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Rowhani, Hassan

Siavush Randjbar-Daemi
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Rowhani, Hassan

(b. 1948)

also known as Hassan Rouhani, mid-ranking Shia cleric and seventh president of the Islamic Republic of Iran, was born Hassan Fereydoun in November 1948. He assumed the presidency at a time of strong divisions within the ruling elite of Iran and his tenure to date has been dominated by efforts to reconcile such tensions through the implementation of his etedal, or moderation platform, as well as major foreign policy challenges such as nuclear negotiations, the Syria conflict, and the rise of ISIL in neighboring Shia-majority Iraq.

His father, Asadollah, was a pious merchant who completed education at the maktab-khaneh, or religious school level, and also had the distinction of being the local representative of the Grand Ayatollah Borujerdi, the last supreme marja of the Shi‘i tradition. It was therefore expected that Rowhani would tend toward a clerical career. Hajj Asadollah traveled with the thirteen-year-old Hassan to Qom in the summer of 1961, where the future president settled down at a time of great ferment. The death of Borujerdi the previous year and the lack of any natural successor had cast the seminary system into a period of great uncertainty that was marked by the rise to prominence of Ruhollah Khomeini, who was beginning to assert himself as a politically active cleric who was challenging the increasingly autocratic shah.

Another cleric who left a lasting impression on Rowhani was Mohammad Hosseini Beheshti, a key political figure during the initial phases of the revolutionary state after 1979. Beheshti contributed to the reform of seminary teaching and established a secondary school that was attended by Rowhani and other future members of the Islamic Republic’s establishment, such as Mohammad Mohammadi Reyshahri, the first intelligence minister, and Mohammadi Golpayegani, who is currently the chief of staff of the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

By attending classes organized by Beheshti and other figures of the emerging movement spearheaded by Khomeini, the teenage Hassan quickly established lasting personal ties and entered into the ranks of the early nucleus of clerical followers of the Ayatollah at the time of Khomeini’s first tussles with the shah’s government. Barely fifteen, Rowhani claims to have participated in the distribution of pamphlets from 1962 onward, and was present in Qom on the day of the 15 Khordad uprising of June 1963, where he witnessed the killing of acquaintances and friends. Rowhani’s direct presence in Qom during those crucial events had a distinctive effect on his worldview and cemented his adherence to the opposition movement. It was also instrumental in his decision, made around 1962, to change his surname from Fereydoun, a classic Persian name ill-befitting a talabeh, to Rowhani, or “clerical.”

For the following fifteen years, the seminary student would remain loyal to Khomeini’s movement while developing an unusual clerical career. In contrast to many of his peers, Rowhani did not limit his education to the religious realm, and enrolled in the University of Tehran’s law faculty at the age of twenty-one to pursue a degree in secular jurisprudence. Despite noting that the caliber of the teaching at the university was lower than that he experienced in the seminary, Rowhani would go on to describe the three and a half years he spent in the campus as a period that brought about “valuable experiences,” and an attraction of its own, which compelled the future statesman to cease being a Qom resident by 1970. Once based in the capital, Rowhani began to interact with the figures who kept clerical politics afloat during Khomeini’s exile, such as Ayatollah Motahhari and Ayatollah Beheshti, establishing the first of a set of personal connections that would assist him in his post-revolutionary political career.

Another key development of Rowhani’s personal trajectory was the period he served in the Imperial army, which became mandatory after the completion of his university degree. Rowhani gained a keen appreciation for the workings of the armed forces during his completion of national service, which also featured a brief period as de facto commander of a platoon.

By the end of the 1970s Rowhani had acquired fame as a radical and committed oppositionist to the Shah, and had fallen under the gaze of the Savak secret police. In October 1977 he delivered the main speech at a gathering mourning the recent death of Khomeini’s son Mostafa, and became one of the first figures to public address the Ayatollah with the title “Imam,” as he would become widely known after 1979.

Rowhani spent much of the turbulent months of 1978 and early 1979 in London, where he sought to study and evade Savak surveillance. He attended Khomeini’s activities in the outskirts of Paris during the final weeks of the shah’s regime, but remained outside the Ayatollah’s inner circle. By the spring of 1979 his military experience came to the fore, as he was instructed by the future Supreme Leader Khamenei, then deputy defense minister, to fulfill the role of inspecting the forces that had been hastily put together by the PRG to quell an uprising in Kurdistan in the summer of 1979, where the Democratic Party of Kurdistan had joined forces with elements of radical leftist groups to mount an insurrection against the central government. Rowhani’s emphasis on the existence of revolutionary officers and pilots contributed to a firmer stance against the oft-repeated proclamations of the Mojahedin-e Khalq and Fadayan-e Khalq groups, which were insistently pressing for the dissolution of the central army. This stint would also shape Rowhani’s activities within the first term of the post-revolutionary parliament, to which he was elected as an MP for his hometown of Semnan. Rowhani became the head of the Majles Defence Committee, a position that suddenly grew in significance after the Iraqi attack on the Islamic Republic in September 1980.

Rowhani would play an increasingly important role in the political realm of the Iranian military effort against Iraq, as he progressively fell under the tutelage and protection of Hashemi Rafsanjani, the long-serving speaker of Parliament of the 1980s and key power broker of the period. Rafsanjani’s memoirs reveal that Rowhani was one of the few figures privy at the time to the details of the unofficial American mission to Tehran of May–June 1986.

Rowhani did not follow his mentor Rafsanjani’s footsteps into the executive branch after 1989 and was instead placed at the helm of the Supreme National Security Council (SNSC), a new body that had the role of providing strategic advice to the leader. Rowhani would also maintain his parliamentary seat, albeit with dwindling voter support, until 2000 and would also read toward a controversial PhD in Scotland in the mid-1990s.

A new phase in Rowhani’s political career started in 2003, when the current nuclear crisis between Iran and the West emerged. As explained later by Rowhani in his memoir-laden volume on the nuclear issue, a meeting of senior political figures in fall 2003 resulted in the emergence of a consensus for Rowhani to take over the handling of the nuclear dossier. The decision cast Rowhani into the spotlight of the lively Iranian media, where he had previously featured as a conventional and dour establishment figure. Buoyed by sudden public interest in the middle-aged cleric, the popular moderate Sharq daily published a long biographical profile titled with the term that would come to characterize him: Shaykh-e Diplumat. Rowhani took over the issue—Iran’s nuclear diplomacy—that was to define Iran’s relationship with the West for the following decade at an inauspicious moment. He successfully managed to drive a wedge between the European Union, which delegated Great Britain, France, and Germany to negotiate on its behalf, and the United States. The Tehran Declaration called upon Iran to suspend its production of nuclear fuel for the duration of negotiations with the Europeans. One of the main motivations behind the Iranian diplomatic team’s acceptance of such a condition was fear regarding a possible American-led military strike against the country.

The sharp winds of change that were cast over the Iranian political scene between 2004 and 2005 meant that the nuclear file was the subject of increasing criticism by the factions which took control of the Majles and, in 2005, of the presidency. By the time Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was preparing to take over from Mohammad Khatami in the summer of that year, Hassan Rowhani was trying to salvage the essence of the Tehran Declaration, which had fallen afoul of European insistence on the abandonment of any Iranian claim on long-term domestic uranium enrichment.

Rowhani ceased his sixteen-year tenure with the SNSC following a fraught encounter with Ahmadinejad in August 2005. As the eleventh presidential elections were approaching in spring 2013, the international isolation that Rowhani had striven to prevent had taken over large segments of the Iranian economy. By asserting himself as a figure capable of doing business with the West, but at the same time assuaging conservative concerns by remaining at arm’s length from the leaders of the Green Movement, Rowhani succeeded in capturing the support of a slight majority of the electorate, who voted him into office with a 50.7 percent share in June 2013. Since then, Rowhani has broken new ground by succeeding in communicating directly with his American counterpart and instructing his well-regarded foreign minister to meet the US Secretary of State with the approval of Ayatollah Khamenei. Much of his ability to overcome the opposition, however, rests on whether he will be able to bring the decade-old nuclear confrontation to an end and in this way provide relief to an economically wary society.


  • “Interview with Hassan Rowhani.” Kayhan, Tehran, 1 and 4 Mordad 1384 (July 23 and 26, 2005).
  • Rafsanjani, Akbar Hashemi. Payan-e Defa, Aghaz-e Bazsazi. Tehran: Nashr-e Moaref-e Enqelab, 2011.
  • Rowhani, Hassan. Amniyat Melli va Diplomasi-ye Hastehi. Tehran: Markaz-e Tahqiqat-e Esteratejik, 2012.
  • Rowhani, Hassan. Khaterat-e Hojjat Al-Islam va al-Moslemin Doktor Hasan Rowhani. Tehran: Entesharat-e Markaz-e Asnad-e Enqelab-e Islami, 2009.
  • “Shaykh-e Diplumat.” Sharq, Tehran, 6 Aban 1382 (November 27, 2003).
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