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'No-nonsense' negotiator joins race to replace Iran's Ahmadinejad

Abedin Taherkenareh / EPA

Former chief nuclear negotiator Hassan Rowhani, center, arrives at a conference in Tehran on Thursday where he announced his candidacy for the June presidential election. Rowhani is considered a moderate who could work with the West.

Hassan Rowhani, a former Iranian nuclear negotiator, announced on Thursday he would run for president - becoming the most moderate contender so far to bid to succeed Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in a June election dominated by conservatives.

The 64-year-old was head of the powerful Supreme National Security Council under presidents Ali Akbar Rafsanjani, considered a master of realpolitik rather than an ideologue, and Mohammad Khatami, who pushed for wide-ranging social and political reforms.

Rowhani, a Muslim cleric, presided over talks with Britain, France and Germany that saw Iran agree to suspend uranium enrichment-related activities between 2003 and 2005.

He resigned after Ahmadinejad took office in August that year. The nuclear work was resumed and Rowhani was derided for being too accommodating in negotiations.

At schools, in shops, and on the streets of big cities and small towns, daily life plays out in Iran.

During Ahmadinejad's two terms in office, tensions with the West over Iran's nuclear program have worsened, with the United States and Europe imposing sanctions on its oil and banks over suspicions Tehran is seeking atomic arms, which it denies.

"We need a new management for the country but not based on quarrelling, inconsistency and eroding domestic capacity, but through unity, consensus and attracting honest and efficient people," Rowhani told a gathering of supporters on Thursday, Iran's Mehr news agency reported.

A former Western ambassador to Iran who had dealings with Rowhani during the Khatami administration described him as "approachable and no-nonsense," likely to be "a calm, orthodox, efficient and straightforward servant ... and less a charismatic or an independent figure."

With nuclear policy directed by supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei rather than the president, the election is not likely to produce any tangible policy shift there.

"My government will be one of prudence and hope and my message is about saving the economy, reviving ethics and interaction with the world," Rowhani said in a critique of Ahmadinejad's economic record.

Hooman Majd, a New York-based Iranian-American journalist and author, said Rowhani -- head of an Iranian think-tank, the Center for Strategic Research -- might attract some voters looking for change, without being radical enough to risk being banned from the election.

"Rowhani has been a loyal soldier of Khamenei and is not considered a threat to the system. I think it would be too much for the Guardian Council to disqualify someone like that," Majd said.

Khamenei's close advisers plan to put forward their own candidate, hoping to minimize the chances of the next president mounting challenges to the leader's authority, as they accuse Ahmadinejad of doing, especially during his second term.

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