Middle East

Profile: Hassan Rouhani, President of Iran

Hassan Rouhani (10/07/15)
Image caption Hassan Rouhani came to power promising to end Iran's diplomatic isolation

When Hassan Fereydoon Rouhani, 64, was elected president of Iran in June 2013 he promised to sort out the nuclear problem in three to six months.

It actually took him more than two years.

When the deal was finally reached in July 2015, he lost no time in appearing on television to remind people he had fulfilled his election pledge.

In the ongoing internal power struggle between Iran's hardliners and moderates, the agreement shored up Mr Rouhani's position.

The president will also benefit more as sanctions are lifted, easing the pressures on everyday life.

But Mr Rouhani was careful not to claim all the credit.

Following the accord, he reiterated that nothing would have been possible without the support and the advice of the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

This was his way to contain the anger of hardliners who look up to Ayatollah Khamenei, and see the agreement as a sell-out.

'New chapter'

When Mr Rouhani stood as a candidate in 2013, he knew he was up against an establishment stacked with hardliners who were highly suspicious of him.

His campaign slogan "moderation and prudence" resonated with many Iranians who had seen their living standards, and their country's reputation plummet under President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Although he was seen as part of the establishment, Mr Rouhani's promises to relieve sanctions, improve civil rights and restore "the dignity of the nation" drew large crowds on the campaign trail.

Image caption Hassan Rouhani replaced Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (left), though is not thought to have been the Supreme Leader's first choice

Although many believe he was not the first choice of the Supreme Leader, but seeing that he might offer a way to end the nuclear confrontation without destabilising the whole system, Mr Khamenei backed Mr Rouhani.

In his swearing-in speech, the new president spoke of the need for openness and trust with the rest of the world - concepts which would become a constant theme of his presidency.

"Transparency is the key to open a new chapter in mutual trust," he said. "The transparency we are talking about cannot be a one-way transparency, without practical measures in our bilateral and multinational relations."

Within weeks of taking office in 2013, Mr Rouhani spoke on the phone to US President Barack Obama - the first direct contact at the highest level between Iran and the US since the 1979 revolution.

The conversation paved the way for historic open and direct talks between Iran and the US, as well as Iran and other world powers.

Mr Rouhani also promised to mend Iran's fences with the Arab world.

But raging wars in Iraq, Syria, Yemen and beyond have all assumed a Shia-Sunni character, stemming from a sectarian rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia, which could be around for years to come.

Nuclear negotiator

Despite being the outside contender for president, Hassan Rouhani has been a key player in Iran's political life since the revolution in 1979.

He was an influential figure in Iran's defence establishment during the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq War and subsequently held several important political posts.

From 1989 to 2005, Mr Rouhani was secretary of the Supreme National Security Council (SNSC), the top decision-making body in Iran, appointed by and answerable to the Supreme Leader.

Image caption There was a lowering of political tension between Iran and the US under Mr Rouhani

He served as deputy speaker of parliament between 1996 and 2000 (while simultaneously completing a thesis on Sharia - Islamic law - as a post-graduate student at Glasgow Caledonian University) and in 1997 became a member of the Expediency Council, the highest arbitration body on issues of legislation.

Mr Rouhani was Iran's chief nuclear negotiator, from 2003 to 2005, earning the moniker "the diplomat sheikh", when he agreed to suspend uranium enrichment.

He resigned from the SNSC and from his role leading the nuclear talks just weeks after the election of the combative Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, amid sharp differences with the new president.

After assuming office himself in 2013, Mr Rouhani got the Supreme Leader to allow the foreign ministry, rather than the SNSC, to take charge of nuclear negotiations with the West, and appointed his Foreign Minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, to lead the talks.

The sight of Mr Zarif and US Secretary of State John Kerry taking a stroll at the talks venue in Geneva, chatting and joking together, would once have seemed extraordinary but as the negotiations progressed it became almost commonplace.

Civil repression

From the outset Mr Rouhani had cautioned that there would be "no overnight solutions" to Iran's many problems.

The nuclear deal and the lifting of sanctions may solve some of the immediate problems of the Iranian economy, bringing down food prices and making life a little more bearable for Iranians.

But with his main political allies either reformists or moderate figures inside the conservative camp, Mr Rouhani continues to face a big challenge from hardliners, who by and large enjoy the support of the Supreme Leader.

Image caption Iran's poor human rights record is routinely condemned by campaign groups and countries including the US

Mr Rouhani had pledged to help free reformist opposition leaders, held without trial since 2011, but hardliners have stood firm and they remain under house arrest.

He also promised to usher in an era of more freedoms in the country where human rights abuses are rife. However, few believe there has been much improvement here, and in some areas the situation may have worsened.

There are still many journalists, and opposition activists in jail, and the number of executions carried out in Iran has soared.

Censorship in the media has not eased under Mr Rouhani, although in one of his key speeches as president he told state media chiefs that Islam could tolerate a lot more than state TV allows its viewers.

Iran's internet also remains tightly controlled, forcing many to use proxy servers to circumvent the restrictions in a country whose internet speeds rank among the lowest in the world.