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The "Brain Trust" Behind Iran’s New President


Who is Hassan Rouhani? Compared to his brash predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Iran’s president-elect is an enigma. Embraced by youth and reformists on the campaign trail, he boasts an impressive set of revolutionary credentials, has served as Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator, and maintains deep ties to both Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and former President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. Still, with little of the flash and personality of Ahmadinejad, Rouhani leaves the world with many questions on the eve of his inauguration, not least of which: how will he govern?

The trail of clues starts at a set of offices across from the sprawling Niavaran Park, near the Alborz Mountains at Tehran’s city limits. For the past twenty years, Rouhani has spent part of his time here as president of the Center for Strategic Research (CSR), a think tank that informs the Expediency Council, the chief advisory board to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, on political and economic matters. Through this experience, Rouhani had “the privilege to develop a pragmatic moderate trend” in Iranian politics, Dr. Kayhan Barzegar, the Director of the Institute for Middle East Strategic Studies (IMESS) in Tehran and former a senior foreign policy researcher at CSR, told The Diplomat in an interview. There, he cultivated some of the country’s brightest moderate minds, many of whom he will likely bring into his administration.

CSR was founded in 1989 at a decisive moment in Iran’s history. Just two months after the death of Supreme Leader Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, Rafsanjani took over as president of the young state facing an existential crisis.

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“A decade after the revolution, the shape of Iranian society remains ill-defined.” Geraldine Brooks wrote at the time in the Wall Street Journal. “Questions as basic as whether the country is committed to a free-enterprise economy or should shift to socialism still are wide open.”

The think tank would translate self-reflection into action. When Rouhani spurned the job as Intelligence Minister to take over the center in 1992, CSR’s role expanded from advisory to advocacy. “In one way or another, wherever Hashemi [Rafsanjani] was, Dr. Rouhani was there too.” Hojjatoleslam Ali Asgari, chief parliamentary advisor at CSR, recently told Sharq, a reformist daily.

The likeminded pragmatists became trusted allies. Rouhani threw CSR’s considerable intellectual firepower behind then President Rafsanjani’s controversial “economy first” policies, which included measures to privatize many of the country’s major export industries and reduce the money supply. The center’s defense of the president’s liberal economic policy and semi-authoritarian politics drew Rouhani into conflict with many deputies in the radical majority of the Majles. It would not be the last time the organization would confront more the radical factions in the regime.

 But with reformists in charge, CSR fast became Iran’s most important think tank, an “attractive place” for academics and intellectuals to hold open-ended discussions on economic, security, and cultural affairs, Barzegar says. In 1997, at the start of Mohammad Khatami’s presidency, it was separated from the Presidential Office to serve as the research arm of the Expediency Council, run by Rafsanjani, giving the center a direct channel to the Supreme Leader and an advisory role throughout the regime.

Rouhani embraced the new responsibilities with gusto. He recruited thinkers like Mahmoud Vaezi, an influential diplomat who had commandeered Iran’s shuttle diplomacy in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict in 1992, and economic whiz Mohammed Bagher Nobakht, who envisaged the rerouting of oil revenues into infrastructure and social development projects. After a stint as Khatami’s Minister of Intelligence, Ali Younesi also joined CSR as deputy director, where he advocated for the removal of restrictions on the activities of print media and civil society organizations.

With his brain trust assembled, Rouhani attempted an ambitious experiment: to establish an alternative “conservative moderate” political ideology. In Barzegar’s estimation, CSR offered a “third way,” trying to bridge the conservative-reformist divide that was narrowly focused on domestic debates over “ideological ideas or political reforms.” Instead, the new approach put equal emphasis on “constructive” foreign policy and economic development.

This established the organization as a primary refuge for centrists after Ahmadinejad’s election in 2005. Behind Rouhani’s leadership and the ideas of people like Vaezi, Norbakht, and Younesi, the center reimagined Iran as a model for “reintegration into the world economy” and “playing a constructive role” in world affairs, says Mohsen Milani, a professor at the University of Southern Florida, who has published reports with CSR. Rouhani drew heavily upon this vision in his campaign for president this year.

“What I truly wish is for moderation to return to the country.” Rouhani told Sharq in a June interview. “This is my only wish.”

Rouhani’s commitment to upholding the conservative moderate approach has at times bordered on the extreme. Unlike Rafsanjani, he denounced the Green Movement demonstrators who were under siege after the disputed 2009 presidential elections, despite Mir-Hossein Moussavi’s personal request for support. But this cautious stance did not placate Ahmadinejad, who nonetheless slashed the organization’s funding in the Majlis and turned a blind eye as pro-government militias raided its offices later that year.

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