TEHRAN — Bogged down in faltering nuclear talks with the European powers nearly 10 years ago, Hassan Rouhani did something that no Iranian diplomat before or since has managed to do.
He took out his cellphone, say Western diplomats who were there, dialed up his longtime friend and associate, Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and convinced him that Iran needed to suspend nuclear enrichment. The call by Mr. Rouhani, who was elected president in June and will take office next week, resulted in an agreement in October 2003, the only nuclear deal between Iran and the West in the past 11 years.
“Rouhani showed that he is a central player in Iran’s political establishment,” said Stanislas de Laboulaye, a retired director general of the French Foreign Ministry, who was a member of the European delegation during the talks between 2003 and 2005. “He was the only one able to sell something deeply unpopular to the other leaders.”
There is growing optimism in Iran and in the West that Mr. Rouhani, 64, is ready to restart serious talks on the nuclear issue; Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki of Iraq told the United States this month that Mr. Rouhani was ready to start direct talks, and the Obama administration has indicated a willingness to engage in head-to-head dialogue after years of inclusive multiparty negotiations.
In his campaign for president and again in recent weeks, Mr. Rouhani has made it clear that he is deeply concerned about his country’s growing economic troubles and is determined to soften the harsh tone and intransigent tactics of his predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, which have stalled nuclear negotiations and cut off relations with most of the developed world. But the question, as always in Iran, is the extent to which a President Rouhani can accomplish these goals.
“It is clear that numerous challenges await him,” said Mirza Agha Motaharinejad, a communications professor who campaigned for Mr. Rouhani in his home province of Semnan. “His political survival starts with who he will pick as cabinet members. The more representatives from different factions, the more support he will have.”
Mr. Rouhani rarely gives one-on-one interviews to reporters.Any Iranian president has to answer to the supreme leader. But that is not the only limitation on his power in the treacherous and complex politics of the Islamic republic. The rise and precipitous fall of Mr. Ahmadinejad stands as a warning of the fleeting nature of a president’s power in Iran.
Mr. Ahmadinejad came to power and was re-elected — fraudulently, most observers said — as the candidate of the traditionalist faction of ultraconservative clerics and Revolutionary Guards commanders. For years he rode high, taking particular pleasure in sticking the West in the eye, denying the Holocaust and challenging Israel. But by the end of his tenure he was locked in bitter infighting with his former patrons and widely unpopular with the public, which blamed him for the country’s economic woes.
Mr. Rouhani was defeated by the traditionalists after the nuclear deal fell apart in 2005 and left, politically speaking, for dead. He was a “sellout” in his critics’ eyes who had committed the unpardonable sin of showing weakness — though his supporters would call it reasonableness — in the negotiations with the Europeans.
In one of the most startling turnarounds in the history of the Islamic republic, he has managed to resurrect his career from that low point, drawing on connections that trace back to the earliest days of the clerical resistance to the shah. If he is to realize his ambitions of redirecting the country to the moderate course he has laid out — stressing greater individual rights, a relaxation of tensions with the West and the repair of Iran’s flagging economy — he will have to contend with precisely those forces that defeated him and Mr. Ahmadinejad.
Mr. Rouhani was born Hassan Fereydoon during the reign of the pro-Western shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, into a family of bazaar businessmen and clerics in a small desert town. A precocious boy, he was only 13 when he began studies at a seminary in the theological center of Qum, where he would befriend many of the men who would later become central figures in the Islamic republic.
“From an early age I would overhear my father telling family members that I would become a cleric,” Mr. Rouhani writes in his memoir, one of six books he has published. “It was my destiny.”
Qum was a hotbed of resistance against the shah, and young Hassan fit right in. “We, the students, were ready to be killed, imprisoned or tortured,” Mr. Rouhani wrote in that same memoir, of the 1963 arrest of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who would later lead the 1979 Islamic Revolution. “We had sticks in our room, and when we heard a car pull up in our alley we were sure we would be arrested.” He was all of 14 at the time.
He later studied law at Tehran University and performed his compulsory military service in Mashhad, where he struck up a friendship with Mr. Khamenei.
In 1978 Mr. Rouhani moved to Britain, taught Islamic jurisprudence at Lancaster University and was set to attend Harvard as a graduate student when the revolution broke out. Instead of Cambridge, Mass., he headed off to Paris to join the exiled Ayatollah Khomeini.
Long known as fiercely intelligent, he became renowned after the revolution for his ability to navigate a system dominated by ideologues, building consensus among many opposing forces. Those close to him describe Mr. Rouhani as the golden boy of the Islamic republic’s close-knit group of leaders and a deal maker who has had a direct hand in most of Iran’s major foreign policy decisions over the past three decades.
He was one of three Iranian officials to meet with the former national security adviser Robert McFarlane when he secretly visited Tehran in 1986 to arrange the arms-for-hostages deal that would later erupt into the Iran-contra scandal. But they caution that he is, above all, a Shiite Muslim cleric who has dedicated his life to the Islamic Revolution, which he will never betray.
“Our opponents are wrong to expect compromises from Rouhani; the sanctions and other pressures will not make us change our stances,” said one of his former closest associates during an interview in Tehran. He requested anonymity because Mr. Rouhani has asked that no one speak in his name. “Rouhani is interested in a dialogue, not a monologue, with the West. He is prepared to reach common ground, but only if the other side is ready to reach common ground.”
In his books on foreign policy, Mr. Rouhani writes that modernity has failed, and that Christians in the West gave in to secularism without a fight. According to him, the United States and the Islamic republic are in permanent conflict. Israel, he writes, is the “axis of all anti-Iranian activities.” Yet he also raises issues like Iran’s massive brain drain and high unemployment figures in a book on the economy, and proposes membership in the World Trade Organization. “We need to keep a good relation with the people; only with them we can continue to resist and confront the U.S.A.,” he wrote in one of his two books on “foreign policy and Islamic thought.”
Nevertheless, diplomats who have faced him in negotiations praised his skills and flexibility. “He is perfectly placed in Iran’s system of power,” said Paul von Maltzahn, a former German ambassador to Iran who met Mr. Rouhani several times. “He is not easily manipulated and assertive.”
The last time they met was during a private visit by the former German foreign minister, Joschka Fischer. Mr. von Maltzahn recalled: “We all had dinner. Mr. Rouhani spoke about Glasgow, where he had studied in the 1990s. He cracked jokes. He’s straightforward, no double dealer.”
During his 16 years as the secretary of Iran’s most important decision organ, the National Security Council, Mr. Rouhani prevented hard-liners from forming an alliance with Saddam Hussein after Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990, his associates said. Instead, Iran remained neutral. He directed Iran’s unexpectedly respectful reaction to the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and he was instrumental in helping the United States coordinate with opposition forces in Afghanistan and Iraq when the United States invaded those countries.
It was his toughest negotiation — the one that led to the 2003 agreement — that led to his public fall from grace. Is he willing to try again? Analysts say he might well be. “He is a proactive soldier of this system since his youth,” said Nader Karimi Joni, a columnist for reformist papers. “It’s his brainchild, and he feels responsible. Any solutions he will come up with will be within the limits of the system of the Islamic republic.”
Some European diplomats say they fear that Mr. Rouhani was too optimistic in 2003, perhaps getting ahead of most of the leadership. “After a while we started to worry whether he or his team had fully briefed the other leaders,” said one European negotiator, who requested anonymity, not wanting to hurt the chances of success for any coming talks.
But Mr. Rouhani’s associate, who has full knowledge of the talks, disagreed. “Our mistake was that we gave the Europeans too much credit, but they were on the phone with the Americans all the time,” he said. “What matters now is that with Mr. Rouhani’s election a new window of opportunity has opened up for the West. I suggest they seize the moment.”
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