WASHINGTON – Former national security adviser, former nuclear negotiator, a decades-old friendship with the supreme leader – Hassan Rohani is as Iranian establishment as it gets.
Which is why, some Iran watchers say, he may be an invaluable asset in the quest to reduce tensions between the Islamic Republic and the United States.
In his first remarks following his election to the Iranian presidency last week, Rohani sustained the moderate image that helped sweep him into office with more than 50 percent of the vote, obviating the need for a runoff against one of the other five candidates.
Rohani, 64, described Iran’s parlous relationship with the United States as “an old wound which must be healed,” according to The New York Times translation of his news conference on Monday, while also defending Iran’s “inalienable rights” to enrich uranium. He intimated, however, that he was willing to make the country’s nuclear program more transparent.
Skeptics were not impressed.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Rohani did not present a change from Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, his predecessor who was notorious for anti-Semitic rantings, Holocaust denial and oft-repeated wish that Israel would one day disappear.
Both men, Netanyahu said, emerged from a small pool of candidates selected by a council that answers to Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khameini.
“Among those whose candidacies [Khameini] allowed was elected the candidate who was seen as less identified with the regime, who still defines the state of Israel as ‘the great Zionist Satan,’ ” Netanyahu said Sunday.
The Obama administration also expressed skepticism, though unlike Netanyahu, it held out hope that Rohani’s moderated rhetoric represented an opening.
Rohani was born in northern Iran to a religious family that sent him to seminary when he was 12. He went on to earn advanced law degrees at Glasgow Caledonian University and to publish two books in English on Islamic jurisprudence. Until his election he was the managing editor of two scholarly foreign affairs periodicals, in English and in Farsi.
For much of his career, Rohani has been deeply embedded in Iran’s corridors of power. Ten of the sixteen entries under “professional experience” in his English-language biography posted on the website of the think tank he has led since 1992, the Center for Strategic Research, detail his security establishment credentials.
Rohani served two stints as national security adviser, from 1989 to 1997 and 2000 to 2005, and was Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator from 2003 to 2005.
During his mid-2000s ascent under the reform-minded President Mohammad Khatami, Western diplomats speculated that Rohani was being groomed for the presidency, noting both his facility for engagement with the West and ties to the conservative establishment and the supreme leader. Rohani is fluent in English, along with several other Western languages, and has an active presence on Twitter.
Western diplomats who led nuclear talks with Rohani in the mid-2000s told reporters at the time that they saw Rohani as someone coming to the table ready to forge deals. It was during Rohani’s term as chief nuclear negotiator that Iran suspended its enrichment of uranium, although talks ultimately foundered over the extent of the Iranian suspension.
Rohani no longer favors such a suspension, but has suggested he is ready to make Iran’s nuclear program more transparent as a means of lifting Iran’s isolation.
“The best way to characterize Rohani is that he realizes the extent of the crisis facing the Iranian regime due to multiple reasons, but also because of the nuclear program and sanctions,” said Alireza Nader, an Iran policy analyst at the Rand Corp., a think tank with close ties to the Pentagon. “Rohani is not someone who believes Iran must sacrifice everything for resistance.”
Skeptics emphasized Rohani’s establishment ties, which according to the Times date to 1967, when he met and befriended Khameini on a long train ride.
Khameini, as many have noted, remains the ultimate power in Iran. But Nader said Rohani’s establishment past and the swell of moderates who carried him into office over hardline regime favorites such as Saeed Jalili, also a former nuclear negotiator, could position him as a bridge between the two camps.