By Cesar Chelala
Hassan Rowhani’s election as the new Iranian president bodes well not only for that country but for the world as well, tired of the senseless rhetoric of the former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. When, at a campaign speech, Mr Rowhani stated, “We have no option other 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.
Mr Rowhani 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 had been dashed under Ahmadinejad. Mr Rowhani has already indicated that he would 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 Mr Rowhani was elected is a far cry from those in the last 2009 presidential election, where many believe that the results were rigged so that the confrontational Mr Ahmadinejad would return to power. Since then, many of the leaders of the so-called Green Movement are under house arrest.
But it is perhaps in the area of negotiations for nuclear power that people have the greatest hopes for Mr Rowhani’s new government. Unlike Ahmadinejad, who didn’t have a personal expertise on nuclear issues, Mr Rowhani was a top negotiator with the European Union’s three leading powers, the UK, France and Germany, on Iran’s nuclear programme.
Mr Rowhani was secretary of the Supreme National Security Council for 16 years, both under former presidents Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and Mohammad Khatami, both of whom strongly supported his candidacy. It was during Mr Khatami’s presidency that Iran froze its nuclear programme, 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 Mr Rowhani will have to 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%, although many analysts believe it is twice as high. However, youth unemployment is estimated to be 40%.
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, Mr Rowhani has the almost insurmountable task of ending
-or at least easing- international sanctions against his country because of Iran’s continuing nuclear programme. 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 programme. Straw called Mr Rowhani’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 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 $40bn in export revenues in 2012.
Up until now, there were no expectations that the talks between Iran and the US-led Western powers aiming their sanctions at Iran wouldn’t have a significant breakthrough. The election of Mr. Rowhani may substantially alter the present status quo and lead Iran out of the fateful morass it has been immersed until now.
Cesar Chelala, MD, PhD, is a co-winner of an Overseas Press Club of America award.