NEW YORK - Hassan Rouhani’s election as the new Iranian president augurs well not only for that country but also for a world tired of the senseless rhetoric from President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
When, at a campaign speech, Rouhani stated, “We have no option rather than moderation,” he was also defining what will be one of the main characteristics of his government: a more conciliatory approach to the world and an end to the country’s international isolation.
Rouhani has a special appeal to the country’s youth — two-thirds of Iran’s 70 million people are under 35 — whose wishes for a freer, more open country were dashed under Ahmadinejad. Rouhani has already indicated that he will curb the activities of the morality police, who arrest women for not wearing proper scarves and coats, lift Internet restrictions and, in consensus with government officials, free political prisoners.
The clean election procedure under which Rouhani was elected is a far cry from those in the 2009 presidential election, where many believe the results were rigged so that the confrontational Ahmadinejad would return to power. Since then, many leaders of the so-called Green Movement have been put under house arrest.
But it is perhaps in the area of negotiations for nuclear power that people have the greatest hopes for Rouhani’s new government. Unlike Ahmadinejad, who didn’t have personal expertise on nuclear issues, Rouhani was a top negotiator with the European Union three leading powers — the United Kingdom, France and Germany — on Iran’s nuclear program.
Rouhani was secretary of the Supreme National Security Council for 16 years, under former Presidents Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and Mohammad Khatami, both of whom strongly supported his candidacy. It was during Khatami’s presidency that Iran froze its nuclear program, eased social restrictions and supported dialogue with the West, policies that were reversed during Ahmadinejad’s tenure.
Ahmadinejad’s policies provoked an increase in the country’s international ostracism. In addition, through an unnecessary confrontational discourse, he kept the world in terrified suspense in his war of words with Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Among the many problems Rouhani will confront is the issue of youth unemployment, which has provoked one of the world’s highest “brain drain” rates. Presently, the country’s unemployment rate is around 12 percent, although many analysts believe it is twice as high. Moreover, youth unemployment is estimated to be 40 percent.
Many youngsters who believed that with better education they would have better job opportunities felt those hopes dashed by reality. They have to wait longer to attain many of their goals, such as their first job and marriage after graduation. Instead they reached a situation increasingly common in the Middle East as to deserve its own name — “waithood.”
In the international sphere, Rouhani has the almost insurmountable task of ending — or at least easing — international sanctions against his country because of Iran’s continuing nuclear program. If the past is any indication, he negotiated with Jack Straw, then Britain’s foreign secretary, and other high European officials, for a temporary suspension of Iran’s nuclear enrichment program. Straw called Rouhani’s negotiating skills “extremely professional,” a rare tribute to an Iranian politician dealing with nuclear issues.
Easing of international sanctions would be a godsend for the Iranian economy, which has rapidly deteriorated following the imposition of international economic sanctions. It is estimated that inflation now stands at 30 percent and the value of the rial, the national currency, has more than halved. The International Energy Agency has estimated that Iran lost more than $40 billion in export revenues in 2012.
Up until now, there were no expectations of a significant breakthrough in the talks between Iran and the U.S.-led Western powers aiming for sanctions on Iran. The election of Rouhani may substantially alter the present status quo and lead Iran out of the fateful morass in which it has been immersed.
Cesar Chelala, M.D. and Ph.D, is a writer on human rights, medical and foreign policy issues. He is a winner of the Overseas Press Club of America Award.