As Iranians responded to the victory of the cleric Hasan Rowhani in the country’s presidential race over the weekend by erupting into street parties not seen in many years, it almost seemed as if some sort of reformist revolution could be underway.
Across the country, drivers honked horns, men danced to pop music and women clapped, celebrating Rowhani’s campaign pledges to bring more freedom and better relations with the outside world.
But Rowhani, 64, is no renegade reformist, voted in while Iran’s leaders were not paying attention. Instead, his political life has been spent at the center of Iran’s conservative establishment, from well before Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini led the Islamic Revolution in the 1970s. And analysts say that Rowhani’s first priority will be mediating the disturbed relationship between that leadership and Iran’s citizens, not carrying out major change.
Even his nickname — “the diplomat sheik” — is testament to his role as a pragmatist seeking conciliation for the Islamic leadership. Whether in dealing with protesting students, the aftermath of devastating earthquakes or, in his stint as nuclear negotiator, working to ease international pressure as Iran moved forward with its nuclear program, Rowhani has worked to find practical ways to help advance the leadership’s goals.
Though he is widely seen as a cautious realist, his first leap into Iran’s inner circle as a young man was rooted in risk. In one of his memoirs, Rowhani describes a perilous journey he took as an 18-year-old seminary student, sneaking across the border into Iraq to meet Khomeini in exile.
At one point, he recounts, a smuggler told him to immediately take off his turban, in order to be less visible inside their car. More dogmatic Shiite Muslim clerics would have ignored such a request, but the young Rowhani did not hesitate and quickly removed his white turban.
“We arrived safely, and that is what mattered,” Rowhani wrote.
In the memoir, he argues that ideology must never stand in the way of advancement. In 1979, during the last months of Khomeini’s exile, Rowhani was part of his entourage in France. “There some people spread leaflets saying Iran must stop buying weapons from the United States, in order not to support their weapons industry,” Rowhani wrote. “But I argued that we must not deprive ourselves of modern weapon technology just because it is American.”
While the Iranian leadership considers Islam the basis for all policy, Rowhani comes from a wing of the clerical establishment that finds Islam to be a more dynamic than rigid code. The thesis he wrote to obtain his doctorate in constitutional law in 1997 from Glasgow Caledonian University in Britain, according to his personal website, was on “the flexibility of Shariah; Islamic law.”
His own pragmatic flexibility in the face of ideology was on display in 2003, when Rowhani visited the earthquake struck-region of Bam while serving as secretary of the Supreme National Security Council. Despite the tensions with the U.S., Iran had allowed Americans to set up an emergency hospital and Rowhani made it a point to visit it and take photographs with US doctors.
His memoirs and several other books describe a life as an integral part of the fabric of Iran’s political establishment, forming friendships at an early age with other clerics bound for positions of power and influence within the Islamic republic.
Rowhani has described a train journey in 1967 that only in hindsight would seem momentous. Along that trip, he befriended a fellow Shiite cleric who is now the influential head of the office of the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Khomeini’s successor. Also on that train was a cleric who would turn out to become the national prosecutor. Another influential friend from the pre-revolution years was Hashemi Rafsanjani, a former president whose endorsement helped ease Rowhani’s road to the presidency.
It is a snapshot in the life of a man set to become an insider in Iran’s small circle of power.
Because of his dedication to political Islam and influential connections, Rowhani’s star rose quickly. He was the deputy leader of the Iran-Iraq war effort in the 1980s, served in Iran’s Parliament for 20 years, and for 16 years was in charge of the daily management of the security council, one of the country’s most influential agencies. He is currently the head of the Center for Strategic Research in Tehran, which advises both Rafsanjani and Khamenei.
“His lifelong career shows he has been at the heart of Iranian politics and his goal is to serve the Islamic republic of Iran,” said Ali Shakouri-Rad, a reformist politician. “The very fact he is elected shows that he is very accepted by our establishment.”
On Sunday, Rowhani said the country’s many problems would not be solved overnight, and said he would enter talks with the governing establishment of clerics and commanders for advice.