TEHRAN — As a seminary student, he made a hazardous foray across the border into Iraq to meet his icon, the exiled Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.
Years later, he joined Khomeini in France, eventually returning home after the 1979 Islamic Revolution. On Sunday, Hassan Rouhani’s formal inauguration and swearing in is scheduled, but Saturday marked the new president’s ascension to office.
The styles of the incumbent and his successor couldn’t be more different. But what everyone — both inside and outside Iran — wants to know is whether Iran’s policies will change as well. That is far less clear. The biggest test will be trying to find common ground with the West on a subject Rouhani knows well — Iran’s disputed nuclear program.
Rouhani, a white-turbaned legal scholar and theologian, has adopted “moderation” as his motto, a dramatic shift from his predecessor’s bluster. Unlike Ahmadinejad, a blacksmith’s son with little international exposure when he was elected, Rouhani is an intellectual who has represented Iran abroad. He holds an Iranian law degree and a doctorate from a British university.
At the heart of his candidacy in the June election was a paradox that he will have to confront as president. A consummate insider and conservative-leaning pragmatist, Rouhani played the insider-as-outsider card, securing a narrow majority in a fractured field.
He deftly appealed to more reform-minded Iranians beaten down in their perennial struggle with hard-liners. He was the sole cleric among the presidential finalists, yet the religious establishment was wary of his perceived liberal drift.
Many Iranians desperately seek a rollback of international sanctions imposed because of the nuclear program. The sanctions have contributed to rising prices and unemployment, especially for young people — many of them highly educated.
Even though he was one of the pioneering voices backing the mandatory wearing of the hijab, or veil, by women, he carries the hopes of those wanting reform. Recently, he has sharply criticized harassment of young people by the so-called morality police.
And during the campaign, Rouhani accused the outgoing leadership of reveling in sanctions as a rebuke to the West while ignoring the resulting hardships.
“It’s good to have (uranium) centrifuges running,” Rouhani declared in the third and final presidential debate, “providing people’s lives and sustenance are also spinning.”
Rouhani, who previously served as Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator, has already signaled his refusal to abandon nuclear enrichment, a necessary step for atomic weapons development. Iran says its nuclear efforts are for peaceful purposes, such as energy generation. The Obama administration suspects that Tehran seeks nuclear weapons capability, and it has not ruled out a military attack.
Israel, the target of Ahmadinejad’s most incendiary rhetoric, is not convinced that the new man will be any different. On Friday, Iranian media quoted Rouhani during an annual pro-Palestinian rally as comparing Israel to a “wound” that “should be removed.” The report prompted immediate condemnation from Israel. But Iranian media later acknowledged that Rouhani hadn’t called for the destruction of Israel, and a video of the interview confirmed he had been misquoted.
Brokering a nuclear deal will require convincing hard-liners at home and doubters abroad to choose compromise over confrontation.
“He believes in protecting and maintaining the Islamic Republic, and strongly supports the uranium enrichment program,” said Alireza Nader, a senior policy analyst at the Rand Corp. in Washington. “But not at any price. Rouhani realizes the extent of Iran’s economic and political crisis. It is important the U.S. gives him a fair chance to negotiate Iran out if the current impasse.”
During more than three decades as a political insider, analysts say, Rouhani has shown an ability to shift with the times, seek out new allies, curry favor with the powerful, and adjust to changing circumstances.
He has served as a top military official and parliamentarian, and has held leading positions in the national security hierarchy. He is a protege of former President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who backed Rouhani’s candidacy after hard-liners blocked his own comeback.
Rouhani also is a longtime associate of Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s ultimate decision-maker on matters of state, although tensions have been reported as Rouhani has distanced himself from the hard-liners.
“He has a managerial style of … emphasis on teamwork,” Seyed Hossein Mousavian, Rouhani’s deputy in Iran’s national security council between 1997 and 2005, wrote in an email response to questions from the Los Angeles Times. “He is a strategist and planner … with a clear idea of reaching goals.”
The incoming president “is beyond factionalism and factional infighting,” Mousavian wrote, and is likely to name a Cabinet including moderates and conservatives.
The president-elect has come a long way from the village in southeast Iran where he was born in 1948 to a pious family. His name then was Hassan Fereydoun.
The clerical life has long been a means of upward mobility for clever young men from modest backgrounds in Iran, where the predominant Shiite faith wields particular influence in the traditional culture of the provinces.
His father, a farmer who also worked as a spice trader, wanted his son to follow the family tradition and become a cleric, according to Rouhani’s authorized memoir, a 631-page tome penned by ghost writers and said to be based on long interviews with the president-elect. Even Rouhani’s paternal grandmother was a “female mullah” who taught the Quran to village women.
He was introduced to the teachings of Khomeini while still at a local seminary. Moving on to Qom, Iran’s religious center, he studied Arabic, math and Islamic law. He mingled with like-minded students who would rise to prominence in the Islamic Republic. But his family name, taken from a virtuous king in an 11th-century Persian epic, was considered too secular.
“Some of my fellow theologians said to me, ‘If you become an ayatollah in the future, your last name … would be your weak point,’ ” the president-elect was quoted as saying. He changed it to Rouhani, which essentially means “clergyman” in Farsi.
Rouhani embraced Khomeini’s teachings assailing those who would combine Islam and socialism or political liberalism. But the memoir suggested a softer side, including a fondness for pranks.
On one occasion, according to the memoir, Rouhani and his partner in mischief, Masih Mohajer, now editor in chief of a leading Iranian daily, rolled a watermelon down the aisle of a Qom classroom to the consternation of the instructor. The pair also smuggled shortwave radios into their dormitory to listen to the news.
By age 19, Rouhani was determined to meet Khomeini, who at the time was living in exile in the Shiite city of Najaf in neighboring Iraq. Travel between the two countries was almost impossible, but Rouhani hired a smuggler and succeeded in making the trip, slipping into ditches and removing his turban to hide his status as a cleric.
Upon returning to Iran, Rouhani obtained a law degree at Tehran University. While doing military service from 1973-75, he met a fellow activist and theologian, Ali Khamenei, now Iran’s supreme leader.