“A nuclear weaponized Iran destabilizes the region, prompts a regional arms race, and wastes the scarce resources in the region.” So wrote Hassan Rouhani — then a representative of Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatullah Ali Khamenei and Tehran’s former lead nuclear negotiator — in a letter published by TIME in 2006. Seven years later, Rouhani is now poised to become Iran’s President after securing a surprise victory in the election on June 14. The cleric was considered the sole moderate in a slate of candidates handpicked by the country’s theocratic leadership. Rouhani overcame challenges from hard-line Khamenei loyalists, capturing more than 50% of the vote in an election that saw little of the turbulence and violence that surrounded the still disputed 2009 polls. Attention now centers on how Rouhani will lead Iran forward, specifically with its controversial nuclear program, which has led to rounds of international sanctions that have hobbled the Iranian economy. (My colleague Karl Vick writes here of signs the Islamic Republic is already changing its posture.)
In remarks made this Monday following his election, Rouhani reiterated his moderate bona fides, insisting that his administration would “show more transparency” when it comes to Iran’s nuclear program. Rouhani presents a clear departure from his predecessor, outgoing President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, whose inflammatory rhetoric and bellicose behavior made him a bête noire of the West and eventually a headache for Khamenei as well. On TIME.com in 2006, Rouhani responded to the climate of tensions then with this cautionary note:
What is, then, the motive for the rush to heighten the situation and create a crisis? Could it be that the extremists all around see their interests — however transient, domestic and short-sighted — in heightened tension and crisis? This situation, if not contained with cool head and if miscalculations continue, can easily turn into a crisis with potentially global ramifications for the rule of law under the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and for the economic and security interests of all concerned in the region and beyond. It is high time to cease sensationalism and war mongering, pause and think twice about where we are heading.
His reference to “extremists all around” is not just a jab at saber rattlers in Washington and Israel, but also at more hard-line zealots in his own country. Rouhani’s desire to eschew “sensationalism and war-mongering” is a welcome talking point now as much as it was then. The current sanctions regime has hit Iran’s middle class hard, spiking inflation and deepening unemployment. An easing of those burdens is top on the agenda for Iran’s voting public.
But those expecting a dramatic shifting of course should not hold their breath. Rouhani and the rest of Iran’s political establishment have long maintained Tehran’s stated position that the Islamic Republic has no interest in weaponizing its nuclear program (though many in the West view this claim skeptically). The country’s right to pursue its nuclear-development goals is a nationalist cause that unites Iranians across the political spectrum and, at the same debut presser, Rouhani stuck to his guns, warning against the “bullying” and “unilateral” policies of the U.S. and its allies. As lead nuclear negotiator from 2003 to ’05, Rouhani managed to persuade the Iranian leadership into agreeing to a suspension of uranium enrichment. Things have changed since then, with Iran hawks like Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warning of the dangers of Tehran crossing a “red line” in its nuclear enrichment, which Rouhani now says he won’t consider halting. The U.N.’s nuclear watchdog said last month that Iran has installed hundreds of new centrifuges in the Natanz nuclear facility.
Still, judging by Rouhani’s 2006 appearance in TIME, the world can hope for a calmer, savvier approach from the Iranian President-elect, who recognized the futility of militarizing tensions: “Taking account of [the] U.S. nuclear arsenal and its policy of ensuring a strategic edge for Israel, an Iranian bomb will accord Iran no security dividends.” It remains to be seen what dividends for regional peace Rouhani’s more diplomatic tack may yield.