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, Hasan Rouhani will be sworn in as Iran’s president, succeeding Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
The styles of the incumbent and his successor couldn’t be more different. But what everyone — inside and outside Iran — wants to know is whether Iran’s policies also will change. 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.
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Rouhani, a legal scholar and theologian, has adopted “moderation” as his motto, a 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 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 are seeking 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 change. Recently, he has sharply criticized harassment of young people by the so-called morality police.
“Happiness,” Iran’s president-elect said recently, “is our people’s right.”
On Saturday, Rouhani vowed to work with the outside world to lift the sanctions crippling Iran’s economy as he received the official backing of Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
In an acknowledgment of the growing toll that international economic restrictions connected to Iran’s nuclear program are having on the population, Rouhani and Khamenei made the economy a major theme of their remarks.
But he and Khamenei offered somewhat different solutions. Whereas Rouhani said interactions with the world, meaning talks with Europe and potentially the United States, were a way out of the crisis, Khamenei, who as supreme leader has final word on all important issues in Iran, expressed pessimism that such overtures would yield fruit. “Some of our enemies do not speak with our language of wisdom,” he said, urging self-sufficiency.
Sanctions have slashed oil exports and limited Iran’s ability to transfer money from abroad. The value of the Iranian rial has lost more than two-thirds of its value against the U.S. dollar since late 2011.
Rouhani, who previously served as Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator, has 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 the government 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 the new man will be any different. On Friday, Iranian media misquoted 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 persuading 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 of the current impasse.”
During more than three decades as a political insider, analysts say, Rouhani has shown an ability to seek 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 protégé 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 Khamenei, Iran’s ultimate decision-maker on matters of state, although tensions have been reported as Rouhani has distanced himself from the hard-liners.
From the village
The president-elect has come a long way from the village in southeast Iran where he was born in 1948. His name then was Hassan Fereydoun.
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 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 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 later 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. 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. By 19, he 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.
Upon returning to Iran, Rouhani earned a law degree at Tehran University.
His increasingly provocative sermons in the late 1970s drew the attention of the shah’s secret police, the Savak, and he fled to Europe. He studied English in Britain, but soon linked up with Khomeini and supporters in the Paris suburb of Neauphle-le-Château, where they were plotting to overthrow the shah.
After the revolution, Rouhani worked to stabilize the nascent Islamic Republic. The national army was disbanded in 1980 and Rouhani was assigned to organize troops and modernize aging military bases.
He held a number of high-level defense posts during Iran’s 1980-88 war with Iraq and served five terms in Parliament, including a stint as deputy speaker. In his first news conference as president-elect, he described his election as heralding a “new era,” and said he would “follow the path of moderation and justice, not extremism.”
Material from The New York Times is included in this report.