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Documenting Rohani: Is New Mystery Film Fact Or Fiction?

Iranian President Hassan Rohani (file photo)
A peacemaker eager to make nice with a mortal enemy, Iraq, during wartime. A dealmaker willing to help free American hostages in exchange for the Great Satan's weapons. A negotiator who mistakenly suspended Iran's nuclear program in an effort to appease the Europeans.

Is this the true, unadulterated history of Hassan Rohani's political career? Or is this a distorted account of the Iranian president's past, one intended to smear him and portray him as a closet hard-liner?

Rose-Colored Glasses

"I Am Rohani," a documentary recently released in Iran, tracks Hassan Rohani's achievements in the 1980s and 1990s. Its producers purport to offer an objective picture of Rohani, "without factional glasses," to a wider audience.

"We felt many don't know the president and this could lead to misunderstandings," the director of the documentary, Massumeh Nabavi, said in an April 27 interview with the semi-official Mehr news agency.

But the origins of the documentary, which was produced by the little-known "Shafagh multimedia group," and reports that it was distributed by companies said to be associated with the powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) raise questions about its true intent.

According to Rohani's supporters, the documentary distorts historical facts and spreads lies about the Iranian president.

Writing in the April 28 issue of the "Etemad" daily, Tehran-based political analyst and university professor Sadedgh Zibakalam said the documentary revealed the "moral collapse" of those opposed to Rohani. "One of the most basic methods of distortion is to narrate a story without a preface and a postscript or without giving [context]," Zibakalam wrote.

The documentary portrays Rohani as a hard-line revolutionary who later became a pragmatic politician ready to make compromises with the enemies of the Islamic republic. He is also depicted as someone who disregarded the views of the founder of the Islamic republic, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.

It appears to aim to turn Rohani's supporters -- conservative and more liberal alike -- against him.

"I Am Rohani" premiered last month at a screening at Tehran University. In recent days, reports say CDs of the documentary have been widely distributed and copies have been posted online.

It claims that former President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, then parliament speaker, asked Rohani, then a foreign-affairs adviser to the Iranian government, to participate in talks with U.S. President Ronald Reagan's national-security adviser, John McFarlane.

Those talks were at the center of what became known in the United States as the "Iran-Contra" affair. The scandal saw the United States sell weapons to Iran in the mid-80s -- in circumvention of an arms embargo -- in exchange for Tehran's assistance in trying to free U.S. hostages in Lebanon. The proceeds from the sales were then diverted to the Contra rebels fighting Nicaragua's Socialist government.

That covert talks involving Iranian officials with McFarlane and National Security Council staffers such as Oliver North took place is well-documented, and Rohani's participation has been suggested before.

But Iran's parliament speaker, Ali Larijani, responded harshly to the allegation made in the recent film, saying on April 27: "They've accused the president of having been involved in the MacFarlane affair. That is a lie."

Larijani went on to say that those present in Iran at that time are aware that Rohani played no role in the talks. He said individuals involved in the affair were known to everyone.

"Do you also want to lie to history?" he asked, apparently addressing the producers of "I Am Rohani."

Enemy Is His Friend

The documentary also claims that during the war -- contrary to Khomeini, who staunchly opposed cease-fire efforts, Rohani was secretly trying to make peace with Iraq.

It also portrays Rohani, who has presented himself as a moderate since taking office in 2013, as a conservative who played a role in making it obligatory for women working in the army to wear the hijab.

The narrator quotes Rohani as saying that he stood firm on the issue despite complaints by some of the women working for the army's agencies.

The documentary also claims that Rohani, as the secretary of Iran's Supreme National Security Council, ordered the infamous Basij militia to put an end to student demonstrations in 1999. It also says that Rohani's speech to a gathering of government supporters, on July 14, 1999, was key to ending the protests.

"This important speech by the future president of Iran, which has been mysteriously deleted from the country's archives, demonstrated the unity of the establishment with the nation in rejecting any sedition," the narrator says.

The documentary also addresses other key moments of Rohani's career, including his tenure as Iran's chief nuclear negotiator under former reformist President Mohammad Khatami. In that capacity, Rohani worked out a deal with EU countries in 2003 under which Tehran temporarily ended its uranium-enrichment program.

The narrator says Iran later realized that it had made a "mistake."

"But it was a little late. Iran's nuclear activities were suspended for 21 months, and even that voluntary suspension did not prevent a resolution by the [International Atomic Energy Agency's] Board of Governors."

Rohani has not directly reacted to the hourlong documentary. An "informed source" with Rohani's office, however, has been quoted by Iranian media as saying that some parts of the documentary were "incorrect."

In a live interview on April 29 with Iranian state television, Rohani said those who don't want him to succeed are spreading lies and rumors to divert the government from its path.

"We welcome constructive criticism," he said, adding that spreading lies works against Iran's national interests. Rohani refused to elaborate.

"I don't see a need now [to explain]. I said that because many friends asked me, through text messages, telephone calls, and messages, to respond tonight to those spreading rumors and those engaged in tarnishing [the government]," he said.

Since he took office, Iran's hard-liners have accused Rohani of giving in to Western pressure and of pursuing liberal cultural policies.
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    Golnaz Esfandiari

    Golnaz Esfandiari is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL focusing on Iran. She has reported from Afghanistan and Haiti and is one of the authors of The Farda Briefing newsletter. Her work has been cited by The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and other major publications. Born and raised in Tehran, she is fluent in Persian, French, English, and Czech.