Rouhani's stature grows in Iran after framework nuclear deal

Iran and world powers reached a framework agreement on Thursday on curbing Iran's nuclear program for at least a decade.

By REUTERS
April 3, 2015 13:22
4 minute read.
Hassan Rouhani

Hassan Rouhani. (photo credit: REUTERS)

 
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President Hassan Rouhani has emerged triumphant both at home and abroad, bringing Iran in from the cold by using his pragmatism to try and end crippling sanctions and decades of hostility with the West through detente and diplomacy.

Iran and world powers reached a framework agreement on Thursday on curbing Iran's nuclear program for at least a decade, a step towards a final pact that could end 12 years of brinkmanship, threats and confrontation.

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If the deal results in a comprehensive agreement in June, Rouhani's popularity would grow even further, giving him the political capital to take on hardliners blocking his promises of political and social reforms in the Islamic Republic.

A 66-year-old mid-ranking cleric who formerly served as Iran's top nuclear negotiator, Rouhani dismisses any suggestion that his pragmatism represents a betrayal of the Islamic Republic's founding precepts.

"Moderation does not mean deviating from principles and it is not conservatism in the face of change and development," he said shortly after the surprise election defeat of his conservative rivals by a landslide in 2013.

Rouhani also appeared to acknowledge that it would take time to fulfil his campaign promises. "Moderation ... is an active and patient approach in society in order to be distant from the abyss of extremism," he said.

At home, the mild-mannered insider has as yet little to show for his pledge of a more transparent and tolerant administration; the political and civic restrictions that irk many Iranians remain stringent.



The United Nations noted in March 2015 that large numbers of prisoners are executed, including political activists and juveniles. Journalists are routinely imprisoned, and women and minorities face rights violations, the UN added. .

Notably, two leading reformist politicians who contested the previous presidential elections in 2009 remain under house arrest. Their supporters turned out in force to elect Rouhani four years later, after he made an implicit pledge to free them and other political prisoners.

A comprehensive deal in June could see the West lift the trade and financial sanctions that are strangling the economy in return for limits on its atomic work, which the West says may be aimed at building weapons but that Tehran says is for peaceful purposes.

Progress has been possible in part because Rouhani has kept the confidence of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the so-called guardian of Iran's Islamic Revolution who has the final say on all matters of state, including foreign policy.

Rouhani is bolstered by impeccable revolutionary credentials. In his early life he studied religion and opposed the then Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, joining Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in exile in Paris in 1977. After Khomeini came to power, he cemented his insider status in a series of sensitive postings.

A month after he assumed office, Rouhani and US President Barack Obama spoke by phone in September 2013 in what remains the highest-level contact between the two nations in 30 years.

The call was the culmination of a sharp shift in tone between Iran and Washington, which cut ties with Iran a year after the 1979 revolution that toppled the Shah.

In a startling turnaround, conservatives in the leadership including Khamenei assented to Rouhani's opening, signaling they were willing to explore the compromises essential to any deal.

They went along with Rouhani, diplomats speculate, largely because his big election win revealed the depth of anger over years of economic mismanagement and the extent of popular support for his aim of ending Iran's international isolation.

Two months later, Iran struck the landmark interim accord with the P5+1 group of the United States, France, Germany, Russia, China and Britain, in which Tehran agreed to limit its nuclear program in return for initial sanctions relief.

Much of Rouhani's diplomatic success has been a matter of style. The softly-spoken lawyer, who earned his doctorate in the UK, has refrained from the provocations of his predecessor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who denied the Holocaust and called for Israel to be "wiped from the pages of time."

Known for being charismatic and eloquent, Rouhani is an active social media user, often tweeting his views about world issues, and seen as open for debate.

His appointment of Mohammad Javad Zarif as foreign minister also greased the wheels of diplomacy. Zarif is an urbane veteran diplomat who served as ambassador to the UN and is Tehran's leading expert on the US political elite.

Even so, Rouhani kept a close eye on the talks from Tehran, and intervened a week before the interim deal by calling the leaders of France, Britain, China and Russia in an apparent attempt to break a momentary impasse.

Today, periodic bilateral talks between Washington and Iran on nuclear and regional topics appear almost commonplace, even in the absence of formal diplomatic relations, making good on Rouhani's pledge of greater international engagement.

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