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Rouhani comes out fighting | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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File photo of new Iranian president Hassan Rouhani. (AP Photo/Vahid Salemi)

Iran's former nuclear negotiator, Hasan Rohani, a potential front-runner in the presidential race speaks during an electoral rally in Tehran, Iran, Thursday, April 11, 2013 (AP Photo/Vahid Salemi)

Iran’s former nuclear negotiator, Hasan Rohani, a potential front-runner in the presidential race, speaks during an electoral rally in Tehran, Iran, on Thursday, April 11, 2013. (AP Photo/Vahid Salemi)

London, Asharq Al-Awsat—Iranian presidential hopeful Hassan Rouhani, widely seen as the leading moderate candidate, launched a strongly worded attack on incumbent president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his foreign policy in a televised interview yesterday.

In the same interview, he also attributed the array of domestic and foreign crises Iran is experiencing to the incompetence of the current government.

Hassan Rouhani’s comments were broadcast nationwide on Iran’s state television as part of its three weeks of election coverage, prior to the June 14 poll.

Rouhani, Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator from 2003 to 2005, robustly defended his handling of Iran’s nuclear negotiations, saying that he had prevented any UN resolution or sanctions being imposed on Iran. He is currently the representative of Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, on the Supreme National Security Council, having previously served as its secretary for 16 years until 2005, when Ahmadinejad took office.

The disqualification of influential former president Hashemi Rafsanjani, a prominent centrist, has left the votes of many educated and middle class Iranians up for grabs. Rouhani seems to be targeting those segments of Iranian society, who lack other candidates to rally behind.

Rumors are circulating in Tehran that a pact between Rouhani and Mohammad Reza Aref is imminent. Some analysts speculate that Aref, a former vice-president under the reformist president Mohammad Khatami, will drop out of the race and endorse Rouhani, joining his campaign as a likely vice-presidential candidate.

Rouhani’s strong performance in his first national television interview made the headlines in Tehran on Wednesday. Pundits agreed that he came across as composed and confident, and well-informed on Iran’s nuclear and foreign policy.

Rouhani is determined to present himself as a figure who can improve Iran’s image abroad, and as a leader with prudent and sound policies to heal Iran’s increasing economic problems.

Consequently, he criticized “illiterate officials who do not know the difference between a piece of paper and the UN resolutions,” a clear reference to Ahmadinejad’s initial reaction to UN Security Council resolutions obligating Iran to suspend its uranium enrichment as “a worthless piece of paper.”

In response, conservative hardliners have begun to intensify their attack on Rouhani as his support base across the country shows signs of growth.

The hardline conservative daily Kayhan responded angrily to Rouhani’s performance, accusing him and the former presidents Khatami and Rafsanjani of being complacent about Iran’s nuclear program.

As the election campaign continues, Rouhani may be able to build more momentum among moderates and reformists if Khatami and Rafsanjani officially endorse him. In a university meeting, Rouhani has also promised to undo the house arrest imposed on Mir Hussein Mousavi and Mehdi Karrubi, the two most prominent opposition leaders and candidates in the disputed 2009 election.

In contrast, President Ahmadinejad has kept a relatively low profile in recent days despite his previous strong support of Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, a close confidant and formerly a senior aide to the outspoken president, who was disqualified from the race by Iran’s Guardian Council.

Some developments indicate that the outgoing president is shifting his stance in favor of Saeed Jalili, the current head of Iran’s national security council, and the only hardliner on the list of approved candidates.

Over the last few days, some of Ahmadinejad’s ministers have been attending Jalili’s campaign meetings. He has adopted much of the same rhetoric used by Ahmadinejad in the 2005 and 2009 elections, in a bid to re-unite the radical wing of the “principalist” faction that swept Ahmadinejad to power.