Middle East

The low-budget biopic riling Iran's president

Hassan Rouhani (file photo) Image copyright Reuters
Image caption There is speculation that I am Rouhani has been made to discredit the president

A new low-budget film is causing a big headache for Iranian President Hassan Rouhani.

I am Rouhani is an hour-long documentary telling the story of the president's life.

The film was produced by Shafagh Multimedia Group, a company close to the powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), which has been critical of Mr Rouhani's reform programme and rapprochement with the West.

It was made earlier this year and has been distributed on free DVDs all around the country as well as being screened in some universities.

But this week two further screenings were cancelled after the speaker of parliament Ali Larijani denounced the film as "a big lie".

The president has also indicated that he is not happy.

One reason for all the fuss is that the film delves into episodes in Mr Rouhani's past which cast doubt on his credentials as a moderate.

It says he was one of the first clerics to compel Iranian women to cover their heads after the 1979 revolution.

It also claims he ordered the brutal crackdown on student protests in 1999, when he was secretary of the National Security Council.

The film also provides an uncomfortable reminder that at one time, Mr Rouhani and former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad actually belonged to the same conservative political camp.

For the millions of young Iranians hoping for change who helped sweep Mr Rouhani to power in the 2013 election, this is all likely to take the shine off his image.

The film's director Masoumeh Nabavi says many of those who voted for Mr Rouhani last year did not know much about him.

Her documentary, she says, is an honest attempt to dispel misconceptions and shed some much needed light on the president's background.

"Hassan Rouhani is a revolutionary character representing the inner circle of the system," she told Mehr news agency. "He played important roles in many key events after the Revolution."

'Key' moments

During the election campaign Mr Rouhani chose a key as his symbol. He promised to open long-locked doors, most importantly of all in Iran's nuclear standoff with the West.

Just a few months after his election he managed to speak on the phone with President Obama, the first direct conversation between the leaders of the two estranged countries since the Tehran hostage crisis more than three decades ago.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Iranian hardliners fear Rouhani is leading Iran in the wrong direction

For his supporters this was a breakthrough. But for his critics it was a sign he was deviating from the revolution and trying to set up secret back-channel communications with the West.

The new documentary takes a similar line, portraying Mr Rouhani as a pro-Western figure, even in the early days of the revolution.

It emphasises that he studied in the UK and implies this makes him more sympathetic to the West.

The documentary also claims that Mr Rouhani was involved in the Iran-Contra affair when US President Ronald Reagan's former National Security Adviser Robert MacFarlane came to Tehran in 1986 for secret talks on arms supplies.

The film alleges that Mr Rouhani was one of just three Iranian officials who met Mr McFarlane.

"McFarlane kept his name and position secret until his arrival in Tehran," the film explains. "He requested a meeting with Iran's then President, [Ali Khamenei] in order to pass on the US president's message, but the president rejected his request. Then the speaker of parliament asked Rouhani, who was an active MP, to get involved in co-operation [with the US officials.]'

The film reminds viewers that Mr McFarlane was the first to use a key as a symbol, taking a key-shaped cake to Iran to symbolise an anticipated diplomatic opening.

Influential backers?

I am Rouhani contains no new interviews and is largely made up of footage lifted from other outlets, including the BBC.

The producers of the film claim they are students, but some believe influential people are behind the film and its wide distribution.

"Everybody has the right to criticise but they are not allowed to spend people's money to undermine an elected government," President Rouhani said on Wednesday in a speech which was interpreted as his first public reaction to the film.

"I ask my critics to reveal their real identity and don't pretend they represent the nation," he said.

The content of the film might make Rouhani and his government uncomfortable for a while, but his main worry is much bigger.

I am Rouhani shows there are interest groups in Iran with both power and money who are determined to undermine his government.

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