TEHRAN, Iran – Just days after Hasan Rouhani's election victory in Iran, his top advisers and allies gathered for a closed-door strategy session at a think tank run by the new president. The group, lugging spread sheets, notes and policy papers, also carried something new into the mix — an array of degrees from Western universities.
Soon after Rouhani's swearing-in Sunday, he is expected to unveil key members of his government and give more clarity about his behind-the-scenes brain trust. In all likelihood, the core of his team will include figures whose academic pedigrees run through places such as California, Washington and London.
The Western-looking credentials of Rouhani's inner circle are no surprise. Rouhani himself studied in Scotland. What remains unclear, however, is how much they could actually influence Iranian policies and foster potential outreach diplomacy such as direct talks with the U.S. or possible breakthroughs in wider negotiations over Tehran's nuclear program.
"Studying in the West doesn't mean you would make concessions to the West," said Rasool Nafisi, an Iranian affairs analyst at Strayer University in Virginia. "What it does mean is that the level of understanding and ability to pick up nuances are much higher. The next step is seeing how much of that can translate into changes at the top with the ruling clerics, where it really counts."
On many levels, this is the fundamental question as the clock starts on Rouhani's presidency after eight years of the hectoring style of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
There is little doubt that Rouhani will bring a far calmer and more measured approach. That alone may help with efforts to rebuild strained ties with Europe and open new possibilities for deal-making after the expected restart of nuclear talks with world powers.
But Rouhani's Western-educated political entourage is not about to steer Iran in a completely new direction after his election victory last month.
Rouhani, a cleric and former top nuclear negotiator, does not stand against the Islamic system or the firm controls at the top: Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and the Revolutionary Guard. Khamenei has final say in all key matters, including Rouhani's selections for key Cabinet posts such as the foreign and intelligence ministers.
That leaves Rouhani — effectively the international face of Iran — with the task of projecting a new image of dialogue rather than diatribes on the world stage. Inside Iran, Rouhani has to adopt the role of salesman: trying to get Khamenei and the ruling clerics to buy into his views that interaction with Washington and its allies could bring dividends such as steps to ease tightening economic sanctions.
Many of those being considered for Cabinet posts share Rouhani's approach, including a former deputy foreign minister, Mahmoud Vaezi, who holds degrees in electrical engineering from California State University, Sacramento and San Jose State University. He began his doctorate in foreign relations at Louisiana State University but finished the degree in Poland.
Vaezi was head of the foreign ministry's European and American affairs section from 1990-97 under reformist President Mohammad Khatami. In recent years, Vaezi has been a senior figure at Rowhani's Center for Strategic Research.
"The potential candidates ... are those who understand international relations and understand the language of the West," said Tehran-based political analyst Behrouz Shojaei. "This shows Rouhani is serious in seeking to ease tensions with the outside world and improve Iran's economy."
Another potential contender for foreign minister is Mohammad Javad Zarif, who did postgraduate studies at San Francisco State University and obtained a doctorate in international law and policy at the University of Denver.
Zarif also raised his profile in the U.S. as a diplomat at Iran's U.N. Mission in New York during a five-year posting that ended in 2007. In one of his last public events, Zarif was a headline speaker at a conference in New Brunswick, New Jersey, on conflict resolution whose participants included the current U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel.
Meanwhile, Hossein Mousavian, currently a research scholar at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, is likely to hold a key foreign policy adviser role. Mousavian also graduated from Sacramento State.
Officials with academic roots in the West are nothing new in the Middle East. Many Gulf Arab leaders and top officials studied in Europe or the U.S. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu went to high school outside Philadelphia and returned to study at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Jordan's King Abdullah II attended boarding schools in England and Massachusetts and then moved on to Britain's royal military academy Sandhurst.
But Iran's elected leadership — the presidency and top parliamentary posts — has had far fewer Western-educated figures. In the years after the 1979 Islamic Revolution, Western credentials were viewed with suspicion. Ahmadinejad, who studied in Iran, has strongly favored advisers who also have homegrown academic backgrounds.
Rouhani's administration could mark a strong break and include advisers whose connections with the West straddle before and after the Islamic Revolution.
Among them is Rouhani's younger brother, Hossein Fereidoun, who is helping the president-elect put together his Cabinet list.
Fereidoun was a member of the security team when the Islamic Revolution's leaders, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, returned from exile in France in 1979. He later served in Iran's U.N. Mission. Rouhani previously went by the family name Fereidoun, but dropped it in an apparent attempt to hide from authorities before the Islamic Revolution.
The review of potential candidates for economic roles includes Chamber of Commerce president Mohammad Nahavandian, who holds a doctorate in economics from George Washington University, and Mohammad Bagher Nobakht, who holds an economics doctorate from Paisley in Britain, and was spokesman of Rouhani's campaign office.
A possible candidate for the critical oil ministry post is Mohammad Reza Nematzadeh, a former deputy oil minister and president of Iran's state oil company, who has an engineering degree from California State Polytechnic University.
But speculation was growing that Rouhani could look to a former oil minister, Bijan Zanganeh, who was ousted when Ahmadinejad took office in 2005.
Some semiofficial Iranian news agencies, including ISNA, cited sources saying that Rouhani will tap a former defense minister, Mohammed Forouzandeh, as the chief nuclear negotiator. Such a choice would bring a relative novice in international dialogue into a critical role. Rouhani's aides have not commented on the report, and other names such as former foreign minister Ali Akbar Velayati have been raised in the Iranian media.
Other noteworthy possibilities include Ali Jannati as head of the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance, where the wide-ranging mandate includes oversight of foreign media in Iran. Jannati is considered a moderate, but his father, Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati, is an ultra hard-line cleric who often leads the nationally broadcast Friday prayers from Tehran University.
Murphy reported from Dubai, United Arab Emirates.