The searing image of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the last Iranian president—all bombast and spite—makes the details in his successor’s archival folder jump from the page. There are Hassan Rouhani’s theological writings, which approvingly name-check Western thinkers from C. Wright Mills to Samuel Huntington. There is also the image of his graduation ceremony from Glasgow Caledonian University in 1999, where he received a doctorate in law. The video shows him in a doctoral gown, but without his clerical turban or robe—a surprising concession, by the standards of the mullahs, to the norms of his hosts.
Then there are the moments of candor in his memoirs, which include a vivid description of his stint as Ahmadinejad’s chief nuclear negotiator. When the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) announced an emergency meeting to address Iran’s stealth program, Ahmadinejad summoned his envoy to the presidential palace. The president had a plan. He wanted Rouhani to call the head of the IAEA and offer a deal: In exchange for canceling the meeting, Iran would fund the agency’s entire budget for the next year. Rouhani refused to act on his boss’s cockamamie order.
The contrast between Ahmadinejad and Rouhani has filled the West with cautious optimism that the new leader might lead the confrontation over Iran’s nuclear program to an amiable conclusion. Indeed, the first months of Rouhani’s presidency have flashed hopeful signs of pragmatism and moderation. Rouhani proposed a Cabinet that contained defenders of the pro-democracy Green Movement. On his watch, the universities have readmitted faculty and students unfairly expelled on political grounds. Access to social media has broadened. In fact, his foreign minister used his Twitter account to wish Jews of the world a happy new year, a leap in tolerance from Ahmadinejad’s denials of the Holocaust. (When a similar tweet appeared under Rouhani’s name, conservatives pitched a fit; the president’s office subsequently claimed that it had nothing to do with it.)
But there are conflicting shards of evidence, which hint that Rouhani might really be a creature of the reactionary establishment. When conservatives in parliament rejected three of his 18 Cabinet selections, he didn’t fuss. Moreover, he felt entirely at ease appointing notorious hard-liners, including a judge who once ordered the executions of about 4,000 opposition members.
Ambiguity is at the core of Rouhani’s biography—it is a characteristic that he has long cultivated. He contemplates every word before he utters it, and he can manage his own anger, knowing the proper time to unleash it or to feign umbrage. Even his sartorial choices—the impeccable cut of his robes, the exquisite choice of fabric—seem to deliberately offer tantalizing clues to all sides. His unique style hints at an appreciation of individuality, but he never wears styles that aggressively challenge clerical convention. Despite his slipperiness, he’s not an ingratiating toady; his self-assuredness borders on arrogance.
By the time that revolution began stirring in the mid-’70s, Rouhani was already clustered in the inner circle of its leaders. Although he finished his graduate studies in Scotland, the core of his education was the eleven years he spent in a Qom seminary. He gravitated toward the junior clerics who were fans of the increasingly militant Ayatollah Khomeini. By the fall of 1977, Khomeini’s followers trusted Rouhani to such a degree that they assigned him to deliver a eulogy for the Ayatollah’s son Mostafa.
Throughout his career, Rouhani has been appointed to carry out delicate tasks, even reportedly joining the Iran-Contra negotiations, when Reagan administration officials famously arrived in Tehran bearing a cake and a Bible. But he has also skillfully shunned fool’s errands that might risk his career. In 1989, President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani asked Rouhani to run the ministry of intelligence. Rouhani understood that the job offered him much short-term power, but that it was also a contentious assignment that would have left him with legions of enemies. He preferred to bide his time for another, more important position.
Given his history of serving the regime, it is strange that Rouhani’s presidential candidacy this spring came to represent the hopes of reform. That’s a position he earned largely by default. After the last-minute disqualification of Rafsanjani—a founding father of the revolution who has turned into a critic of the regime—Rouhani was left as the only non-hardline candidate. With no foes to his left, he began to cautiously mouth reformist slogans about the rule of law. His victory in the first round of voting stunned virtually every credible pundit in the country.
Even some disaffected conservatives rallied around Rouhani. There’s a growing sense that the regime needs saving from the damage wrought by Ahmadinejad. It is true that the country has recorded windfall oil profits. But it has squandered those thanks to corruption, incompetence, and harebrained schemes. Economic sanctions, which Ahmadinejad dismissed as inconsequential, have exacted a high price. Government officials admit to an inflation rate of 45 percent; some neutral economists say it is twice that number. Last year, the Iranian economy grew at negative 5.4 percent; youth unemployment stands at 30 percent. None of this is made any easier by an unprecedented flight of the country’s best minds.
The extent of the crisis presents a tremendous opportunity for moderates. The largest obstacle to reform, Ayatollah Khamenei, is tainted by his support for Ahmadinejad. But Khamenei seems increasingly willing to distance himself from Ahmadinejad-era policies. This March, in his annual address to the nation—the Iranian State of the Union—he casually announced that he no longer objected to direct negotiations with the United States. The line in his speech was buried, but its significance was unmistakable: The most important man in the country views the nuclear impasse and the resulting sanctions as no longer tenable.
We don’t need a microscope to discover Rouhani’s view of the nuclear program. He has outlined it in his writings. He has described how the Iranians have attempted to buy time for their program, which he insists is peaceful. He counsels against aggravating the international community, and he’s not a big fan of any serious concessions that might derail the program, either. This is the same spirit that has guided his opening moves as president. He has appointed Javad Zarif as foreign minister and chief nuclear negotiator, a man who earned the trust of his Western counterparts during a stint as United Nations ambassador.
How far will Rouhani’s new spirit guide him? Just far enough to stabilize a despotic regime? Or will he change the nature of the government? Unfortunately, U.S. policy does a poor job of anticipating both scenarios. On the one hand, sanctions are far too blunt. They have injured the regime, which is good, but they have also weakened the forces for democracy. A number of important political prisoners recently signed a letter explaining how sanctions have exacted a terrible cost on the average Iranian—and reinforced the conservative claim that negotiations with the Americans are futile. Untargeted sanctions create the impression that the Americans are hardly sincere in wishing the best for the Iranian people. But there’s another, very different problem posed by U.S. policy. Iranians are nervous that progress on a nuclear deal will win the Iranians so much international goodwill that the regime will feel emboldened to brutally crack down even further. The United States must reassure the Iranian people that their human rights are not up for negotiation. A more nuanced U.S. policy will put Rouhani’s pragmatism to the test: Is he the real moderate deal, or do his flashy robes conceal more sinister intentions?
Abbas Milani is a contributing editor at The New Republic, the director of Iranian Studies at Stanford University, and the author, most recently, of The Shah.