Political street fighter with charisma

Iran's President Hassan Rouhani at a ceremony celebrating International Workers' Day in Tehran on May 1.
Iran's President Hassan Rouhani at a ceremony celebrating International Workers' Day in Tehran on May 1.PHOTO: REUTERS

ANKARA • A mild-mannered cleric known for decades as an establishment insider, Iran's President Hassan Rouhani has reinvented himself as a rabble-rousing political street fighter.

Born into a religious family in 1948 and rising to the middle ranks within the Shi'ite clergy, Mr Rouhani, who is married with four children and holds a doctorate in law from Scotland's Glasgow Caledonian University, was active in the revolution that overthrew the US-backed Shah in 1979.

With his snow-white beard, the President comes across as jovial and scholarly, if not overly charismatic, when speaking in public.

He, nevertheless, fired up the pro-reform camp before last Friday's presidential election with speeches that broke taboos by targeting Iran's hardline elite, from the conservative judiciary to the powerful Revolutionary Guards.

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The 68-year-old, almost always clad in his white turban, has held several sensitive jobs in the Islamic republic, including representing Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, for 25 years at the Supreme National Security Council.

When he was swept to office four years ago with three times as many votes as his nearest challenger, Iranians held high hopes that he could fulfil his promises to reduce the country's isolation abroad and bring about more freedom at home.

He promised to heal the wounds of the previous presidential vote in 2009, when mass reformist protests were violently crushed after the disputed re-election of hardliner Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

The crowning achievement of Mr Hassan Rouhani's first term was a deal with global powers to curb Iran's nuclear programme in return for the lifting of most financial sanctions. Crucially, his government won the cautious backing of the hardline supreme leader for the deal.

The crowning achievement of Mr Rouhani's first term was a deal with global powers to curb Iran's nuclear programme in return for the lifting of most financial sanctions. Crucially, his government won the cautious backing of the hardline supreme leader for the deal.

But since the accord was reached, the promised economic benefits have been slow to arrive. Meanwhile, there was little progress on giving Iranians more freedom at home to gather, communicate and dress as they please.

Mr Rouhani consistently sought to rebuild relations with the United States, and became the first Iranian leader to speak with his counterpart in Washington when Mr Barack Obama phoned in September 2013.

But he has never been under any illusions about the difficulties of the relationship, telling US journalists in 2002: "America is not keen on independent countries... America is keen on countries that completely surrender themselves and act according to America's demands."

REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on May 21, 2017, with the headline 'Political street fighter with charisma'. Print Edition | Subscribe