Rouhani’s Rise and Implications for Iranian Foreign Policy and Nuclear Politics

By Ariane Tabatabai – Former chief nuclear negotiator Hassan Rouhani was elected last week as Iran’s seventh president, succeeding one of the most controversial figures in the history of the Islamic Republic, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Following the announcement of Rouhani’s election, the White House restated its readiness to hold bilateral talks with Tehran. Many Iranian and international observers welcomed Rouhani’s election as a new opportunity to build rapprochement with the Islamic Republic and ultimately solve the nuclear crisis. Others however argue that the ultimate nuclear decision-maker is not the president but the supreme leader, who also holds the reins of the country’s foreign policy. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad indirectly confirmed this reality in Iranian foreign policy in a recent speech, where he asserted that he did not play a great role in nuclear decision-making. However, Ahmadinejad’s 2009 presidential campaign presented him as the champion of nuclear energy when he highlighted the country’s nuclear “progress” as one of his administration’s achievements. 

In light of what many see as a turning point in Iran’s foreign and nuclear policy, it is important to take a step back and review the events leading to the elections, as well as who the new president is, how the Iranian nuclear and foreign policy decision-making process functions, and what to expect of Rouhani’s personal approach to these crucial issues.

The 2013 elections

After the controversy of the contested 2009 presidential elections, the regime was under pressure to ensure those events would not be repeated. The regime’s main challenge in these elections was to restore its legitimacy, some of which it had lost after the elections.

Results in favor of a more conservative candidate were supposed to be published at 2:00 AM but were postponed until 7:00AM. According to insiders, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) wanted to engineer the results in favor of a more conservative candidate but Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei stepped in and did not allow it to happen. Khamenei also conceded to the electorate by acknowledging a faction in the population he typically does not recognize: regime opponents. Already, in the aftermath of the 2009 elections, many Iranians planned to boycott the next elections if the regime failed to free the Green Movement’s leaders, Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, and recognize the result of the 2009 elections. It was not surprising that four years after letting the Basij and anti-riot police perpetrate attacks against those who dared to question the elections’ outcome Khamenei asked all Iranians, including regime opponents, to exercise their right to vote. This was a step away from the regime’s general discourse, in which the nation is portrayed as a single, unified entity, standing strongly behind its leadership. What is more, the regime generally does not distinguish its Islamic nature and the Iranian nation. In his speech prior to the elections, however, Khamenei stated that even “those who, for whatever reason, do not support the Islamic regime still want to support their country.”

In order to restore its legitimacy, the regime needed a high turnout, without conceding too much to the Green Movement. One way to achieve it was by allowing strong figures such as former reformist president Mohammad Khatami and Aliakbar Hashemi Rafsanjani to hold office. Another way is Rouhani’s election. It was the best possible outcome for the regime since it ensures the regime’s survival for another four years, while appeasing the population.

Who is Iran’s new president-elect?

Hassan Rouhani is an Iranian cleric, lawyer, and diplomat. Originally he was closer to the conservative faction until he began during Khatami’s presidency to collaborate with Rafsanjani and Khatami, a move which distanced him from the conservatives. Rafsanjani himself was considered more conservative until he became closely associated with the Green Movement in 2009. Rafsanjani and Khatami’s endorsement of Rouhani in the days leading to the elections and the withdrawal of the other reformist candidate, Mohammad Reza Aref, played a key role in getting Rouhani elected.

In addition to being the head of the Iranian parliament’s Defense and Security Committees, Rouhani also served as Rafsanjani’s senior advisor when Rafsanjani was Commander in Chief during the Iran-Iraq War. It is important to note that while Rouhani has enjoyed a good relationship with the Iranian military, this is not true for his relations with the IRGC, a paramilitary organization, which has been typically closer to the conservative faction.[1] However, Rouhani is best known in the nonproliferation circles in the West as Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator in 2003-2005, during Khatami’s presidency. In his first press conference as President-elect, Rouhani described what he had promoted as his “moderate approach” as one straying away from all extremism.[2]

Rouhani’s foreign and nuclear policy

During the 2013 presidential debates, Rouhani was more restrained in his critique of the current course of nuclear negotiations, unlike conservative candidate Aliakbar Valayati, who openly clashed with fellow conservative candidate Saeed Jalili, telling him that he did not understand the “art of diplomacy” and negotiations, and accusing him of taking an “all or nothing” approach instead of meeting the P5+1 halfway. Rouhani’s more conservative approach during the presidential debates highlighted different challenges in the nuclear dossier with a more neutral tone, not blaming the government or Jalili’s team directly, but rather stating that the nuclear issue had been sent to the Security Council unfairly and that “we should have stopped that,” urging the future government to make efforts to “send it back to the [International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA)] Board of Governors.” 

Rouhani’smemoirs, National Security and Nuclear Diplomacy, published in 2011 provide an excellent insight into the new Iranian president’s view of nuclear and of foreign policy. The former chief negotiator outlines at length what he sees as his country’s shortcomings and challenges in the realm of nuclear negotiations. The first challenge identified by Rouhani lies in the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran’s (AEOI) “lack of legal and political information.”[3] To illustrate this point of lack of expertise, Rouhani uses the example of the head of the AEOI, Gholamreza Aghazadeh, who believed that Iran could enrich under 20% lawfully without reporting it to the IAEA. The second challenge is the lack of consensus on diplomacy and foreign policy in the country.[4] Third, the challenge of a lack of “national consensus,” meaning the co-existence of two trends within the country, one supporting a “dialogue” with the international community, one opposing it, and the lack of a coherent “decision-making system,” leads to a confused political behavior.[5]

Fourth, Rouhani highlights the role of “regime’s opponents” in creating obstacles for the country’s foreign policy. Specifically, he describes the unveiling of Tehran’s activities at Natanz by the dissident group the Mujahedin-e Khalgh (MeK) as a key challenge to Iran’s nuclear policy, identifying the event as the beginning of the nuclear crisis.[6] However, the MeK’s role has only been limited to providing the West with intelligence of covert nuclear activities. Had Iran not failed to comply with its international obligations, the nuclear crisis would have been short-lived.

Lastly, both in his book and in a comprehensive interview with the Iranian monthly publication Mehrnameh in 2012, Rouhani highlights a key obstacle in Iranian policy-making, that of “political culture.” According to him, because there are no parties in Iran and due to the “political culture,” there is a lot of “chaos” and slogans influencing public opinion. He suggests strengthening political culture in order to put an end to this anarchy.

While Rouhani is likely to attempt addressing some of these shortcomings, he will be unable to fully repair the regime’s policymaking problems, as many of the challenges he identifies are either directly connected to the nature of the regime, symptomatic to many other regimes, out of the sphere of the President’s power, or unlikely to be addressed due to other issues.

Rouhani’s memoirs further provide evidence of the decisive role played by the Supreme Leader in nuclear decision-making. Indeed, Rouhani describes his private “yet determining” meeting with Ayatollah Khamenei on April 16, 2005, where the Leader had suggested beginning activities at the Esfahan Uranium Conversion Facility. Thus, it was the Supreme Leader’s decision to put an end to the suspension of Iran’s enrichment activities.[7] Rouhani described his belief that waiting one or two years to resume enrichment would have solved many issues, clearly questioning Khamenei’s decision-making on the matter.[8] Yet, Rouhani’s description of his conversation with newly elected president Ahmadinejad that same year provides evidence that the role played by the president cannot be ignored. During this conversation, Ahmadinejad had showed a clear lack of understanding of the IAEA and his country’s international obligations. He had asked Rouhani whether a direct talk with IAEA Director General El-Baradei would solve Iran’s problem, suggested Iran funded the IAEA for an entire year, thus putting an end to its being a puppet of the West, and questioned the Agency’s authority to review Iran’s dossier.[9] Following this meeting, Rouhani was asked to “go rest” for a while and was replaced by Ali Larijani, now the speaker of the Islamic Consultative Assembly of Iran.[10] Hence, while the president’s input does not weigh as much as that of the supreme leader, it can play a stabilizing or destabilizing role in the country’s foreign and nuclear policy.

In a comprehensive interview with the Iranian monthly publication Mehrnameh in 2012, Rouhani was asked whether the idea of the Supreme Leader issuing a fatwa, prohibition of nuclear weapons, was his idea. Rouhani did not answer the question but noted that the fatwa had been issued during the Friday Prayer and suggested that its scope extended to “production, stockpiling, and use” of these weapons. He maintained his position that the “fatwa is more important than the [nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty] (NPT).”[11] Rouhani explained that there were discussions around the idea of having a bill approve by the parliament, which would assure the international community that Iran would not leave the NPT. He also suggested that it was the Europeans’ suggestion to make the fatwa into a law, as a confidence building measure. According to Rouhani, his suggestion had been made only once and was not followed up. This idea was later promoted by the Foreign Ministry and became especially popular amongst Iranian officials, who saw the fatwa as a way of ensuring the international community that their country’s nuclear activities did not have a military dimension.

Bilateral Relations with the United States

In response to why Iran had not chosen to hold bilateral talks and negotiate directly with the United States, Rouhani suggested that this was “the regime’s decision.” In other words, this was dictated to the negotiating team from above. Rouhani famously stated that Iran had three solutions, a bicycle or the Non-Aligned Movement, a Peykan (an outdated Iranian car) or the Europeans, or a Mercedes or the United States.[12]  According to Rouhani, Iran chose the Peykan, thus clearly criticizing the “regime’s decision” in that respect. Rouhani further described his conversation with Mohamed ElBaradei, then the IAEA Director General, in which he had told Rouhani that President George W. Bush had requested to speak to the person with “absolute authority” in order to solve not only the nuclear issue but also “all issues” bilaterally in 2004. ElBaradei, reporting this to Rouhani asked him to consider this proposal, as it would solve many of the region’s issues in addition to Iran’s. Rouhani acknowledged that while Washington had “taken a step forward,” Tehran’s decision was not to negotiate directly with the Americans. In accordance with the regime’s narrative, Rouhani described this step taken by the United States as a way to stop a “key international issue,” that of Iran’s nuclear program, from being solved by Europe, as Washington views itself as the “chief of the world.”[13]

 Rouhani is unlikely to directly engage in bilateral talks with the United States (unless ordered by the Supreme Leader) as this is not only beyond his power as president, but may also constitute a “red line” for the Khamenei, as he has condemned those who have expressed an interest in doing so publicly.

 The Middle East

In his analysis of the role played by different actors in the Iranian nuclear dossier and negotiations, Rouhani proceeded to explain that both Israel and the Arab states had tried to create problems for Iran. According to Rouhani, the Arabs saw the nuclear program as empowering Iran, which they consider as a key player in the region. Especially since the fall of Saddam Hussein and the end of Iraq’s military prowess and the fall of the Taliban, which Saudi Arabia had supported in order to oppose Iran, the Arabs had felt more threatened by Iran’s influence.[14] Nevertheless, in his first conference after his election, Rouhani asserted that his administration’s “first priority in foreign relations would be friendly and close relations with all neighbors […] meaning with all fifteen countries,” based on “mutual respect and interests.”[15] He further highlighted the strategic importance of the Arab states of the Persian Gulf, in particular Saudi Arabia.


On Syria, Rouhani maintained the regime’s position: “solving the Syrian issue is in the hands of the Syrian people, the final decision-maker in Syria is the Syrian people, however, we oppose terrorism and civil war, as well as the intervention of other countries, which want to put their nose in the business of the Syrian people.”[16] Rouhani’s views on Israel are also in line with those of the regime: “We were not in conflict with Israel, even though we do not see them as legitimate, but historically, Iran has helped the Jewish people in some instances in the past centuries […] There is a big difference between not recognizing a country and wanting to wage war against it.”[17]

Russia and China

Rouhani’s views that while Moscow and Beijing play a decisive role in the nuclear negotiations, they alone cannot solve Iran’s nuclear crisis. Furthermore, Rouhani views the end goal of these countries as the same as the West – to stop Iran from developing an indigenous fuel cycle but with a different tone.[18] Hence, Rouhani believes that while having Russia and China onboard is useful, Iran should not solely rely on their support but attempt to galvanize other actors, including the European Union.


The Islamic Republic’s general approach to foreign policy has remained consistent regardless of successive presidents’ views. Indeed, even though reformist president Mohammad Khatami championed the idea of “dialogue of civilizations,” he also heavily relied on the “enemy narrative,” which has been at the very core of the Islamic Republic’s foreign policy narrative since its inception. Moreover, under Khatami’s presidency, Khamenei rejected the so-called “Grand Bargain” offered by the Bush administration. Similarly, under Khatami’s presidency and by order of Khamenei, Iran made the decision to resume uranium enrichment. Rouhani is likely to follow this trend.

Rouhani is not likely to successfully address the very challenges he has identified, as they are the pillars of the regime. The Islamic Republic, as a revolutionary system, is based on slogans and the lack of political parties is its very nature. What is more, political awareness and political debate have been shaped in the country, albeit in spite of the regime, as demonstrated by the events of the 2009 presidential elections, the formation of the Green Movement, and the 2013 presidential elections. In fact, it is this very public awareness of the political discourse that has allowed Rouhani to succeed to Ahmadinejad as president. This is partly due to the fact that regardless of how moderate different actors within the regime are, they still believe in the core of the Islamic regime, which is based on the idea of its preservation above all and the fundamental belief that countries such as the United States and Israel, which Tehran does not recognize as a state, are its foes. Rouhani recognizes this fact:

“… in other countries, goals and values help national interests and, in case of contradiction, national interests are prioritized, but in an Islamic regime, sometimes the interests linked to the belief system take precedence over national interests. However, in circumstances where [this] would pose a threat to the very existence of the regime, we are no longer willing to continue it. This discussion is the most important one, and as the late Imam [Khomeini] and the Supreme Leader have stated, the preservation of the regime is the ultimate duty.”[19]

In fact, the supreme leader is the ultimate guarantor of the regime’s survival and this survival can only be ensured thanks to the leader’s absolute power. Therefore, the supreme leader’s decisive role in decision-making, along with the IRGC, would not allow the president to take too much liberty in his approach to foreign policy. This is especially the case of nuclear policy, as the fate of the country’s nuclear program is now viewed as being deeply tied to that of the regime.

However, while the final decision remains that of the supreme leader and his views are the regime’s position, given Rouhani’s experience as the country’s nuclear chief negotiator and his popular support, he can exercise more leverage and have more flexibility.  No president faithful to the regime, as Rouhani is, can and will challenge the supreme leader directly in the decision-making process, regardless of his own views. Nevertheless, Rouhani can directly influence the course of negotiations by appointing a more moderate and cooperative chief negotiator. In Rouhani’s words, “the instruments of [Iran’s] foreign relations are in the hands of the Foreign Ministry,” where Rouhani’s influence can be decisive.[20]

Ariane Tabatabai is a Ph.D. candidate at King’s College, London, researching nuclear proliferation. She specializes in Iran and the ongoing nuclear negotiations with the P5+1.

[1] Mohammad Ghouchani, “Untold Nuclear,” Mehrnameh, Number 21, April-May 2012.

[2] Hassan Rouhani’s first press conference, 17 June 2013.

[3] Hassan Rouhani, National Security and Nuclear Diplomacy, Tehran: Center for Strategic Research (2011), 48

[4] Ibid., 49-51

[5] Ibid., 55-56

[6] Ibid., 56

[7]  Ibid., 484

[8] Ibid., 348

[9] Ibid., 592

[10] Mohammad Ghouchani, “Untold Nuclear [Memoirs],” Mehrnameh, Number 21, April-May 2012.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Hassan Rouhani’s first press conference, 17 June 2013.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Mohammad Ghouchani, “Untold Nuclear [Memoirs],” Mehrnameh, Number 21, April-May 2012.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Hassan Rouhani, National Security and Nuclear Diplomacy, Tehran: Center for Strategic Research (2011), p. 77.

[20] Mohammad Ghouchani, “Untold Nuclear [Memoirs],” Mehrnameh, Number 21, April-May 2012.