When it comes to profiling Iranian President-elect Hassan Rouhani, most analysts have been cautious about his seemingly moderate ideology.
Rouhani has been close to Ayatollah Khamenei and Iranian leadership throughout his political career for a number of reasons, but none so obvious than the fact that he has been there since the beginning. Rouhani was an active part of the Iranian Revolution that overthrew the Shah, and was arrested in 1964 and again in 1977 for revolutionary activity. He was good friends with Ayatollah Khomeini in the 1960s after meeting on a train, and they worked closely together in Paris during the critical early days of the revolution. Rouhani’s most important role in politics came right after the revolution, when he was elected MP in 1980 and then Deputy Speaker of the Parliament of Iran from 1992 to 2000. During the presidency of then centrist, now reformist President Rafsanjani in 1989, Rouhani was appointed the Secretary of the Supreme National Security Council, which meant that he designed Iranian defense policies; this would set him up for his later role as chief nuclear negotiator. He left these positions following the election of President Ahmadinejad in 2005.
From that point on, Rouhani has only participated in non-public roles in the government: the Assembly of Experts and the Expediency Council. Although he had made a lasting impact in Iranian politics as chief nuclear negotiator and speaker for the Majlis, his decision to shy away from major politics since 2005 has created a cloud of mystery around him; even his role as a negotiator has not helped break through this cloud.
According to the Center for Strategic Research, an Iranian think tank which Rouhani heads, there are two English works that Rouhani has authored. One of those is Rouhani’s doctoral thesis from Glasgow Caledonian University entitled “The Flexibility of Shariah; Islamic Law.” Rouhani attended the university in the 1990s, more than a decade after the revolution.
In his thesis, Rouhani is clear in stating that Islamic society will always be defined by Sharia, for “Sharia, created by Allah and conveyed by the prophet, is immutable and eternal.” However, the rest of the paper is concerned with the evaluation of the institutions that Islamic Law has created to meet the “ever-changing requirements of society,” For Rouhani, Islam is in the constant support of democracy, and the “Islamic system approves of the principle of the separation of powers, and recommends the implementation of this principle as a guarantee for the realization of democracy.” The West is wrong to think that Iran is against democratic ideals, according to Rouhani, and that in fact, Iran is not very different in the nature of its law making. “In the West the principles of the Constitution solely are observed, whereas in Iran, the Islamic principles have an equal place in addition to compliance with the Constitution.”
This thesis reveals a person who is very much committed to ensuring the principles of democracy and good governance are held in equal regard with Islamic law. Rouhani presents an idealistic view of the government of Iran–one where the different branches of government allow for the fair and judicial implementation of Sharia and the Constitution of Iran. Maybe during the reformist eras of President Khatami and Rafsanjani, Rouhani’s thesis reflected the state of the Iran’s government. This thesis provides hope that Rouhani will look to guaranteeing the democratic rights of the people.
Of course, if Rouhani’s support of democratic ideals was as cut and dry as this thesis would suggest, then there would be no problems. However, Rouhani made some controversial decisions during his time as Deputy Speaker for the Majlis that did not come back to haunt him during the elections, but do run against the reformist support he received. During July 1999 much of Iran was consumed by what was then the largest and most violent protests since the Revolution in 1979. Jomhuri-ye Eslami newspaper reports that Rouhani “told a rally in Tehran at the time that those arrested for sabotage and destroying state property during the student unrest would face the death penalty if found guilty.” One year later, Rouhani would no longer be Deputy Speaker and was relegated to the backstage of Iranian government, visiting central Asian nations to promote regional ties.
Three years later, Rouhani would rocket back into the center stage as the chief nuclear negotiator for a nation under the glare of the entire western world. Rouahni grew popular amongst many European diplomats for his intelligent, pragmatic approach and his agreement to stop Uranium enrichment in order to quell fears around the world.
When Ahmadinejad was elected in 2005, Rouhani stepped down from his role as the chief nuclear negotiator after nearly two years in that position. For the next few years, Rouhani did not participate in Iranian public politics. The work he did for the government took place behind closed doors in organizations beyond the reach of Ahmadinejad’s administration. The only window we have into Rouhani’s political sentiments is an article published in the reformist daily newspaper, Mardom Salari (which translates to “Democracy”). In the article, he discusses the 2009 Iranian Green Revolution and pledges utmost support to the cause. Partially translated by London-based Arabic newspaper, Asharq Al-Awsat, Rouhani wrote “Not only is political protest permissible; it is a political and social duty of everyone to do so.” He emphasizes the fundamental duty of protesting when it is perceived that votes are stolen. “If they are right, you have to accept their views; if wrong, you should show proof that they are wrong–not use violence. But some people do not have the tolerance to listen to opposing views.”
Rouhani’s career was not a straight-forward trajectory to the presidency, and his past was not constructed around supporting his bid. After spending years in the very heart of the Iranian revolution and government, Rouhani desires a revival of the revolutionary spirit and a renewed hope in justice and democracy. Although he is not a modernist or liberal, he seems to believe in the basic principles of democracy. He may not push for fundamental social changes, but he will make changes in the political and foreign policy spheres that will hopefully set Iran on a less volatile route.
Akshan de Alwis teaches youth participation in democracy to youth groups in Burma and writes on the democratic transition in Burma.