Iranian President Hassan Rouhani (centre) speaks to the media at the Khomeini mausoleum in Tehran ©Reuters
When Hassan Rouhani was studying for a doctorate at Glasgow Caledonian University in the late 1990s, staff and other students found him friendly and approachable. Then approaching 50 years old, Rouhani was interweaving sessions of academic work in Glasgow with his role as Deputy Speaker of the Iranian parliament (Iranian elites have long placed a value on western education). Rouhani, who made a point of removing his cleric’s turban when walking around the city in order to blend in, seems to have managed to commute easily between the cultures. One of his former teachers used to take him to the staff restaurant, deep in the curving glass walls and white concrete of the campus: “People would come and sit down and I would introduce him… and he would happily engage in a conversation with them,” he says.
The title of Rouhani’s PhD thesis for a degree awarded in 1999 was: “The flexibility of Sharia with reference to the Iranian experience.” That Rouhani should choose to emphasise this flexibility, while remaining within a conservative tradition, is characteristic. The question is how those apparent instincts, and a record as a pragmatic survivor at the highest levels of Iran’s jostling, suspicious political life, will manifest themselves now that he has emerged as President of Iran.
When Rouhani was elected in June 2013, and Mostafa Mohammad-Najjar, the Interior Minister, read out the result to a bank of multi-coloured television microphones, it surprised most observers. Sadegh Zibakalam, professor of politics at Tehran University and one of Rouhani’s campaign aides, has suggested that it even surprised the new President himself. But Rouhani was composed enough to declare that: “It is a victory of intelligence, moderation and progress over extremism.” He added: “A new opportunity has been created… for those who truly respect democracy, interaction and free dialogue.”
After eight years of the intransigent presidency of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, many agreed, hoping that his election might signify a new opportunity to resolve the international tension over Iran’s nuclear programme. Rouhani’s remarks in New York during the United Nations General Assembly in September, culminating with a 15-minute telephone call to President Barack Obama, reinforced that impression. “The change is simply stunning,” said Gary Sick, former advisor to President Jimmy Carter during the Iranian…