Text size:

  • Small
  • Normal
  • Large

Rouhani has the keys to solve Iran's problems

Moderate imam's supporters hope his first move as Iran's president will be to free all political prisoners. Michael Theodoulou reports

Hassan Rouhani, Iran's moderate president-elect who shoulders the burden of great expectations, chose a key as his campaign symbol. His government of "wisdom and hope" would use it to unlock Iran's many problems.

One twist of the key could help reboot the flailing, sanctions-strapped economy. Another could ease strained relations with Iran's Arab neighbours and the West. And a final turn could unlock the door to stalled nuclear negotiations with world powers, he intimated at press conferences and during presidential debates.

"The first lock has been opened," Mr Rouhani declared after his unexpected victory over hardline candidates last month that prompted huge street celebrations.

Many supporters also want the key used in a literal sense when he takes office in early August, to release an estimated 300 to 400 political prisoners in Tehran's notorious Evin prison, including about 30 to 50 women.

But most of all they want Mr Rouhani to deliver on a promise to release the reformist leaders Mir-Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karrubi from more than two years of house arrest.

The two Green Movement leaders were candidates in the 2009 presidential elections who condemned Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's re-election as fraudulent, igniting months of huge street protests that were brutally crushed. Millions of Iranians believe Mr Mousavi was the real winner of that "stolen" election.

He and Mr Karrubi were put under house arrest in early 2011 after calling on Iranians to demonstrate in support of pro-reform protests in Egypt and Tunisia. Mr Mousavi's feisty wife, Zahra Rahnavard, is being held with him.

Mr Rouhani's supporters constantly chanted for their release at his campaign rallies. When he won, jubilant crowds shouted: "Mousavi, Mousavi, congratulations on your victory."

Days after being elected, Mr Rouhani was challenged at a news conference about his promise to free the reformist leaders. He urged patience, pointing out that it was "not all up to the president".

The centres of power behind the repression of the past four years - the judiciary, the intelligence ministry and the Revolutionary Guards - are outside Mr Rouhani's authority and directly under Iran's unelected supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Mr Rouhani, however, said he was "very hopeful that the atmosphere will change" to favour meeting many of the demands that are being put forward.

Drewery Dyke, an Iran expert at Amnesty International, said that "while the president's power is constricted, the presidency and the important mandate he achieved have a huge role in setting the mood music". And "the mood Rouhani is creating is a positive one".

Iran's new president has called for an end to government interference in people's private lives, an easing of the "security atmosphere", greater freedom of expression and less state control of the internet. He also plans to issue a "civil rights charter" that calls for equality of all citizens regardless of race, religion or gender.

There are grounds for hope that Mr Rouhani, a mid-ranking cleric, will be able to deliver on some fronts: despite his liberal stance, he is a long-serving and trusted regime insider.

Mr Khamenei has endorsed his election victory, which conferred some much-needed legitimacy on the regime following the debacle of the 2009 election.

And Mr Rouhani has the backing of two influential former presidents, Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and Mohammad Khatami.

Even so, Iran's new president will have to step gingerly, and within his mandate, given potential opposition from disgruntled hardliners who failed to secure the presidency for one of their own.

While Mr Rouhani has signalled he wants the release of the reformist leaders, he avoided explicitly naming them during his election campaign. This was seen as a sign of caution but also of his understanding of the realpolitik in Iran. The release of prisoners is decided by the judiciary, whose head is appointed by Ayatollah Khamenei.

Some experts supect that Mr Rouhani might show his commitment to freeing political prisoners by first attempting to release less controversial figures than Mr Mousavi and Mr Kerrubi, whom hardliners have accused of "sedition".

"That would be a less risky strategy for the new president," said a western diplomat.

So far, the envoy said: "There are positive signs from Mr Rouhani on the human rights front. But as with the nuclear file we'll be waiting to see if there's real progress after his inauguration next month."

Hadi Ghaemi, the New York-based director of the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran, pointed out that Mr Rouhani has a "huge popular mandate" was "a skilful negotiator, conciliator and master of persuasion".

"If he focuses his leverage, both in private and in public, he can succeed in gaining the release of Mousavi, Karrubi and other political prisoners," Mr Ghaemi said.

Mr Mousavi's case is particularly pressing because he suffers from a serious heart ailment and, according to rights activists, has been denied regular medical check-ups.

Another early test for Mr Rouhani will be whether he can restore a measure of freedom on campuses when universities reopen in September. "Will student activists be released, will students groups be allowed to re-form officially and will a ban on their publications be lifted?" asked Mr Dyke of Amnesty International. "For us, that will be an important barometer of change."


twitter: For breaking news from the Gulf, the Middle East and around the globe follow The National World. Follow us

Back to the top

More articles

Editor's Picks

 Iranian President Hassan Rouhani greets supporters after his arrival in Zahedan, the regional capital of Sistan and Baluchestan province on Tuesday, April 15, 2014. During Mr Rouhani's two-day visit, he will tour several other cities and hold meetings with local scholars and entrepreneurs. Maryam Rahmanian for The National

On the road with Hassan Rouhani

Iran's president is touring some of Iran's most underdeveloped provinces. Foreign correspondent Yeganeh Salehi is traveling with him.

 The Doha-based Youssef Al Qaradawi speaks to the crowd as he leads Friday prayers in Tahrir Square in Cairo, Egypt in February, 2011. The outspoken pro-Muslim Brotherhood imam has been critical of the UAE’s policies toward Islamist groups, adding to friction between Qatar and other GCC states. Khalil Hamra / AP Photo

Brotherhood imam skips Doha sermon, but more needed for GCC to reconcile

That Youssef Al Qaradawi did not speak raises hopes that the spat involving Qatar and the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain might be slowly moving towards a resolution.

 Twitter photo of  Abdel Fattah El Sisi on the campaign trail on March 30. Photo courtesy-Twitter/@SisiCampaign

El Sisi rides a bicycle, kicks off social media storm

The photos and video created a huge buzz across social media networks, possibly a marker of a new era for Egypt.

 An Afghan election commission worker carries a ballot box at a vote counting centre in Jalalabad on April 6. A roadside bomb hit a truck carrying full ballot boxes in northern Afghanistan, killing three people a day after the country voted for a successor to President Hamid Karzai. Eight boxes of votes were destroyed in the blast, which came as the three leading candidates voiced concerns about possible fraud. Noorullah Shirzada / AFP Photo

Two pressing questions for Afghanistan’s future president

Once in office, the next Afghan president must move fast to address important questions that will decide the immediate future of the country.

 Friday is UN Mine Awareness Day and Omer Hassan, who does demining work in Iraqi Kurdistan, is doing all he can to teach people about the dangers posed by landmines. Louise Redvers for The National

A landmine nearly ended Omer’s life but he now works to end the threat of mines in Iraq

Omer Hassan does demining work in Iraqi Kurdistan and only has to show people his mangled leg to underscore the danger of mines. With the world marking UN Mine Awareness Day on Friday, his work is as important as ever as Iraq is one of the most mine-affected countries in the world.

 Supporters of Turkey's ruling AKP cheer as they follow the election's results in front of the party's headquarters in Ankara on March 30. Adem Altan/ AFP Photo

Erdogan critic fears retaliation if he returns to Turkey

Emre Uslu is a staunch critic of Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Now, with a mass crackdown on opposition expected, he is unsure when he can return home.


To add your event to The National listings, click here

Get the most from The National