Who Is Hassan Rouhani: A Behind-the-Scenes Look at Iran's Next President

Just over a week and a half ago, one of the world’s most controversial leaders was replaced by Hassan Rouhani. Since this iconic transfer of power, pundits from most all news sources have weighed in on the everything from Iran’s economic future to the future of Iran’s notorious nuclear program. This article, however, examines the man himself, President-elect Hassan Rouhani.

At 64 years old, Rouhani has a very eclectic background. Mr. Rouhani was educated in Iran and Scotland. He received his baccalaureate degree from the University of Tehran and an MPhil and Ph.D. from the University of Glasgow.  While his studies focused on law and psychology, Mr. Rouhani has a litany of other experience. From seminarian to student to soldier to parliamentarian to author to nuclear negotiator to researcher, he is now the president-elect of a country that, short of China, is perhaps the most-talked about on the global geopolitical chessboard.

Having risen in the ranks of Iran’s politics, Mr. Rouhani served as deputy leader of Iran’s efforts in the Iran-Iraq war. Yet his involvement in the eight-year war that many argue helped solidify Ayatollah Khomeini’s grip on power was not Rouhani’s first experience with Iraq, nor was it his first interaction with Khomeini. According to his memoirs, the president-elect of Iran snuck into Iraq when he was merely an 18-year-old seminarian for the sole purpose of meeting the then-exiled Khomeini.

Because of his combined legal and religious background, Mr. Rouhani was a perfect candidate for the Shia mujtahid. This prestigious position carries quite a bit of religious weight and power. In Shia Islam, the mujtahids interpret legal issues not explicitly discussed in the Quran. In this position, Mr. Rouhani’s prowess and access to the inner circles of Iranian politics quickly grew. This position is extremely important in Iran given that its legal code is founded upon Sharia or Quranic law. As of 1982, all of Iran’s legal code must be based on the Quran. Thus, the mujtahids played an essential role in the assurance of purity and proper alignment of the current Iranian law.

Perhaps one of the more talked-about aspects of Mr. Rouhani’s resume is his previous role as a nuclear negotiator. From 1992 to 2000, Rouhani served as the head of the Supreme National Security Council (SNSC). As the head of the SNSC, he was in turn the head of Iran’s nuclear negotiating team and the chief nuclear negotiator with the EU 3 (the United Kingdom, France and Germany). It is this background that prompts many commentators to speculate, positively and negatively, on Rouhani’s ability to affect the future of Iran’s feared nuclear potential. However, even though Mr. Rouhani is no novice to the nuclear discussion, it should be noted that his ability to actually effect any change in this realm is very unlikely. While his rhetoric has been positive, his capacity is quite limited.

In light of the many current debates about whether or not President-elect Rouhani is a boon or blunder to international progress, perhaps it is appropriate for commentators to shift their focus. Given the power structure in Iran, the president has little direct authority over some of the main questions such as Iran’s nuclear future. While he has the ear of those who do make the direct decisions, his role can be seen as secondary. Yet nevertheless, Rouhanii’s recent electoral victory should provide Western observers with hope about Iran’s future, namely in what it says about the Iranian electorate. Hassan Rouhani is now, and has been, closely aligned with conservative factions in Iran. Yet compared with the other candidates, “the diplomatic sheikh” was seen as the pragmatic candidate with more progressive tendencies than his opponents. This reality, coupled with his decisive victory, is an extremely hopeful indicator that the Iranian people are ready for change. They are ready for progress. While no major policy shifts are likely to come from President-elect Rouhani, let us hope that he keeps lit the flame of positive potential.