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Rouhani's US-Educated Chief of Staff Knows East and West

Hassan Rouhani's chief of staff is a US-educated technocrat who is close to Iran's religious and merchant classes.
Mohammad Nahavandian, head of Iran's Chamber of Commerce, looks on during an interview with Reuters in his office in Tehran February 20, 2010. Western-backed sanctions on Iran to crimp its disputed nuclear activities will not have the desired impact as the country increasingly turns to Asian and regional countries, Nahavandian said. To match interview IRAN-ECONOMY/SANCTIONS REUTERS/Morteza Nikoubazl (IRAN - Tags: POLITICS BUSINESS) - RTR2ALV8

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s first executive decree was to appoint Mohammad Nahavandian as his chief of staff. An economist by training, Nahavandian is a seasoned technocrat who has served his country as a senior bureaucrat for decades. His appointment indicates Rouhani’s commitment to improving the country’s weak economy.

Nahavandian is perhaps a model politician for Rouhani’s government of “wisdom and hope” — a moderate, religious-minded veteran technocrat, who, though educated abroad, is loyal to the aspirations of the Islamic Republic.

Rouhani recognizes that, as a Western-educated economist and someone with strong ties to the traditional bazaari class, Nahavandian brings him a set of unique skills. Having been trained both in Iran’s seminaries and Western universities, Nahavandian is a well-rounded and knowledgeable individual ready to tackle the many complex issues faced by the new administration.

Born to a religious family, Nahavandian attended the Alavi Institute, an Islamic high school founded in the late 1950s against the backdrop of a burgeoning divide between the religious associations and more secular political groups such as the National Front. The Alavi Institute has long been a breeding ground for religious-minded politicians, scholars and technocrats. Some of its well-known graduates include Kamal Kharazi, former foreign minister; Mehdi Khazali, an influential political writer and son of a former Guardian Council member; and prominent Iranian philosopher AbdolKarim Soroush.

During his seminary studies, Nahavandian attended historical philosophy and Islamic finance courses taught by Morteza Motahari, co-founder of the Combatant Clergy Association and an influential disciple of Ayatollah Khomeini and Seyed Mohammad Beheshti, one of the main authors of the Islamic Republic's constitution.

Nahavandian pursued his master’s degree in economy at Tehran University while teaching Islamic finance courses. During these classes he was introduced to young revolutionary clerics such as Ayatollah Mofatteh, philosopher and political activist; Mohammad Javad Bahonar, Iran’s third prime minister; and Ayatollah Khamenei. His connections with such individuals later propelled him to influential political positions.

In 1981, following the bombing incident at the headquarters of the Islamic Republic Party in Tehran, which killed 73 leading officials of the party, Nahavandian — due to his academic training and proficiency in Islamic finance — was appointed as the assistant minister of commerce. He left the ministry to continue his religious studies in Qom and two years later, in 1985, he immigrated to the US with his family in order to continue his education — a trip that lasted eight years.

While in America, Nahavandian received his PhD in economics from George Washington University and founded the Islamic Research and Information Center. According to Shargh, a Reformist newspaper, he was able to cooperate with more than 40 Islamic centers across the US by establishing mutual grounds for partnership. The result of these collaborations was the foundation of an Islamic cooperation council, which met monthly in various states in order to discuss “cultural and educational matters.” There is little additional information available about Nahavandian’s activities in the US, but it is safe to assume that his experiences in America have had a profound impact on his understanding of Western culture.

While living in the US, Nahavandian obtained a green card. Nahavandian’s green card became a controversial issue in 2005 when he reportedly traveled to New York to deliver a message to Mohammad Javad Zarif, Iran’s ambassador at the United Nations and Rouhani’s current foreign minister nominee.  

According to Shargh, “[Nahavandian’s] trip was significant amid [the] crisis regarding Iran’s nuclear file and the upcoming dialogue between Iran and the US regarding Iraq.”

The Iranian Foreign Ministry officially announced that his trip was personal. However, according to Etemad Meli newspaper, Ali Larijani, the head of the National Security Council at the time, announced, “Nahavandian traveled to America to attend a science conference, but we took advantage of this opportunity ... since Iran’s nuclear file is at the UN Security Council, they do not give visas to Iranian diplomats to travel to America ... we took advantage of Nahavandian’s trip to the US and sent some information to our official representative at the UN, Mohammad Javad Zarif. Nahavandian completed his task and returned to Iran.” Nahavandian was serving as Larijani’s deputy in economic affairs at the time.

The incident caused then-US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to announce, “We were very concerned when we heard about it. We are going to try to make sure that we understand the facts and the legal basis, and then we’ll take proper action.”

There is little public information about the outcome of Nahavandian’s trip or whether the US took any action against his residency status.

Following his return to Iran in 1993, Nahavandian was appointed deputy minister of commerce. In 2002, he resigned from his post in order to serve as Reformist President Mohammad Khatami’s economic adviser. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad appointed him as the head of the Tehran Stock Exchange, but Nahavandian declined the appointment in order to continue his position at the Security Council.

In December 2007, he was elected as the deputy president of the Iran Chamber of Commerce, a post that he held until his recent appointment as Rouhani’s chief of staff.

Similar to the rest of his cabinet nominees, Nahavandian is a moderate technocrat who weathered many political upheavals in Iran. In an interview with BBC Newsnight, Nahavandian expressed his hopes for improving relations with the West, while at the same time tempering expectations. “I am optimistic ... Rouhani has human capital as well as social capital ... I am hopeful that with the new government in charge problems between Iran and the West could be resolved ... however, our people have the patience and understanding to know that resolving some issues takes time. Some of our problems have accumulated for decades. No one is expecting these issues to be resolved over night.”

The challenges ahead of Rouhani’s government are immense. The new administration has to deal with a struggling economy, mend the divisions between various domestic political factions, manage the nuclear file and improve Iran’s international relations. Recognizing the arduous path ahead, Rouhani has to rely on a competent cabinet that consists of dependable veteran technocrats — individuals who are trusted by the system and will perform their duties without causing political tensions. Nahavandian is a great case in point.

Editor's Note:

A previous version of this story claimed that Mehdi Khazali was a former Guardian Council Member. This has been corrected to read that he is the son of a former Guardian Council Member. The  previous version also incorrectly listed Ali Akbar Velayati as one of the prominent alumni of the Alavi Institute. His name has been removed from the list.

Reza H. Akbari is a Middle East researcher in Washington, DC. He received his MA in Middle East Studies from George Washington University. On Twitter: @rezahakbari