For Western officials trying to determine what kind of leader they’ll face in Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, his thoughtful 2011 memoir reveals much about the man who will lead the Islamic republic.
Published in Iran and available only in Persian, the book covers Rouhani’s time as the country’s chief negotiator on nuclear policy, from 2003 to 2005. The man who jumps out of these pages is an establishment figure with a deep commitment to the Islamic republic and its nuclear aspirations, a man who will beguile the West and preserve as much advantage as possible for Iran.
Historians often suggest that Iran’s clerical regime resurrected the shah’satomic infrastructure after Iraq invaded the country in 1980. In this telling, deterrence and self-defense are at the core of the Iranian nuclear calculus. But Rouhani says the revolutionaries’ attraction to nuclear science actually began when they were still lingering in exile. In 1979, when Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and his disciples appeared certain to assume power, an Iranian scientific delegation journeyed to Paris and implored the aging mullah to scrap the nuclear program, which was exorbitant and inefficient. The cagy Khomeini ignored such pleas. A year before Saddam Hussein’s armies attacked Iran, Khomeini had decided to preserve his nuclear inheritance.
During the initial decade of the Islamic republic, the regime’s preoccupation with consolidating power and prosecuting its war with Iraq eclipsed other priorities. Still, Rouhani describes a determined effort to secure nuclear technologies from abroad and complete the fuel cycle. Those efforts were redoubled during Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani’s presidency in the early 1990s and were sustained by the reformist president Mohammad Khatami. Indeed, Rouhani is at pains to disentangle nuclear policy from Iran’s contentious politics, insisting that all governments should share credit for the program’s progress. “I respect all individuals who in the path of nuclear empowerment have taken important steps,” he notes. And throughout, he sticks to the argument that the nuclear program is for peaceful purposes.
Rouhani spent much of his tenure negotiating with the three European powers — Britain, France and Germany — over what kind of nuclear program Iran was allowed to have. The signature event of his time as a negotiator was his country’s voluntary suspension of its program in 2004.
Those were heady days in the Middle East, with America’s shock-and-awe campaign in Iraq intimidating other recalcitrant regimes, such as Iran’s, into accommodation. “No one thought that Saddam’s regime would fall in three weeks,” Rouhani recalls. “The military leadership had anticipated that Saddam would not fall easily and that America would have to fight the Iraqi army for at least six months to a year before reaching Saddam’s palace.” Yet, the proximity of American guns behooved the theocracy to act with caution and halt its nuclear activities.
Still, Rouhani has spent the past decade slyly suggesting that Iran used the suspension period to establish the technological foundation that enabled the nuclear program’s subsequent progress. I suspect that such claims are overstated; Iran’s suspension was a product of fear and thus fairly comprehensive. Instead, the gains Iran has made since the program resumed are a tribute to the ingenuity of its scientific establishment, which is often — and unwisely — discounted by the West.