Rouhani addresses Iran’s divided students

Iran’s new president, Hassan Rouhani, reiterated in a key speech Saturday his commitment to the twin goals he has set for himself of maintaining the Islamic republic’s nuclear activities while helping the country emerge from years of international isolation.

“Nuclear energy is our absolute right, yes, but the right to progress, development, improving people’s livelihood and welfare are also our rights,” Rouhani said, highlighting in his remarks, which were reported by state media, the challenges he inherited when he took office in August.

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At the time, the prospects of an international agreement on Iran’s contested nuclear activities seemed dim and inflation hovered near 40 percent.

“We need to strike the right balance between idealism and realism. There are those who want to close the gateways to this country,” Rouhani said, apparently referring to domestic and foreign opponents of the interim nuclear deal struck between Iran and global powers in Geneva last month.

Rouhani delivered his address at Tehran’s Shahid Beheshti University before at least 1,000 students. Members of various groups in the audience shouted out competing slogans, illustrating the deep political divisions among Iran’s educated youth.

Some of the students reportedly called for the release of political prisoners, including former prime minister Mir Hossein Mousavi and former parliamentary speaker Mehdi Karroubi, who led the 2009 post-election opposition movement.

Hard-line supporters of the government, known as Basijis, were also present and chanted “Death to America,” along with other revolutionary mantras.

Dec. 7 is the date Iranians observe Student Day, which commemorates the 1953 killing of three Tehran University students protesting an official visit by U.S. Vice President Richard M. Nixon.

The date is another reminder for Iranians of the long, complicated relationship between their country and the United States. The day is often marked by students protesting what they consider U.S. intervention in Iran’s domestic affairs.

“Today represents a historic day in Iran’s history, when pioneers and students stood against colonialism, despotism and foreign interference,” Rouhani said Saturday. “Indeed, in this land, students have always been pioneers in pursuing freedom and offering constructive criticism.”

Buoyed by public optimism after the eight-year presidency of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, which many here think was marred by economic mismanagement and overuse of the country’s security forces, Rouhani has managed to maintain a fragile peace between opposing political factions, something Ahmadinejad never achieved.

“This government is committed to all its promises, but we need internal consensus,” Rouhani said.

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