Several difficult years are in store for Iran, but eventually reform will come to the nation of 70 million.
That's the opinion of Bahman Baktiari, Ph.D., the Iranian-born director of the Middle East Center at the University of Utah.
"The young Iranians see some hope for relations between Iran and America to improve," he said. "But the question is, will the Iranian regime realize that, that it has a great opportunity to normalize relations with the U.S.?"
Over the past two decades, Baktiari has published numerous articles on his native country and has been interviewed for PBS, CNN International, the Wall Street Journal and USA Today, among others.
Wednesday he made his first visit to Billings, where he spoke to the Billings Committee on Foreign Relations. During an interview preceding his talk, Baktiari summarized Iranian politics and the nation's nuclear controversy.
"Iran today is not the same as it was 30 years ago," he said. "They are demanding more democratic rights. I think the election of Obama has emboldened them, encouraged them."
Baktiari, who last traveled to Iran in 2006, describes the country as vibrant, well-educated and hooked on technology - facts that the current regime fails to acknowledge. Regarding Iranians' view of America, it is based on the U.S. president's view of Iran, he said.
"President Obama is very popular in Iran," Baktiari said. "The West, particularly the U.S., has taken a different approach to Iran than the previous administration."
While the international climate may be warming, Baktiari believes Iran has entered its most sensitive period since 1979, when the shah was forced to flee the nation and the Islamic Republic of Iran was born.
Baktiari points out that 65 percent of the nation's people are under the age of 24, and many of them are pressing for change. But before change comes - if it does - Baktiari believes the struggle will intensify.
"I see one or two years of a very tough time," he said. "I believe we will see repression in Iran accelerated."
Baktiari has friends and former colleagues, most associated with universities, who were targeted for arrest during the post-election demonstrations that rocked the country in June. Intimidation persists and has been heightened in certain regions where the Revolutionary Guard had imposed military law, he said.
One of Iran's biggest problems today is the split among religious leaders across party lines. He also notes that the nation's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, is growing weaker.
"How can he maintain this no-war/no-peace situation?" he asks. "He won't compromise, but he doesn't have any solutions."
Baktiari thinks that the present regime will eventually yield because it will prove impossible to retain the current situation.
"I am of the opinion Iranian leaders are pragmatic," he said, meaning they are more apt to reform than face destruction.
He also holds hope for his country, based on the strong emphasis placed on education, the fact that women hold powerful roles there and the "amazing role of technology" - like Facebook and Twitter - that allow the youth to challenge the current regime.
In the meantime, however, the controversy surrounding Iran's uranium processing continues to test the country's place in the world. Iran has recently proposed sending its uranium to Russia or France where it can be enriched to the level necessary for use in power plants. The uranium, which could then no longer be weaponized, would be shipped back to Iran.
"It's just a question of mechanics now," he said.
But Baktiari questions the recent uproar over the West's "discovery" of a "secret" uranium processing plant in Iran. The plant was under construction for three years, and the United States has known about it for that long, he said.