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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.
Ukraine -- Pro-russian activists rally in Lugansk, 29Apr2014
Ali has a message for dissidents and oppositionists who are considering returning to Iran.

Don't even think about it.

The journalist, and many others on the wrong side of the authorities, fled the country following the broad crackdown on dissent that followed Mahmud Ahmadinejad's contentious reelection as president in 2009.

When the subsequent election in August 2013 brought the relatively moderate Hassan Rohani to power, Ali took the opportunity to return.

But while the political atmosphere has opened up in the Islamic republic under Rohani, it apparently is not enough to shield returnees from harassment, or worse.

Some, like Ali, who declined to give his real name, have been subjected to hours of interrogation. Others have been arrested for their role in the postelection unrest in 2009.

Even if Rohani is in a welcoming mood, it seems, Iran's hard-liner are not.

"The Revolutionary Guards and the prosecutor's office are in charge," Ali says, and "they're very much against the return of dissidents."

"The Foreign Ministry and the Intelligence Ministry," he adds, "don't have a say in this."

Open Door Policy

Speaking in New York in September to a group of Iranian-Americans, Rohani said no one had the right to deprive Iranians from visiting their homeland.

"Iranians are the owners of Iran," he said. "Iran belongs to all Iranians."

Ali describes his life in exile as a "nightmare," and says he was "prepared to go to jail for a year or so, if that's what it takes for me to able to live in Iran."

Now he says he "could end up regretting my decision," because "it seems the Revolutionary Guards are getting ready to give me a six-year prison sentence."

Ali says he's gone through tens of hours of intensive interrogations, mainly by the intelligence office of the powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC).

Another journalist, Hossein Nouraninejad, who is a member of the reformist Mosharekat party and was jailed amid the 2009 unrest, also ran into trouble upon returning to Tehran.

Nouraninejad was arrested on April 21, about a month after flying home from Australia, where he had been studying, to resume life with his wife and infant son.

Nouraninejad's wife, Parastou Sarmadi, told the semi-official ILNA news agency that her husband had been transferred to a section of Iran's notorious Evin prison that is said to be controlled by the intelligence branch of the IRGC.

Authorities have not given a reason for his arrest, which is likely to have a chilling effect on others who are considering a return to their country.

"I think he was testing the waters," says a journalist who had been in touch with Nouraninejad over the past few months.

In interviews with RFE/RL, two other dissidents who have been considering returning home said Intelligence and Judiciary officials have advised them, through their relatives in Iran, to stay where they are.

"They said if I return, I would be arrested," says a Europe-based activist, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

No Troublemakers Allowed

Highlighting the danger, Judiciary spokesman Mohseni Ejei said on April 28 that four members of the "sedition" -- a term commonly used to describe those in the opposition -- had been put on trial in absentia. He added that some members of the "sedition" who are currently inside the country have banned from traveling outside. He didn't provide any names or more details about the cases.

Arjen de Wolff, executive director of the Amsterdam based Radio Zamaneh, says the message is clear: "They're signaling to [dissidents] outside the country to think twice before they come back."

"I think [the hard-liners] are worried that, now that Rohani is in power and people they don't want back [are back], activities they don't want to see happening are picking up."

It is unclear just how many Iranian dissidents have returned to Iran since Rohani took power in August. De Wolff says he's familiar with four cases, and in each case they were detained and interrogated by the IRGC, and their passports confiscated.

De Wolff believes there could be many more such cases that have not been reported.

Reza Moini, a spokesman with the French media watchdog Reporters Without Borders, says Iranian officials don't want opposition members or critics of the establishment to return.

"When they say Iranians should return home, they mean investors, rich people, and those who are in contact with the Islamic establishment and those who can work in the interests of the regime," he said.
Radio Farda broadcaster Roozbeh Bolhari contributed to this report

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Persian Letters is a blog that offers a window into Iranian politics and society. Written primarily by Golnaz Esfandiari, Persian Letters brings you under-reported stories, insight and analysis, as well as guest Iranian bloggers -- from clerics, anarchists, feminists, Basij members, to bus drivers.

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