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New Iran president expected to tap US-educated advisers, bringing 'worldly outlook' to Tehran

Iran's president elect Hassan Rowhani waves during his first press conference on June 17. Kaveh Kazemi / Getty Images, file

Several U.S.-educated Iranians are expected to be tapped for key posts in President Hassan Rouhani's new administration, hinting at a break from the antagonistic rhetoric of predecessor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. 

The 64-year-old moderate cleric won an outright victory in June’s election, in which he was the closest thing to a reform candidate running to replace Ahmadinejad.

A sudden thaw in relations with the West is unlikely, most experts agree. But Rouhani's installation could mark the beginning of a more open government and lead to friendlier relations between Washington and Tehran.

“I would not expect a change of agenda, but maybe a change in the way things are done – and that is important when it comes to diplomacy,” said Sasan Aghlani, an expert on Iran at British think tank Chatham House.

After Rouhani is sworn in on August 3rd, he will unveil a new cabinet and team of advisers. Among the names being touted are four veteran Iranian politicians who all hold degrees from U.S. universities.

Mahmoud Vaezi, a senior figure at Rouhani’s Center for Strategic Research think tank, could be appointed foreign minister, according to Bijan Khajehpour, a Vienna-based Iranian business consultant and contributor to regional news site Al-Monitor.

Vaezi graduated with a degree in electrical engineering at California’s Sacramento State University in 1976, and his biography lists two other U.S. degrees and a doctorate from Warsaw University in Poland.

A page from the 1968 edition of "El Rodeo", the California Polytechnic State yearbook, shows the college's Muslim Students Club. Mohammad Reza Nematzadeh graduated from the university in 1968, and the yearbook photo includes a student with the same name (circled). Courtesy California Polytechnic State University
Mohammad Reza Nematzadeh in 2005, when he was Iran's deputy oil minister. Morteza Nikoubazl / Reuters, file

Other candidates for administration positions are industrialist Mohammad Nahavandian, who was awarded a doctorate in economics by the George Washington University in January 1994, and Mohammadreza Nematzadeh, Rouhani’s campaign manager who studied environmental engineering at California Polytechnic State University in 1968. 

Seyed Hossein Mousavian, likely to be a key foreign policy adviser, is another Sacramento State graduate - and currently a research scholar at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, Princeton University.

That senior Iranian figures are educated in the West is not unusual. One of the candidates Rouhani defeated, Ali Akbar Velyati, was a post-graduate fellow at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine while current foreign minister Ali-Akhbar Salehi has a doctorate from MIT.

But together, they come from a cohort of Iranians who were studying in the United States just before the 1979 Islamic revolution and returned to Iran to participate in overthrowing the U.S.-backed Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. And all four of those touted for Rouhani’s inner circle have extensive business or political ties outside their home country.

“I sense the cabinet will have a more worldly outlook than under Ahmadinejad,” Chatham House's Aghlani said. 

Most have already served as ministers under previous presidents, according to Khajehpour. “They bring experience, which is significant because there has been too much trial and error in the past."

Mohammad Nahavandian, left, and Hossein Mousavian are among those tipped for posts in Iran's new cabinet. Reuters, file

“They also have an insight into how Iran is perceived in the West, and how the West is perceived in Iran.”

Ahmadinejad has taken a confrontational approach with the West, going as far as calling for Israel to be wiped off of the map, as well as alienating members of Iran's conservative establishment.

Rouhani himself was educated in the West, having been awarded both a masters degree and a doctorate in law at Scotland's Glasgow Caledonian University, where his supervisor Mahdi Zahraa remembered him as “a quiet-spoken, very gentle man.”

"His spoken English was good. Hassan knew his subject well and responded to my directions in an organised, thoughtful manner,” Zahraa said in a statement.

The university on Wednesday released video footage of the 1999 ceremony at which Rouhani received his doctorate.

As he prepares to take office, Rouhani is likely to be preoccupied with the tasks ahead of him – not least repairing Iran’s economy, which has been crippled by United Nations sanctions.

Last Sunday, Rouhani revealed the country’s financial situation is more perilous than Ahmadinejad had led people to believe, with inflation at 42 percent. The admission appeared to hint that Iranians can expect more transparency from a Rouhani government – even if relief from spiraling prices for everyday goods is not on the immediate horizon.

He has also called for less filtering of the Internet – a recognition that Iran’s Islamic principles cannot solely be maintained by sealing itself off from the outside world. "Gone are the days when a wall could be built around the country,” he said in remarks reported on state-run Press TV. “Today there are no more walls."

Khajehpour speculated that Rouhani would create "a government of unity – of reconciliation, perhaps." He speculated that even defeated election rival Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf could be offered a government role.

Still, Rouhani’s open approach – and strong regional outlook - could cement opposition among ordinary Iranians to U.S.-led sanctions.

“A civil society could emerge, bringing together previously fragmented groups who could mount a campaign against sanctions.”

In a hint at what lies ahead, Mousavian – one of the names tipped for a foreign policy role – said in an interview Monday that Washington’s sanctions policy was a “lose-lose game.”

He said: “[Rouhani] is courteous and logical and respects international norms and regulations. The key to resolving the dispute with Iran depends on whether the traditional Western policies of pressure, sanctions, threats and humiliating Iran will change to those based on respect, mutual interests and cooperation with Rouhani’s administration.”

NBC News' Robert Windrem contributed to this report.

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