Who is Iran’s new president?

Daniel Arkin — NBC June 17, 2013

Thousands of joyous Iranians flooded the streets of Tehran on Saturday night after centrist cleric Hassan Rowhani scored a stunning victory in a closely watched presidential election, winning 50.7 percent of some 36 million votes cast in a six-way race, according to the country’s interior ministry.

But many analysts say it remains to be seen if Rowhani, 64, will usher in a new era of sweeping democratic reforms or if he will capitulate to the hardline conservative doctrines of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei.

“A reform-minded president has been elected, but he still has to survive in a system that existed before the election,” said Geneive Abdo, a fellow at the Stimson Center and Middle East scholar.

Rowhani has been widely characterized as a mild-mannered and moderate counterpoint to outgoing President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, but the international community may not get a complete picture of the president-elect until after he takes office in early August.

Meanwhile, here’s some of what we know about the man who may change the face of Iran:

Background: He was born Nov. 12, 1948 near the northeast province of Semnan. Rowhani’s family reportedly opposed the former Shah of Iran, who was ousted in the Iranian Revolution in 1979. He studied religion at an early age; he took classes taught by leading Shia scholars in his teens.

He’s a lawyer: Rowhani reportedly received his bachelor’s degree in judicial law at the University of Tehran before earning a master’s degree at Glasgow Caledonian University in Scotland, according to Hussein Banai, a scholar and co-author of the book “Becoming Enemies: U.S.-Iran Relations and the Iran-Iraq War.”

He’s a political insider: He launched his political career in the 1960s as an acolyte of Ayatollah Khamenei and, after the shah was overthrown in the Islamic Revolution, played a wide range of key roles in the new republic. Rowhani has a lengthy political CV —including stints as a former commander of the Iranian air defenses, a leader on three war and defense councils, and several terms in parliament.

“He’s been part of the establishment for a very long time,” Banai said, adding that Rowhani has close relationships with the clerical elite as well as political figureheads on both ends of the Iranian ideological spectrum.

Iranian President elect Hassan Rowhani, center, with the grandson of the late Ayatollah Komeini, Hasan, to his right.

Perhaps most prominently, Rowhani served for almost 15 years as a top national security consigliere to the president, according to Trita Parsi, the founder and president of the National Iranian American Council. Rowhani reportedly resigned from his post after clashing with newly elected Ahmadinejad in 2005, but he remained involved in Iran’s foreign affairs.

“One of the things people need to understand is that for a very long time he’s been a national security expert,” Banai said. “He’s a technocrat, in many respects.”

He’s a top-shelf negotiator: During his years as secretary of the Supreme National Security Council, Rowhani was Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator with the West. He earned the nickname “Diplomat Sheikh” — an Arabic honorific that means “elder” — because of the smooth, savvy way in which he handled allies and rivals alike.

“He’s a firm, tough negotiator — but he’s a constructive negotiator,” Parsi said. “I think he’ll be a unifying presence and help to significantly reduce internal quarrels and fights between various political factions.”

Banai said Rowhani is a political natural whose demeanor alone will help start “systemically undoing the public relations damage left by Ahmadinejad.”

“He’s managed to basically have every side think of him as one of their own,” Banai said. “He’s very skilled at listening to people and giving them the impression that he understands them without revealing where he stands.”

He’s an understated guy: Rowhani’s cool temperament offers a stark contrast to that of Ahmadinejad, a political leader partial to inflammatory rhetoric, Banai said.

“He is a very low-key figure,” Abdo said.

Rowhani has a reputation for “not unnecessarily stoking any drama,” Banai said. “He’s kind of a no-drama person.”

He’s a pragmatic moderate: Rowhani is widely seen as an even-handed political thinker who has avoided staking out extreme ideological territory over the course of his career.

“He’s from the center of the political spectrum,” Parsi said, adding that Rowhani rarely articulates radical ideas.

Although Rowhani has been frequently characterized as a moderate, Banai said the term should be used cautiously.

“In an Iranian context, being a moderate means you don’t pick fights with the ruling class and, at the same time, you pander to popular grievances people have about the ruling class.”

Abdo struck a similar chord.

“As Iran has moved to the right, we have redefined what it means to be moderate in Iran,” Abdo said.

He’s promised social reform: Rowhani has vowed to pursue certain liberal reforms that don’t exactly square with the Ayatollah’s stern religious edicts, including loosened restrictions on speech and lessened security on college campuses, according to Abdo. These policies would almost certainly be celebrated by young activists, particularly those involved with the Green Revolution, who have lobbied the government for social reform.

However, Rowhani’s promises may not come to fruition because …

He’s a traditionalist: Rowhani — who campaigned on the slogan “Prudence and Hope” — may talk the democratic talk, but lest we forget: He’s no revolutionary, according to Abdo.

“He believes in the system,” Abdo said.

What’s more, “we should be careful not to over-interpret” Rowhani’s reformist rhetoric, Parsi said.

He’s open to friendlier U.S. relations: There’s no doubt foreign policy officials in Washington will be keeping tabs on Rowhani’s every utterance in the next few months — particularly since the president-elect has signaled he has interest in improving ties with the U.S.

“It is not that Iran has to remain angry with the United States forever and have no relations with them,” Rowhani said in May, according to a state news report. “Under appropriate conditions, where national interests are protected, this situation has to change.”

As former chief nuclear negotiator, Rowhani may be uniquely skilled to reach a compromise with the Obama administration on the issue of Iran’s alleged nuclear program. But ultimately …

He’s beholden to the Ayatollah: Rowhani has publicly criticized Khamenei, and yet generally speaking, he has a “sufficiently good relationship” with the Supreme Leader, according to Parsi. But more importantly, structural changes in Iran — particularly any changes to the country’s weapons stock — don’t happen without the Ayatollah’s approval.

“I don’t think anything is going to change on the nuclear issue,” Abdo said, adding that the Ayatollah is believed to exercise full control over Iran’s alleged nuclear program.

“If you want to be cynical about it,” Abdo added, “Rowhani is … just a smiling face to the West.”

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