Who is Hassan Rouhani?

Iran’s President-elect is an insider, a moderate and a mystery.

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BEHROUZ MEHRI/AFP/Getty Images

Iranian president-elect Hassan Rowhani speaks during a press conference in Tehran on June 17, 2013.

When Iranians elected moderate cleric Hassan Rouhani their new president by a landslide on Friday, they surprised Washington and the world. The process of figuring out what his election means has only just begun. Moderate as applied to Iranian mullah politicians is a relative term – even the reformists tip the far conservative end of the political spectrum — but Rouhani’s win represents an opportunity for easing relations between Iran and the West. The country is still led by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, but the Supreme Leader indicated that he would allow Rouhani to engage in direct talks with the U.S., should he so wish.

Rouhani won with more than 50% of the vote, garnering more votes than all five of the hardliner candidates put together. He ran on a platform of moderation and rationality. He called for opening talks with the west, and placing the economy ahead – or at least on par – with the nuclear program as a national priority. And he advocated for the release of political prisoners, including former Iranian presidential candidate Mir-Hossein Mousavi, whose loss four years ago sparked mass protests and a brutal government crack down. Mousavi, a reformist, has been detained in an undisclosed location since. “This victory is the victory of wisdom, moderation and awareness over fanaticism and bad behavior,” Rouhani said in his first speech to the public as president-elect on Sunday.

(PHOTOS: Iranians Cast Vote in an Uneasy Election)

Rouhani is no American patsy. He was one of the original revolutionaries, living in exile in Paris with Iran’s first Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. His loyalty to the Supreme Leader is absolute, or he wouldn’t have been allowed to run. He’s an insider who’s spent decades atop some of Iran’s most important committees. In recent weeks he’s voiced support for Syrian strongman Bashar Assad and in his first press conference as president-elect, he insisted the time has long past for Iran to negotiate on its enrichment of low-grade uranium – that is Iran’s unassailable right. In 2004, as lead negotiator on Iran’s nuclear program, he bragged that he kept the West talking while Iran was importing advanced materials to further the program. “We will go ahead with confidence-building and will endeavor to build up our [nuclear] technical capability,” Rouhani reportedly said at a news conference at the time. “This is our diplomacy: to proceed [in] both directions simultaneously.”

So, who is Hassan Rouhani? Conservative? Reformer? Honest broker? Double dealer? As Iran nears Israel’s red line – when Israel believes it will no longer be possible to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon — and risks a military conflict, Rouhani could potentially be the key to war or peace in the region.

Hassan Rouhani, 64, was born Hassan Feridon in Sorkheh, a city in Iran’s northern Semnan province. His family, he has said on the campaign trail, was anti-Shah and he was sent to a religious seminary in Semnan at the age of 12. A year later he moved to another seminary in Qom, the seat of Iran’s Shia branch of Islam. He took the name Rouhani, which means community of clerics, during his religious studies in the place of his ancient Persian, but non-Muslim, given name Feridon, according to Trita Parsi, founder and president of the National Iranian American Council.

Rouhani studied law at the University of Tehran, graduating in 1972. On the campaign trail he said that the fact that he had to pay for his own schooling gave him character. After graduation, he devoted himself full time to traveling Iran and giving anti-Shah, pro-Khomeini speeches. By 1977, he was forced to leave Iran as his life was in danger. He joined Khomeini in Paris and continued his speaking to student groups in Europe. He returned with Khomeini to Iran after the 1979 revolution and joined the government. He’s risen steadily in the political ranks since.

(MORE: A Glimmer of Hope in Iran’s Nuclear Posture, Even Before Rouhani’s Stunner)

Since the late 1970’s, Rouhani has been hailed as “doctor” in public circles, an honorarium given to many Iranian students who left advanced studies abroad to return home for the revolution. In 1995, Rouhani finally earned a masters degree in philosophy from Glasgow’s Caledonian University for a thesis entitled, “The Islamic legislative power with reference to the Iranian experience” and a PhD from the same school four years later for another thesis entitled, “The Flexibility of Shariah with reference to the Iranian experience.”  He’s said to speak fluent Persian, English and Arabic and some French, German and Russian.

According to his official biography, he spent much of his early governmental years in the defense sector, serving on the Supreme Defense Council before heading the High Council for Supporting War during the Iran/Iraq war. He rose to deputy commander of the war and eventually was appointed deputy commander-in-chief of the Armed Forces in 1988. He turned down the job of intelligence minister in 1989. “This guy really was a child of the revolution,” says Cliff Kupchan, an Iran analyst with the Eurasia Group who met Rouhani at a Persian Gulf security conference organized by an Iranian think tank in the early 2000’s. “There’s a lot of conflating of Hassan with [former Iranian President and reformist] Mohammed Khatami and Mousavi. He’s not. This guy is an insider.”

In 2000, he was elected to the religious body, the Assembly of Experts, which elects the Ayatollah. In 2003 he was named Iran’s top nuclear negotiator, the only cleric before or since to hold that role, earning him the nickname the “sheikh diplomat.” At the time, he had a reputation for having the ear of Khamenei, who appointed him the chief nuclear negotiator. “People don’t realize that he’s the one who convinced Khamenei to stop the clandestine military nuclear program at the end of 2003,” says Francois Nicoullaud, France’s ambassador to Iran at the time. “This makes me optimistic now because I believe that he is a man able to take such an important steps.”

Rouhani resigned as secretary from the Supreme National Security Council when Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was elected President in 2005, and has remained a vocal critic of Ahmadinejad since. In a 2006 letter to TIME, Rouhani argued that “a nuclear weaponized Iran destabilizes the region, prompts a regional arms races, and wastes the scare resources of the region.” During the campaign, Rouhani blamed the current nuclear negotiator and presidential rival Saeed Jailili for being too uncompromising to the West and bringing crippling economic sanctions on Iran. “Ahmadinejad was very aggressive and made some unprecedented statements. Rouhani is not like that,” said Seyed Hossein Mousavian, a close deputy of Rouhani’s who fled Iran in 2007 after Ahmadinejad accused him of spying for the Europeans. Mousavian teaches at Princeton, though he now plans to return to Iran to work for Rouhani in the coming months. “He’s more of a listener. Before he talks he thinks a lot.”

(MORE: Rouhani’s Opposition to the Bomb: The Iranian President-Elect’s 2006 Letter to TIME)

Rouhani married when he was about 20 and had five children. His eldest son was assassinated in his early 20’s at the family’s home on a military base in southern Tehran, according to Mousavian. The young man, who had been training to be a pilot, was shot to death in what the family believes was a politically motivated killing, though the killer has never been found, Mousavian said. For years Rouhani investigated the death, but he ultimately “decided to be silent and not pursue it,” said Mousavian. Rouhani has four other children: one son, who is an engineer and three daughters, one of whom is married, according to his biography.

Rouhani is a workaholic, getting to work at 7am and rarely leaving work before 10pm, Mousavian said, and he’s very “demanding” on his staff. Still, Rouhani manages to slip away two–to-three times a week for walks in the mountains north of Tehran in the Velenjak area, and he regularly swims, Mousavian said. He loves Iranian cinema, traditional Iranian art and his favorite singer is Shajarian, Mousavian said. “Some people say he is reformist others say he’s conservative,” Mousavian said. “But I know him. He’s never been a conservative or a reformist. He’s always been a centrist, not believing the government can be ruled by one faction, either reform or conservative, but using capable managers from both factions.”

America doesn’t expect Iran to open up overnight. “The Supreme Leader holds the nuclear portfolio,” State Department Spokesman Jen Psaki told reporters on Monday. “We have not had expectations leading up to this election that that would change.” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu noted that all of the presidential candidates were hand picked by the Supreme Leader and the West shouldn’t be fooled “into wishful thinking and weaken the pressure on Iran.” That said, White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough said on CBS’s Face the Nation on Sunday that he sees Rouhani’s election as “a potentially hopeful sign.”

For his part, Rouhani said in his first press conference that he would like to sit down with the Americans and work out a deal akin to the one he discussed with the Europeans in 2005. In that proposal, the West would recognize Iran’s right to a civilian nuclear program and allow low grade enrichment and would dismantle the economic sanctions and in return Iran would abide by International Atomic Energy Agency standards and give complete access to inspectors, pledging to never weaponize its uranium. “The Iranian people…will be happy to build trust and repair relations with the United States,” Rouhani said. “Both nations need to think more about the future and try to sit down and find solutions to past issues and rectify things.”

MORE: In Surprise Result, Iran Elects Moderate Presidential Candidate Hassan Rouhani

22 comments
RajaSohaib
RajaSohaib

Russian as they are an old ally of Iran, and both France + Germany have had trading relationships with Iran too, though current nuclear issue complicates things

<a href="www.IRANBRIEFING.COM">Iran Politics</a>

MuhammadKhizirFarooqi
MuhammadKhizirFarooqi

Rouhani said in his first press conference that he would like to sit down with the Americans and work out a deal akin to the one he discussed with the Europeans in 2005. In that proposal, the West would recognize Iran’s right to a civilian nuclear program and allow low grade enrichment and would dismantle the economic sanctions and in return Iran would abide by International Atomic Energy Agency standards and give complete access to inspectors, pledging to never weaponize its uranium. “The Iranian people…will be happy to build trust and repair relations with the United States,” Rouhani said. “Both nations need to think more about the future and try to sit down and find solutions to past issues and rectify things.”

What is wrong in it. Why one should not believe that Rouhani is right. the new ruler is undoubtly moderate and his election is potentially
 hopeful sign. Now Iran is in dire need of friends and wants to come out of solitary living or seclusion . It isproper time for the west to avail rather grab the opportunity. Thus Rouhani could be made a KEY to piece in the regeon.

KoenVanVugt
KoenVanVugt

I think the West needs to extend an open hand to this guy. If what Jay writes is true this is a guy we can work with. He may not be who we would like him to be but at least he comes across as reasonable and open to compromise. Especially compared to the last guy (who's been conspicuously absent from the global stage since the Arab revolution started). Judging from the election result many Iranians are trying to make the best of a bad situation (more than 50% votes for the most reasonable guy available) and we should try to strengthen their hand, instead of punishing the population to isolate the regime.

paulejb
paulejb

In Iran "moderate" means you haven't had anyone killed this week.

ReneDemonteverde
ReneDemonteverde

Who cares ? He will still carry forward what Ahmadinejad started. Just be prepared for more increasing tensions with Iran. Marco Rubio was right. Iran definition of moderation is different from ours. 

jmac
jmac

"He's always been a centrists . . . "  Words of hope, may they ring true.  

notLostInSpace
notLostInSpace

What worries me is that this man is smarter and likely will be more effective than Ahmadinejad (that nut case was hardly gaining friends and influence with any moderate folks).

grape_crush
grape_crush

It's a decent profile. Let's hope that he wants and will be permitted to lead Iran towards a less antagonistic relationship with the West.

factchecker12
factchecker12

Jay,

''He’s said to speak fluent Persian, English, Arabic, French, German and Russian''.

Please check and double check your sources or simply contact Rohoani office. They will be happy to correct you.

Mr Rohani speaks persian (native) and arabic (religious study obligations). English, yes since he had to for studying in scotland, so learning/understanding english with scottish accent is reasonable. 

However, French, German...Russian???!!!  Why as a journalist, make such a ludicrous statement!! It is an over sell and who know what the motivations are? simply to sell this guy as the saviour or just taking it to be so intelligent so that a future deal failure will not be blamed on him or opposite he will be pointed as intelligent but the regim ein iran is so radical that even intelligent men are radicale and uncompromising.

In any case, please check your facts. 



deconstructiva
deconstructiva

Thanks, Jay. Will YOU get an early breaking interview with Rowhani? Since you've been to Iran, maybe you'll get a chance? Or if he travels soon, like to Turkey or elsewhere, you can catch him for a few questions on the street or over a McDonalds meal or Starbucks coffee if he comes to the US soon for a UN session.

jmac
jmac

@ReneDemonteverde Odd that you should bring up Rubio in terms of the word moderation.  The man can't even vote for his own immigration plan.  Nothing moderate about his party.  Yet we still quote Rubio and hope to work with him.  Now that Boehner has yet again invoked the Hastert Rule on immigration - well, so much for moderation from the Hatchet Party.  

yogi
yogi

Haha, is it bad that I read that as "He's the Joe Klein of Iran"?

cent-fan
cent-fan

[America doesn’t expect Iran to open up overnight. “The Supreme Leader holds the nuclear portfolio,” State Department Spokesman Jen Psaki told reporters on Monday. “We have not had expectations leading up to this election that that would change.”]

Like NPR reported, as quoted from at least one Iranian candidate, this election has nothing to do with giving anyone power in Iran.  It has to do with bringing the Iranian in the street into a process that makes them feel like they have some say.  They don't, but they feel better, and that means the real Iranian leadership doesn't have to worry about annoying things like protests.

I'm sure Rowhani will sound reasonable to the West and to most Iranians all the while the Iranian leadership will do whatever they planned to do... they'll just have better cover doing it.

nomessing
nomessing

@factchecker12 didn't you read that the guy was an exile in Paris? so it is expected he speaks French, the article says he SPEAKS SOME French, Russian and German not that he is fluent at them

deconstructiva
deconstructiva

FC, do you have proof Jay is wrong? Links please. It makes sense to learn Russian as they are an old ally of Iran, and both France + Germany have had trading relationships with Iran too, though current nuclear issue complicates things. But when YOU come marching in here and start slamming people (including reporters) without evidence on your side, you don't look so good ...unless you just want to troll. So which is it?

notLostInSpace
notLostInSpace

@ReneDemonteverde @notLostInSpace    Insults are always fun, but what is your basis for implying our Dear Leader is not smart?  (I'm taking a leap and assuming you refer to BO).  There is absolutely no evidence that BO isn't anything if not highly intelligent.  Perhaps you don't agree with policy or you don't like blacks, or you don't like Michelle or the kids (you could be one of those who are just haters like Rush Limbaugh), but what is your evidence?  Disagreeing on policy is not evidence.  Surely you'd agree he's "smarter" than W, who could barely put a unrehearsed sentence together?  Now there was one dumb fella.  I don't agree with BO too much, but saying he is not smart is like saying the Green Monster in Fenway is not green.

notLostInSpace
notLostInSpace

@deconstructiva  The article says "He's said to speak...." which means ultimately that the author is uncertain.   May not be easy to confirm one way or another.  Or perhaps not worth confirming one way or another?  factchecker12 seemed to jump at it like it was written as fact despite actually quoting the "He's said to speak" part.

notLostInSpace
notLostInSpace

@ReneDemonteverde @notLostInSpace wow, you are exceptionally good at making 5hit up.     You say I said he was "smartest of them all".  Really, where?  Smart he is, but smartest of all I don't know, make no claims.  You really think he thinks the US has 50 states, a constitutional law professor?   You think his degrees are bogus?  How long might that sinister bold deception last?  I think about three minutes before some ex employee of the universities or ex student colleague or professor who failed him might break silence.   BO might not want you to see his grades.  He graduated; for most of us who went to grad school that is what is important.  But more than anything he knows it is a red herring; the right wing must and will have some conspiracy thing to work on, so he is playing you.   You must have been so upset when he finally, after a barrage of this kind of nonsense released the full birth certificate.   You need to go back to your club with Rush and that woman from Minnesota and don't forget Trump to find more idiocy.  Cute dog in your picture.   Oh, and I think he does just fine with the teleprompter, something I could not say for either Bush or Ronnie Raygun, all three had trouble with basic words like "nuclear", or staying awake.

ReneDemonteverde
ReneDemonteverde

@notLostInSpace @ReneDemonteverde You must be lost in space if you agree that if Dear Leader robots claim him to be the smartest President of them all, the least he or they can do is present his academic records. When a man is claimed to be smart he should show his records to prove it. Not seal it from others. Presumed me to not like blacks ? You mean not to criticize Obama as one would criticize Dubya`s every decision because Obama is black ? Obama cannot even give a decent speech without his teleprompter. He does not even know that there are 57 states, not 50. Go find somebody that can tolerate your stupidity.