding distaste for him and small appetite for concessions may derail his diplomatic efforts to test Western resolve and unity. In addition, the Corps has grown enormously powerful under the sanctions regime because its resources are vast and privileged: As private Iranian businesses have withered and foreign firms have fled, the Guard Corps has moved in. Khamenei has approved or acquiesced to the Guard’s economic expansionism because it is, as it proved in smashing the massive pro-democracy Green Movement in 2009, indispensable to his rule. 

Western observers of Iran often see the antagonism between Rouhani and the Revolutionary Guard Corps primarily as a test of wills over the nuclear program; it isn’t. It’s a struggle about the nature of the regime and the revolution. Rouhani’s politics aren’t reformist; they are revanchist. He wants his class—the first-generation, upper-tier revolutionary managers who made the republic under Rafsanjani—to again have the high ground. He wants educated civilians—primarily clerics—to determine the destiny of the Islamic Revolution, not coarse militiamen who, in his eyes, lost the great war against Saddam Hussein. Rouhani has conspicuously dumped guardsmen from his cabinet and provincial governments. He and his men have publicly attacked the Corps for trying to destroy private enterprise and exposed “private” firms that are really Revolutionary Guard front companies feeding on public finances. It’s unclear, however, whether Rouhani will have any better luck this time confronting the Guard than he did earlier. He may if the supreme leader believes that his praetorians have gone too far. But the odds aren’t in Rouhani’s favor. Khamenei knows—because his praetorians keep publicly reminding him—that the Corps is the guarantor of his rule and the revolution. 

President Obama is in a peculiar situation: He has hooked his diplomacy onto a cleric who can claim to have been a founding father of Iran’s theocracy and its nuclear-weapons program. Rouhani has arduously and vengefully worked to see the revolution succeed. He treated with the devil (the Reagan administration) to get what the republic desperately needed during the Iran-Iraq war. He appears willing to do so again to ensure the regime’s continuing dominion. Whether or not Rouhani has any intention of trading away his nuclear legacy for a better economy, he’s clearly shown that he was an attentive student to his mentors. President Obama may not appreciate the fact that his Iranian “moderate” is the same “moderate” Oliver North dealt with. Rouhani surely does. Persian humor is built on irony and a mordant appreciation for an unpleasant Middle Eastern truth: Nice guys finish last—if they even finish at all. 

Ali Alfoneh and Reuel Marc Gerecht, a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard, are senior fellows at the Foundation
for Defense of Democracies.

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