Hassan Rouhani: Young Iranians Are Ready to Move Forward — Is Their New President?

For Reza Sajadi, and countless other young Iranians, the recent elections gave them hope for the first time in a long time. 

Despite what you've probably heard and read, the elections in Iran on June 14 represented a major step forward for the reform movement. On that day, millions of young people across Iran saw that not only can a moderate win, but that the protests during the last election in 2009 were just the beginning.

The elections were also significant, because it meant that Iran's current leader, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, will soon be leaving power. For many young people in Iran, he has represented an outdated way of thinking and embarrassed all those who are ready to move toward a modern and more peaceful relationship with the world.

Beyond Ahmadinejad's insulting comments about Israel and the West, his refusal to embrace transparency and openness in Iran's development of nuclear energy was especially damaging. It was this lack of transparency that worried the West and led to the crippling economic sanctions that have hurt so many young people like Sajadi.

On June 14, Iranians came out in record-breaking numbers to cast their ballots and overwhelmingly supported Hasan Rouhani. Of the 50 million eligible voters in Iran, an incredible 72.2 percent turned out to vote, many of whom were young. Making up 60% of the country's population, this generation of young Iranians is already poised to shape the country's future

Within a few hours after the polls closed, the Iranian government announced that Rouhani would be the successor to Ahmadinejad. Winning over 50% of the vote, it's worth noting that Rouhani won in a landslide and therefore avoided a run-off with the second place finisher — Mohammad Ghalibaf — who only won about 17% of the vote. Rouhani was the only moderate in a field of conservatives and received the backing of reformists, including key endorsements from popular ex-Presidents Khatami and Rafsanjani, who are still both popular among voters. 

Talking about voting in the election, Sajadi said, "The elections were important because of the current financial circumstances in Iran." For Sajadi and countless other Iranians, the economic challenges the country has experienced in recent years have meant that jobs and opportunities are hard to come by. What's more, these challenges have limited Iran's ability to compete in a globalized world. Young people have been especially hard-hit by the rapid rise in inflation, currently estimated to be at least 32.3%, which has made it difficult to make rent and pay for many of the things we take for granted such as electricity.

Sajadi believes that while the economic challenges the country faces can be attributed in part to the government mismanagement, the biggest factor has been the sanctions placed on Iran by the West. For Sajadi, one of the biggest problems created by the sanctions has been that "Iran has become closed off from the rest of the world and further isolated."

One of the major consequences of the sanctions has been that foreign countries that buy Iranian resources are not allowed to trade in dollars. This has led to Iran's currency, the Rial, significantly fluctuating. In order for Iran's economy to improve, there needs to be a president who is willing to talk to America and improve relations with the West. Throughout the elections, Rouhani questioned Iran's policy towards America, encouraging more communication between the two countries.

Rouhani supporters also believe that he is the man capable of heading negotiations about the Iranian nuclear program, in part, because he was a key negotiator in the constructive talks about 10 years ago. They argue that if Iran and America sort out their problems, and the sanctions are lifted, the economy would improve markedly.

In addition to reversing the country's economic decline, young Iranians want greater social liberties and religious freedoms. On this front, Sajadi believes that "there probably won't be many changes from a religious perspective" because the new president is still bound to the Islamic Republic.

Immediately after the election results were announced, people came together in celebration. Sajadi's mother, sister, and brother joined him in celebration. Talking about this moment, he said, "The Iranian people have had very little cause for happiness, and this was a night to celebrate." He also recalled seeing countless women taking their headscarves off in protest as people danced and embraced. For him, this was like a breath of fresh air, "because of the pressure they normally feel and the scarcity of happiness they normally have." Compared to four years ago, Iranians felt that this election and their vote would have an impact this time, and that they were victorious.

One of the things reformists have been calling for is the release of Mir Hossein Mousavi, a key reformist and their chosen presidential candidate in 2009's election. Under house arrest since the beginning of the Green Movement in the aftermath of the 2009 elections, Mousavi's suppression has been a constant reminder of how much progress remains to be made.

Mousavi's release would be symbolic for the reform movement and millions of young people like Sajadi. If Rouhani can secure his release, it would be seen as a victory for the reformers and a step forward for the young generation. When Sajadi joined his friends to celebrate Iran's participation in next year's World Cup, he was surprised to hear the chants of "Free Mousavi" and encouraged by the growing prospects for change this represents.

Though it has been four years since the Green Movement and Mousavi's arrest, Sajadi and many other young people have not forgotten and are continuing the push for his release. As the economy continues to worsen, they have only grown more determined to push for the reforms the country needs. They view the election of Rouhani as a springboard for greater reforms and are happy that their candidate, the moderate, won in such a decisive victory.

The power of hope in Iran cannot be overstated and the election of Rouhani is a symbol of both the progress that has been made and the progress that is still to come. With the strong support of the people behind him, Rouhani has the potential to truly be a leader of the people and much less of a puppet controlled by Ayatollah Khamenei. How he balances between Khamenei and the Iranian people will define his presidency and define the course of Iran's future. But for now, hope is a very powerful thing.           

This article orignially appeared on the Campus Progress blog and HuffPost College blog.

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Amir Salehzadeh

Amir Salehzadeh is a senior at the University of California, Berkeley studying Political Science. Amir has experience working for the local, state (CA), and federal level of government. He is involved with grassroots, community, and campaign organizing. He is particularly interested in foreign relations with the Middle East.

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