Iran's New Leader: Reasonable, with no Illusions about Obama

June 16, 2013

In Blog

In conversation with Hassan Rouhani

London, Asharq Al-Awsat—After almost three decades at the top of Iran’s national security apparatus, including a stint as Iran’s representative in negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program with representatives of the UN Security Council and Western powers, the Iranian cleric Hassan Rouhani is now running for the presidency of the Islamic Republic.

Following the disqualification of centrist Hashemi Rafsanjani and the decision by reformist Mohammad-Reza Aref to quit the race on Monday, he has emerged as the sole remaining moderate candidate in the race for the Iranian presidency. His profile among both reformists and moderates was boosted this week by endorsements from both Hashemi Rafsanjani and former president Mohammad Khatami—at the moment the closest thing to a leader that Iran’s beleaguered reformists’ possess.

Earlier this week, Hassan Rouhani spoke with Asharq Al-Awsat from Tehran via email about his plans if elected, and how he intends to improve Iranian relations with its neighbors and the US, and Iran’s role in the conflict in Syria.

Asharq Al-Awsat: Given that the supreme leader is at the top of Iran’s political hierarchy, if elected, how would you ensure that your foreign policy initiatives have his support?

Hassan Rouhani: Decisions on major foreign policy issues constitutionally require the support of the supreme leader. I am privileged to have a long experience of working closely with the supreme leader, having served as Iran’s national security advisor during the Khatami and Rafsanjani administrations. Even during the last eight years, I remained one of his two representatives in the Supreme National Security Council. If elected, I expect to receive the same support and trust from the supreme leader on initiatives and measures I adopt to advance our foreign policy agenda.

Q: What about Iran’s nuclear program? Do you support talks between Iran and the P5+1, the permanent members of the UN Security Council and Germany?

Iran has an exclusively peaceful nuclear program, which under international law is lawful and indisputable. A politically motivated campaign of misinformation has persistently attempted to cast doubts on the exclusively peaceful nature of this program. This campaign is being fueled and directed first and foremost by Israel, in order to divert international attention not only from its own clandestine and dangerous nuclear weapons program, but also from its destabilizing and inhuman policies and practices in Palestine and the Middle East. Regrettably, the Security Council has discredited itself by allowing the United States to impose this counter-productive Israeli agenda.

If elected, I will reverse this trend by restoring international confidence and exposing the ulterior motives [of Iran’s critics]. Nuclear weapons have no role in Iran’s national security doctrine, and therefore Iran has nothing to conceal. But in order to move towards the resolution of Iran’s nuclear dossier, we need to build both domestic consensus and global convergence and understanding through dialogue.

Iran should articulate its positions and policies in a more coherent and appreciable manner, and the United States and its allies should abandon their deception of manufacturing new enemies and portraying Iran and its exclusively peaceful nuclear program as a threat. Serious, balanced and time-bound negotiations aimed at resolving clearly defined questions and concerns by both sides can play an effective role in resolving this artificially manufactured crisis. The P5+1 can be one channel for such negotiations, provided that they are prepared to be a vehicle for understanding and resolution of the issue rather than a tool for procrastination and political blackmail.

Q: If elected, what will be your policy towards the conflict in Syria? Will Iran take part in attempts to reach a political solution?

There is a human tragedy going on in Syria and all must do their utmost to put an end to this travesty. But facts cannot be overlooked. Syria has remained the only country in the region to resist Israeli expansionist policies and practices. Furthermore, the fratricidal conflict in Syria was provoked and continues to be fueled by certain governments within and outside the region. It is also a known fact that extremist groups with frightening agendas and abhorrent records of brutality have unfortunately dominated the armed opposition in Syria. In my view, and in order to find a fair and generally agreed solution, Iran can play a mediatory role between the Syrian government and those in the opposition who strive for democracy and good governance.

The year 2014 is very important, as the term of office for President Assad comes to the end. A genuine election, free from foreign intervention and subversion, and the establishment of an elected government could restore stability and security in Syria. We should not let the bloodshed and brutality persist.

Our region has been marked and filled with dogmatism and terrorism, as well as religious and ethnic conflicts. Syria should not be a fertile ground for terrorists and extremists to grow and flourish.

Q: If elected, what would be your stance on the Palestinian–Israeli conflict? How do you view the Arab–Israeli peace initiative?

Since the inception of the Islamic Republic, the Palestinian issue has been high on the agenda of our foreign policy. The sensitivity and importance of this issue will not be undermined by any change of government in Iran. Iran will continue to support the Palestinian cause whole-heartedly.

In my view, the only lasting solution to the Palestinian crisis is the realization of national aspirations and full restoration of the rights of the Palestinian people. Any initiative which falls short of this fundamental criterion cannot succeed and will therefore not receive our support.

Q: You have presented yourself to the public as moderate. If elected, how would you tackle the radicalism that has gripped Iranian politics over the last eight years?

I have presented a detailed and comprehensive program of work for the future government if I get elected. In that program, I have put forward certain ideas on the improvement of the situation of the country in all aspects and areas. In my view, many policies and practices that have been undertaken by the present government need to be revisited and revised in order to make the life of our people more prosperous, happy and dignified.

I have been an outspoken critic of those policies which have adversely affected the economic, social and political aspects of the lives of the Iranian people inside and outside of the country. There also exist certain laws and regulations that need to be revised for the betterment of the society.

If elected, I plan to submit necessary legislation to the parliament (Majlis) for that purpose. Iran is a modern Islamic society, with a modern polity and advanced institutions of civil society, leaving no room for extremism and radicalism to survive for any length of time.

Q: How would you deal with key regional players, including Saudi Arabia? How would you deal with the situation in Bahrain and accusations of Iranian involvement in the unrest there?

If elected, improving and expanding relations with neighboring countries at all levels is a major priority in my future administration. Iran shares borders with fifteen countries over land and sea. All of them are important for us.

On your question regarding Saudi Arabia, I plan to reverse the recently exacerbated [and] unfortunate rivalry between the two countries into mutual respect and mutually beneficial arrangements and cooperation to enhance security and restore stability in the region.

Iran and Saudi Arabia can collectively play a positive role in dealing with major regional issues, such as the security in the Persian Gulf. My future administration neither intends to intervene in any other countries’ internal affairs nor permit others to do so in Iran. The question of Bahrain is of concern for us. We believe that the political independence, national integrity and security of Bahrain are important factors for the stability and security of the region. In this context, the aspirations of Bahraini people to seek their legitimate rights, like in any other country, should not be compromised.

If elected, I will engage closely in diplomatic interaction and cooperation with all countries in the region to remove the clouds of misunderstanding and rivalry. In this region, our areas of common interests are much larger than disparate points of disagreement and contention. I will search for common grounds within our region and beyond to promote greater understanding and cooperation.

Q: You have stated that if elected, you will attempt to release political prisoners including Mir Houssein Mousavi and Mehdi Karrubi, who remain under house arrest without being prosecuted and or convicted. How feasible is this?

I was Iran’s national Security Advisor for sixteen years during the administrations of Rafsanjani and Khatami. Therefore, I know how to deal with sensitive issues. If elected, I will do my best to secure the release of those who have been incarcerated following the regrettable events of 2009. I know that the constitutional powers of the president in Iran do not extend to the areas outside the realm of the executive branch of the system. However, I am quite optimistic that I can muster the necessary domestic consensus to improve the present situation of Mr. Mousavi and Mr. Karrubi.

Q: What steps can be taken to improve situation with the US? Do you support re-establishing ties with the US?

The Iran–US relationship is a complex and difficult issue. A bitter history, filled with mistrust and animosity, marks this relationship. It has become a chronic wound whose healing is difficult but possible, provided that good faith and mutual respect prevail. In my view, the current state of affairs between Iran and the US cannot and should not remain forever. Extremists on both sides seem to be determined to perpetuate the situation of animosity and hatred between the two countries. However, common sense dictates a change in this trend with a view to opening a new chapter in this uneasy and challenging relationship to decrease enmity and mistrust.

States can have differences of views on major international issues, but nevertheless remain civil towards one another and attempt, in the worst-case scenario, to narrow the differences through positive dialogue and interaction at any level possible under the circumstances. As a moderate, I have a phased plan to deescalate hostility to a manageable state of tension and then engage in promotion of interactions and dialogue between the two peoples to achieve détente, and finally reach to the point of mutual respect that both peoples deserve.

Q: What is your assessment of the Obama administration’s policy towards Iran? Is their offer of reaching out to Iran sincere?

Obama’s policy on Iran should be judged by his deeds, not by his words. His tactic, as he himself has indicated, is to speak softly but to act harshly. Sanctions adopted and implemented against Iran during the Obama administration are unprecedented in the history of bilateral relations between Iran and the US. If sincerity can be measured, and intention can be read, sanctions and daily threats are the criteria for this measurement and reading. In my view, Obama’s policy toward Iran cannot lead to the improvement of the troubled bilateral relations as long as the US’s mischievous treatment of Iran continues to dictate the course.