“I am not a colonel. I am a jurist” is how Hassan Rohani, Iran’s surprise president-elect, described himself during a television debate, as he sought to explain that he stood for fairness and moderation, rather than confrontation.
The landslide victory of the 65-year-old cleric – who was the only moderate candidate in a race with five fundamentalists – has quickly spread a sense of hope across a beleaguered country amid expectations of more moderate policies at home and abroad after eight years of government by the radical Mahmoud Ahmadi-Nejad.
Mr Rohani is not part of the reformist opposition, which was denied an election victory in 2009. But he is a centrist politician who served under and believes in the same pragmatic policies as Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, the former president who has been in alliance with reformist forces in recent years. Mr Rafsanjani’s backing for his campaign, and that of reformist leaders, was crucial to his victory.
Mr Rohani has spoken of “detente” in foreign policy with neighbours. In an interview with a Saudi newspaper last week, he described the US-Iran relationship as “complex and difficult,” but said the current state of affairs “cannot and should not remain forever.”
His campaign has stressed, above all, that radicalism had damaged Iran.
“I have always been against radicalism. I have always followed moderation,” he said during a television debate. “I have never acted as if in a garrison.”
Analysts in Tehran said it is this emphasis that drove Iranians, fed up with the government of Mr Ahmadi-Nejad and Iran’s constant confrontation with the west, to put scepticism about voting aside and cast their ballots for Mr Rohani.
“My slogan is to save Iran’s economy,” Mr Rohani said during his campaign. The solution, he told voters, was “reconciliation with the world” over the nuclear dossier. “Centrifuges should spin, but so should industries and people’s livelihoods.”
The mild-mannered cleric who holds a PhD in law from the Glasgow Caledonian University, holds senior positions in Iran’s political hierarchy. He has had a high security profile in the past, a controversial period in his career. He was of the Supreme National Security Council for more than two decades, and stood accused of the suppression of university students in 1990s.
He has also been a member of the Assembly of Experts – the body which appoints the next supreme leader – and the influential Expediency Council, which drafts macro policy, where he is head of the Centre for Strategic Research.
In the west, Mr Rohani is best known for his role as Iran’s former chief nuclear negotiator, who had won the supreme leader’s support for a suspension of uranium enrichment, the most sensitive part of the nuclear fuel cycle. This was the only period of detente in Iran’s nuclear relations with the west.
Although his opponents accuse him of “treason” for suspending uranium enrichment from 2003 to 2005, he has shot back by pointing out that Iran’s nuclear advances had also been achieved under him.
Jack Straw, former British foreign secretary who had dealt with Mr Rohani during nuclear negotiations, has been quoted as saying that he was “very experienced diplomat and politician” who was “tough, but fair to deal with and always on top of his brief.”
Decisions on nuclear negotiations, and whether Iran will ultimately reach a compromise that ease the pressure on its economy, are in the hands of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, not the Iranian president.
Mr Rohani, moreover, is a staunch supporter of the nuclear programme. But as he has suggested – and Mr Ahmadi-Nejad has shown – presidents can have influence on the supreme leader, and on the style and tone of foreign policy.
“When the supreme leader sets a foreign policy, it is very significant how a president implements it,” he said. “Foreign policy needs experience, negotiation techniques, knowledge of the world and knowledge of domestic power structure.”