Iranian-Americans Split Over New President Rouhani

Outside of Persian food store Fresh Food Market.

Outside of Persian food store Fresh Food Market.

At the United Nations last week Prime Minister of Israel Binyamin Netanyahu said that newly elected Iranian President Hassan Rouhani was a “sheep in wolf’s clothing.” President Obama, who made history for holding a phone call with the Iranian leader, has commended Rouhani for his openness to starting a dialogue about Iran’s nuclear program. Opinions of the new Iranian president are indeed split, especially amongst Iranian New Yorkers themselves.

“It’s not surprising that there’s a diverse range of views [on Rouhani],” said Reza Marashi, Research Director for the National Iranian-American Council (NIAC). “To have an expectation that even a majority of Iranian-Americans would have a solid view of Rouhani is far-fetched.”

President Rouhani was elected in June 2013 after his predecessor, former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejhad, had reached his term limit set by the Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Iran. Contrary to Ahmadinejhad, Rouhani is depicting himself as open to the West and change in Iran. According to an interview with NBC News, Rouhani said that he does not seek war or nuclear weapons and would even consider lifting Iran’s strict censorship laws.

Iranian-Americans fall into three categories when it comes to opinion of President Rouhani. There are the hopeful, the cautious, and the doubtful. Although Iranians may be split on opinion, everyone is anxiously waiting to see how President Rouhani’s first term plays out.

Saeed Pourkay is an Iranian-American grateful for the breath of fresh air the new president brings. Upon discussing Netanyahu’s dismissal of Rouhani’s willingness to cooperate, Pourkay was disappointed. “It was a little bit offensive and unfair for him to say.”

Although a resident of New York, Pourkay resonates strongly with the choices of Iranians back in his home country. “The people of Iran did choose [Rouhani] for change. I believe it will happen.”

Some Iranians, while optimistic, still have their reservations about Rouhani. Jalad Samohi, employee at a small Iranian market in Great Neck, believes time is the best indicator of change. “Iran has changed,” he argued in Farsi. “It’s barely [Rouhani’s] first year. We have to see what he does and how he works – if [what he does] even works.”

Like many Iranians, Samohi described himself as a man who doesn’t discuss politics. Speaking against the government in Iran is dangerous. Iranians are hesitant to discuss politics because they remember the oppressive Islamic regime that frowned upon dissonance. He does not like to talk about the delicate and complex nature of Iran’s current state in the world; he only hopes Rouhani can bring change.

Still, despite glimmers of hope, skepticism when it comes to the Iranian government runs deep among Iranians here in the US. The Islamic Republic Supreme Leader, currently Ayatollah Khamenei, is the head of religious and political organization in Iran. While the president is popularly elected, his power falls second to the Supreme Leader.

“In a deck of cards, Rouhani is the joker,” said Nasser Rahmani, owner of Fresh Food Market, in Farsi. “All the work of Iran is done by Khamenei. Even when visiting [the Islamic Republic] controls Rouhani and tells him what he’s allowed to say.”

When asked about whether Rouhani could persuade the United States to lift its sanctions, Rahmani shook his head. He believes the only one with the power to do anything is Ayatollah Khamenei, who Rahmani thinks will not remedy the situation.

“[Sanctions make] everything expensive – the only cheap things now are the souls of people, because they’re easily sacrificed by the government.”