Dr. Hassan Rouhani is the seventh President of the Islamic Republic of Iran. He has been a Representative of the Supreme Leader to the Supreme National Security Council, a Member of the Expediency Council, and a Member of the Assembly of Experts. He took office on August 4, 2013, succeeding Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Previously, Rouhani served as Iran’s nuclear negotiator to Europe and agreed to suspend uranium-enriched testing from 2003 – 2005. He resigned after Ahmadinejad’s 2005 election victory, and was criticized for being too accommodating in his negotiations. Tensions with Western nations increased during Ahmadinejad’s two terms, with the U.S. and Europe publicly questioning the intent of Iran’s nuclear program.

Rouhani, viewed as a moderate politician, vowed to revive Iran’s image after winning the recent election, and said, “My government will be one of prudence and hope and my message is about saving the economy, reviving ethics and interaction with the world.”

On September 26, 2013, Dr. Rouhani participated in a live video webcast in New York City hosted by the Asia Society. Throughout the hour and a half discussion, Rouhani reiterated his country has no plans to develop nuclear weapons and said it is vital to reach a compromise with Europe and the United States. Iran’s new leader has not met President Obama to date.

According to the Energy Information Association (EIA), Iran holds the world’s fourth largest amount of proven oil reserves and the world’s second-largest natural gas reserves. Despite Iran’s vast hydrocarbon resources, the country has suffered under sanctions imposed by the United States and Europe. The measures, aimed at crippling Iran’s economy, were enacted in 2011 after disagreements on Iran’s nuclear issues reached a boiling point.

As a result, several foreign investment companies canceled drilling projects, and 2012 oil exports declined 39% compared to its 2011 total (1.53 MMBOPD from 2.51 MMBOPD). The unemployment rate climbed to an estimated 15.5%, according to the Iran government.

Estimates of Iran’s Average Exports of Crude Oil and Condensate (MMBOPD)

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In the webcast, Dr. Rouhani acknowledged past hardships between Iran and United States, but encouraged the two sides to move forward. “No country by itself could ever effectively address the challenges it faces… We are seeking to improve our bilateral and multilateral relations with the United States and Europe by removing tensions and hurdles, developing relations, and improving our economic system. We must avoid new tension, and while we may not forget about our past distrust, we must move on from our turbulent past and focus on the path ahead.”

The previous administration under Ahmadinejad created a testy rapport with the U.S. and Europe, and led for the latter countries to take action. Sanctions targeted Iran’s petroleum exports and imports, prohibited large-scale investment in the country’s oil and gas sector, and cut off Iran’s access to European and U.S. sources of financial transactions.

Further measures were implemented against institutions targeting the Central Bank of Iran, while Europe imposed an embargo on Iranian oil and banned European Protection and Indemnity Clubs from providing Iranian oil carriers with insurance and reinsurance. The implementation of insurance-related sanctions was a particularly effective sanction in stymieing Iranian exports, which affected not only European importers, but also Iran’s Asian customers who were forced to temporarily halt imports.

Iran responded to the sanctions by attempting to cut off access to the Strait of Hormuz, located in the Persian Gulf. According to 2011 EIA closing numbers, 17 MMBOPD passed through the strait, more than everywhere else in the world combined. The closest strait to Hormuz’s flow is the Suez Canal, which transports only 3.8 MMBOPD. President Ahmadinejad threatened to blockade the strait, and the U.S. and Europe responded by sending warships to ensure the strait’s availability would not be disrupted. The issue is still a very sensitive subject for all countries involved.

“It is important that Iran’s security is preserved,” said Rouhani, when asked about the rifts over the strait. “We have our rights, but our forces need to be coordinated with our neighbors on the political side. We have no formal connections at this time but we hope to come to an agreement.”

Rouhani, a scholar and avid reader, added he is finishing up a book on an appropriate balance between foreign policy and national security. Rouhani has published 16 books to date, including four on national security. He expects his latest work to be published in 2014.

Dr. Rouhani said he and the government are already formulating plans to revive the private sector and decrease unemployment. “We have many bright, young economists, and we want to build a private sector-friendly environment,” he said. “We are already developing a 100-day plan to provide facilities to help our economy, and are developing a four-year plan for our private sector. We are indebted to it and need to develop it.”

The bottom line to a peaceful relationship between Iran and the world falls back to Iran’s nuclear program. Throughout the discussion, Rouhani emphasized the transparency, accuracy, and honesty of his country’s program, and encouraged listeners to check EIA’s web site. “Accusations that we pursued materials for a nuclear bomb are baseless and utterly false. The pursuit of nuclear weapons is detrimental and would undermine national security interests. But we have chosen to use nuclear technology. It is our right. But we have always cooperated with the EIA and they have never accused us of any wrongdoing.”

Despite the checkered history between outside countries, Rouhani expressed optimism at soothing tensions. “I feel like a new era has been created, a new atmosphere for engagement with the world.”

In terms of reaching an agreement with the United States and Europe, he said, “The sooner the better if we can come to an agreement. We must build trust. I want to end this standoff in my campaign.”

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