Features | Politics | Central Asia

The “Brain Trust” Behind Iran’s New President

The Center for Strategic Research will be instrumental in helping Hassan Rouhani confront Iran’s many challenges.

By Andrew Detsch for
The “Brain Trust” Behind Iran’s New President
Credit: Wikicommons

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.

“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.

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

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.

Despite alienating principlists and reformists, Barzegar suggests that CSR’s reputation for pragmatism gave Rouhani the “upper hand” over rivals on the campaign trail, demonstrating his ability to handle “insecurity and crisis.” Indeed, Asgari believes that Rouhani’s shrewd management of the center demonstrates a sense of ideological openness and flexibility that he will serve him well as president. “He will put together a practical and transfactional government, the kind that [Rafsanjani] put together.” But Rouhani’s rumored cabinet, led by former UN envoy Mohammed Jarad Zarif as Foreign Minister, Norbakht as Minister of Economic Affairs, and Younesi in his old post as Intelligence Minister, more closely resembles a collegial cocktail party than a team of rivals.

Wary of Ahmadinejad’s tendency of leading with his heart, Rouhani wants to keep expert advisors close, with professionalism as his modus operandi. In this sense, he resembles Rafsanjani with his cabinet of technocrats.

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

Outside Iran Western counterparts admired Rouhani’s temperament as Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator. “He can see the other person’s point of view and doesn’t express himself in an antagonistic way.” Richard Dalton, the former British ambassador to Iran, remembers from his dealings with Rouhani.

There is ample room for creativity in economic policy, where the supreme leader affords the president greater leeway. Adhering to precedent, Norbakht, if appointed Minister of Economic Affairs, will likely spearhead a campaign of privatization and bond sales. Attracting investment to improve Iran’s oil output, which fell to a 25-year low in June, will also be a key item on the minister’s agenda. At CSR, Norbakht advocated  low income tax rates and high educational standards to attract investment, warning that potential investors could be scared off by Iran’s stringent job security legislation, union growth, and political instability. This advice may soon find its way to Rouhani’s ear.

To voters, who elected the moderate cleric in a rout, all of this sounds promising on paper. But there are no silver bullets for fixing the myriad problems engulfing Iranian society. The nuclear issue, economic sanctions, and the Arab Spring have brought foreign policy debates to the fore. For Rouhani, restoring economic growth and thereby winning re-election hangs in no small part on his ability to untangle the messy foreign policy he inherits from Ahmadinejad. With global opinion of Iran at an all-time low, according to a June poll from Pew’s Global Attitudes project, that will be a difficult task, to say the least.

For now, accommodation appears to be the watchword. Easing sanctions and removing foreign threats will be early priorities of Rouhani’s administration. Though Rouhani has publicly conveyed that nuclear weapons have “no role” in Iranian foreign policy, describing the country’s international position as politically and economically untenable, in the delicate negotiations with the P5+1, he will have to take his direction from the supreme leader.

Iran’s new role in the complex Persian Gulf region is even more difficult to decipher. Vaezi’s writings envisage a tamer, friendlier Iran, and embrace a doctrinaire approach abandoned by Ahmadinejad, including “constructive foreign policy” under the Expediency Council’s 20-year vision plan. Rouhani will likely direct the rumored Foreign Minister Zarif to begin engaging major players, such as Saudi Arabia and Turkey, “from the position of strength,” Barzegar notes. This again would mirror Rafsanjani’s crusade as president to improve ties with neighbors that had been badly damaged by the Islamic Republic and Grand Ayatollah Khomeini’s efforts to export their revolution in the 1980s.

But Rouhani will likely find it difficult to assert Iran’s strength. Even Vaezi acknowledges that “ambiguity” and “transition” define the present global situation, and fears that leadership vacuums on its borders could endanger national security. The seasoned diplomat has emphasized Iran’s role in supporting democratic nation-building in Iraq and Afghanistan, but is less clear about the future of Shia satellites in the region, including Syria’s Bashir al-Assad, who Iran is currently vigorously supporting. To abandon Damascus as well as other Shi’a populations in the region—such as those in Bahrain and Yemen— would resign any hope of regional leadership. In courting the Sunni regimes in the region, Iran therefore faces a delicate balancing act.

Given his track record for keeping friends close, CSR, Rouhani’s “factory of ideas,” provides a telling blueprint for what the new government policies will probably look like. Like his ally Rafsanjani did when assuming the presidency in 1989, Rouhani inherits an isolated Iran in desperate need of re-imagining. He will be aided by his “advantage of knowing how to simultaneously deal with domestic politics and international politics,” as Barzegar argues. But to succeed, he will need to see beyond Tehran’s rhetoric, and come to terms with the harsh realities Iran faces.

Andrew Detsch is an editorial assistant at The Diplomat.