Since his surprising win in Iran’s presidential election in June, Hassan Rouhani, who was inaugurated on Sunday, has been the subject of intense debate in the Washington policy community: Is he, or isn’t he, a moderate? Much ink has been spilled over the question. In fact, just days before his inauguration, Iranian media misquoted Rouhani, reporting that he called for the removal of Israel. Seized upon by American and Israeli hawks, these words were used to support their suspicion that the new president will merely follow in the footsteps of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad—but within 24 hours, their assertions were debunked when members of the Iranian and international media revealed that Rouhani had indeed been misquoted.
Rouhani can be described as a moderate only in the relative sense that he was the most moderate choice available to Iranian voters; Iran’s Guardian Council, the unelected body that determines candidates’ fitness to run based on their allegiance to the Islamic Republic, rejected the more reformist candidates. But Iranian reformists threw their support behind Rouhani, the longtime regime stalwart who was part of revolutionary leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s entourage while in exile. In fact, former President Mohammad Khatami, a leader of Iran’s reform movement, even asked reformist Mohammad Reza Aref to withdraw from the race so as not to split the reformists’ vote.The above excerpt was originally published in Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.