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Hassan Rohani: What it means to be a centrist in Iran

Iranian President-elect Hassan Rohani has the insider credentials needed for regime credibility and the reformist tendencies that could allow him to heal the rift with the US.

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Iranian President-elect Hassan Rohani speaks with the media during a news conference in Tehran June 17, 2013.

Majid Hagdost, Fars News/REUTERS

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Just days after scoring a stunning election victory in Iran, President-elect Hassan Rohani posted a photograph to Twitter of himself visiting an American field hospital that had been set up in Iran in 2003, part of an emergency global relief effort after the earthquake in Bam, Iran.

It was an unmistakable signal from the centrist candidate who defeated a slate of conservatives with promises of ending “extremism” in Iranian politics: Expect a bold pragmatism – buoyed by a popular mandate – that will improve ties with the United States, ease nuclear tensions, and ensure more freedoms at home.

But who is Hassan Rohani, a multilingual cleric and regime insider with degrees from a university in Scotland, who – with 50.71 percent of the vote and a first-round win – has assumed control of the middle ground in a long-divided Iran?

After decades of serving the ideals of Iran’s Islamic Revolution, Rohani is both trusted by the conservative supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and supported by reformists who voted for change June 14. His victory sparked scenes of ecstatic celebration. Even key conservatives are suddenly declaring it possible, despite Iran’s vicious political divide, to be both a reformist and “principalist.”

“There’s a power shift from extreme right or left for the center, and [Rohani is] a mullah who has the trust and the ear of the leader, [as well as] a very good working relationship with people on the left,” says a veteran analyst in Tehran who asked not to be named. “So perhaps after a long, long time, we have a situation in which a single man can represent the largest part of the political spectrum of Iran. It’s a golden opportunity if it’s not wasted.”

Mixed signals 

The 64-year-old Rohani has key insider credentials. Born in the town of Sorkheh east of Tehran, he began religious studies when he was 12 years old. In the mid-1960s, he began giving speeches against the pro-West shah and was arrested many times by the Shah’s security forces. He met fellow revolutionary Mr. Khamenei on a train in 1967.

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According to his memoirs, in the late 1960s Rohani sneaked into Iraq to see the founder of Iran’s revolution, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, in exile in Najaf. He was by his side during critical pre-revolution days in Paris. Rohani is “a wheeler-dealer and strategic thinker in the politics of Iran,” but the fact that he studied law at Tehran University is telling, says Farideh Farhi, an Iran specialist at the University of Hawaii. 

“He was admitted to the toughest university in Tehran before the revolution – that’s when the law school had not turned religious,” Ms. Farhi explains. The same law school produced Nobel Peace laureate Shirin Ebadi. “So one cannot doubt, given the competitiveness of that process, that he’s actually a rather smart guy.”

After the revolution, Rohani was elected to parliament several times. He also held top posts throughout the 1980s Iran-Iraq War and spoke during Friday prayers at Tehran University, extolling the virtues of “defense and jihad.” Fighting for life and land was sacred, Rohani preached: “But if defense takes the form of preserving religion, that defense is more sacred than anything.”

Later, Rohani earned higher degrees from Glasgow Caledonian University in Scotland. He wrote a PhD thesis titled “The Flexibility of shariah (Islamic law) with reference to the Iranian experience.”

Rohani served as Khamenei’s chosen representative to Iran’s Supreme National Security Council for 16 years. A decade ago, under reformist President Mohammad Khatami, he served as Iran’s top nuclear negotiator, working out a deal with European leaders to temporarily suspend uranium enrichment, which conservative critics later lambasted as “weak.” 

During that time, in March 2004, Rohani gave a handwritten message to Mohamed ElBaradei, the head of the United Nations nuclear watchdog, who handed it directly to US President George W. Bush, as Rohani requested.

The letter, on a single sheet of paper without letterhead or signature, said that “Iran was ready to enter into dialogue with the United States on all issues, including both Iran’s nuclear program and broader matters of regional security,” and to pursue “full normalization of relations,” according to Mr. ElBaradei’s memoir.

Rohani’s letter was Iran’s second approach to the White House. The first, a more expansive offer to talk, was faxed to Washington shortly after the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003. It came a few months after Rohani was photographed with the American earthquake crews in Bam.

Neither received a response.

A 'perfect realist'

In his first press conference after the vote, Rohani spoke of the need to heal the “very old wound” of US-Iran estrangement. “Wisdom tells us both countries need to think more about the future,” he said.

Rohani said Iran was open to US talks, but laid down preconditions. Several months ago Khamenei – who makes all final decisions of state – ruled out direct negotiations while the US subjected Tehran to sanctions and covert pressure that Khamenei likened to “pointing the gun at Iran.” 

But analysts note a shift is widely expected after nearly 72 percent of Iranians turned up at the polls and elected a centrist. The job won’t be easy: Rohani inherits an economy staggering under sanctions and mismanagement, a nation made a pariah over its nuclear program and anti-Holocaust rhetoric, and a population with little to cheer about.

“Rohani’s a perfect realist,” says an Iranian political scientist in Washington who asked not to be further identified. “Despite the fact he has open-minded and reformist orientations in both domestic and foreign policy, he knows how to deal with the clerical establishment and the supreme leader and his office; he knows the inner workings of the system.

“The country has come through such a traumatic period the last eight years, and worsening of the situation, that expectations are much lower right now,” he adds. “But there is a conscious effort by the establishment to give him a little more flexibility and room to maneuver ... he has public momentum right now.”

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