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Former Aide Says Iranian President-Elect 'Is Not Superman'

Iranian President-elect Hassan Rohani is expected to take a pragmatic approach to his new job.
Before leaving Iran some two years ago, well-known journalist Mehdi Mahdavi Azad worked for half a decade as an aide to Hassan Rohani, Iran's new president-elect. Azad, who is now based in Germany, shares his thoughts on Rohani with RFE/RL correspondent Golnaz Esfandiari.

RFE/RL: You worked for years with Iranian President-elect Hassan Rohani. How would you describe him?

Mahdavi Azad: Rohani is, in fact, a strongly pragmatic religious figure. One characteristic that all those who are close to him are familiar with is that when it comes to social issues, he's very open-minded and close to Western standards. He's less open and more conservative when it comes to political issues.

Rohani has a good university background but it has been exaggerated in some media reports. They've said that he is fluent in five languages when, in fact, he speaks Arabic, Farsi, and English. He is a very smart person. Nobody can mislead him -- he always asks very precise questions, he does his own studies on each issue.

On national security issues and management of the country he has his own theories, which we don't really see among conservative clerics. Rohani's main theory is that Iran's ruling clerics should make up their mind whether, in ruling Iran, they want to act ideologically or be pragmatic. He believes that if they want to rule over Iran and be pragmatic then the path they're pursuing is not the right one. He's had -- and has -- serious criticisms for some of the ideologically driven actions of the Islamic republic.

RFE/RL: Tell us about Rohani's relationship with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. How close are they?

Azad: Rohani has a very good relationship with Khamenei. Rohani is one of the most informed and best educated clerics in the sphere of national security. For that reason he's been Khamenei's representative to the Supreme National Security Council for some two decades. He's now the head of the Expediency Council's Center for Strategic Studies. His appointment was made by [former president and chairman of the Expediency Council Akbar] Hashemi Rafsanjani, but he got permission from Ayatollah Khamenei.

[As Iran's chief nuclear negotiator] he pursued the nuclear dossier in coordination with Ayatollah Khamenei. Despite the criticism that came later from the principlists who claimed Iran had surrendered, each step he took was with the backing of Khamenei. These two have a very close relationship. Khamenei respects Rohani as a national security expert and as a very informed citizen. But there is a small issue that could create tensions between the two. Khamenei thinks ideologically; Rohani doesn't think ideologically at all.

RFE/RL: You said despite the difference in their world view, Khamenei respects Rohani and the two share a close relationship. Will that give Rohani a freer hand -- in comparison to previous presidents who often had tense relations with Iran's leader -- to implement his plans and policies?

Azad: I definitely believe that he will have a freer hand than the governments of [former President Mohammad] Khatami and [outgoing President Mahmud] Ahmadinejad. I will not make any comparison with the government of Rafsanjani because the conditions were different then.

One reason is that Rohani is a real politician. The other reason is that Rohani has the backing of [a wide range of different factions], from reformists including Khatami to Rafsanjani and also some part of the clergy and the bazaar. He is also supported by some of the conservatives. Therefore I think Rohani can, on some issues, get the agreement of Ayatollah Khamenei. He can also, in some instances, get the [supreme leader] to accept international realities.

RFE/RL: Here in Washington many have described the victory of Hassan Rohani in Iran's presidential election as an opportunity for improved ties with Iran and for resolving the deadlock over Iran's sensitive nuclear work. Others, however, have said that it will just give Iran more time to advance its nuclear program. What do you believe?

Azad: Those who believe that the Islamic republic will just use this to buy more time for its nuclear program are looking at things very pessimistically and unrealistically, I think. And those who think that Rohani will solve all the issues very quickly, within months, are being too optimistic.
Iranian analyst Mehdi Mahdavi Azad
Iranian analyst Mehdi Mahdavi Azad

Ties between Iran and the U.S. are too complicated to be resolved, for example, in a round of talks between Rohani as the president of Iran and U.S. President Barack Obama. In the U.S. you have the Senate, the Congress, there are lobby groups. In Iran you have the supreme leader who has the last say -- it is very complicated.

But in general, Rohani is someone who is not out to create and increase tensions, he's said it in his interviews and press appearances. He wants to decrease tensions. He's [seeking] the normalization and improvement of Iran's ties with the Western world. In his first press conference he vowed more interaction with the world and also more transparency. Therefore, this is an opportunity for the Islamic republic and also for the international community.

RFE/RL: Rohani's election has created a lot of hope among many Iranians inside the country who, just a few months ago, did not see any light at the end of the tunnel. To what extent do you think he will be able to deliver on his promises of moderation and improvement of people's lives?

Azad: The conditions inside Iran are not normal. Iran's economy is in shambles. The conditions are far more difficult for Rohani to fix them with a few keys (eds: a key was the symbol of Rohani's campaign). Part of the hope that has been created is also not realistic. Rohani is not Superman, but the important issue here is that the main principles of Rohani's plans are to the benefit of civil society and the Iranian people.

I think we will see an improvement in social conditions, not in the next few months or weeks but within the next year. Regarding the political situation and the economy, Rohani will need more time to return the country to the time before Ahmadinejad's [presidency], meaning the end of Khatami's era.