Mona Hoobehfekr/AFP/Getty Images
Iranian high school students sit for their university entrance examination in Tehran in 2009. Iran's economy has been struggling in recent years, and many graduates feel they have few career options.
Iranian high school students sit for their university entrance examination in Tehran in 2009. Iran's economy has been struggling in recent years, and many graduates feel they have few career options. Mona Hoobehfekr/AFP/Getty Images
President Hassan Rouhani appeals to Iranian college students when he talks about creating more opportunities for the young. But the clock is ticking. Many of those born long after the 1979 Islamic Revolution see limited prospects at home and envision a better future abroad.
Outside Tehran University, Iran's largest, you can find earnest young students like Fazle Mahmoudian, 21, a math major who says he knows job prospects are grim, though he's not looking to leave.
"Unfortunately, there aren't many jobs for young graduates right now," he said. "But our supreme leader [Ayaltollah Ali Khamenei] says if you rely on your own potential, everything will work out well."
But it seems many more share the view of Said, 27, a post-graduate student who says many of his friends are looking to go abroad. He said he will probably leave as well, which is why he won't give his last name.
He noted that the new government's effort to rein in inflation and stabilize the Iranian currency may have the unintended consequence of increasing the number of departures.
A few years ago, Iranians exchanged their money into U.S. dollars at a reasonable rate. But the value of the Iranian rial has plummeted, and it's now increasingly expensive for Iranians to raise enough money to go abroad.
Emigration from Iran is not a new issue. Migration Information Source, a U.S. nonprofit, said back in 2006 that Iran was experiencing what it called one of "the highest rates of brain drain in the world."
Iran's President Hassan Rouhani speaks to students at Shahid Beheshti University in Tehran in December. Rouhani says he wants to create more opportunities, but many college-age Iranians are skeptical about the pace of change and some are looking to go abroad.
Iran's President Hassan Rouhani speaks to students at Shahid Beheshti University in Tehran in December. Rouhani says he wants to create more opportunities, but many college-age Iranians are skeptical about the pace of change and some are looking to go abroad. Mohammad Berno/AP
Arman, 24, is studying architecture, having switched from chemical engineering. He asked that his last name not be used because he doesn't want to jeopardize his chances of getting an exit visa. When asked what opportunities he and his classmates could look forward to, he shook his head.
"Actually, you could say none. You could see people, especially young people, who are trying to run away," he said.
Arman said this is true at his private university, where students from better-off families tend to go and that the same feeling prevails at the much larger Tehran University, a public institution.
"I sneak into Tehran University because I really want to see those people. Actually, they all just want to escape," he said.
Arman and other students say the reason Iran turns out so many math and science majors is because those disciplines are more attractive to foreign post-graduate schools or companies. They also say it's not just money that draws young Iranians away –- it's the stifling social and political atmosphere.
Amir graduated to work in the family business, but his real passion is leftist politics, which is why he won't give his full name. If youth is the time to experiment with diverse, even radical ideas, he said Iran right now is no place for the young. People are still reeling from the violent suppression of street protests following the 2009 presidential election.
Rouhani's election victory last summer hasn't made much difference, he said.
"I think it's not really a change. We can't have any collective groups, we don't have a party," he said. "They pushed people in Iran to vote between bad and worse. So people did that."
In his address this week marking the 35th anniversary of the 1979 Islamic Revolution, Rouhani singled out Iran's universities as a place where restrictions are easing.
But the continuing desire to leave suggests that it will take far more than a better economy to persuade young Iranians that they're seeing genuine change and not just cosmetic improvement.