Escaping Iran, One University Graduate at a Time

Behrouz Saba

From New America Media: When Washington announced recently that it had uncovered an Iranian plot that allegedly targeted the Saudi ambassador to the United States, efforts began in earnest to devise new ways to punish Tehran. Such efforts, however, overlook one glaring fact: Iranians have long been their own worst enemies, allowing their best and brightest to leave the country in droves to the sole benefit of corporate America.

Sharif University of Technology is Iran’s equivalent of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Established during the shah’s reign in consultation with MIT, it offers cutting-edge programs in information technology, biotechnology, nanotechnology and environmental sciences.

No wonder then that Sharif graduates are welcomed with open arms at Stanford, where they further hone their skills before moving on to high-paying jobs, larger homes and budding families— all in Silicon Valley.

They are gobbled up whole by such powerhouses as Microsoft, Google and eBay, the latter being the brainchild of Pierre Morad Omidyar, who was born of Iranian parents in France.

There are similar arrangements at Tehran University, Iran’s Harvard equivalent, whereby Iranian graduates who have found work in scientific capacities on the Eastern Seaboard, identify, recruit and invite new promising graduates from the university to join them.

Iran, as a result, has the dubious distinction of being the world leader in brain drain. Twenty-five percent of educated Iranians leave the country, at an estimated annual loss of $50 billion to a nation with a quarter of America’s GDP.

The reasons for this exodus of nimble gray matter are manifold. Hemmed in by a theocracy that is increasingly governed as a military dictatorship of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), young Iranians crave the freedom of California and New England. The promise of research facilities they can only dream of in Iran provides additional incentives, not to mention the assurance of prodigious paychecks.

Yet the most crucial factor in their decision to leave is the simple lack of jobs in their native country. Once here, they scoff at CIA World Fact Book statistics that place Iranian unemployment at 17 percent, telling stories of having left behind peers with multiple degrees who have been reduced to street sweeping. Iran Emrouz, an Iranian news Website, puts the unemployment rate closer to 30 percent.

Indeed in Iran a degree from a top university is no guarantee for a position commensurate with qualifications. Candidates for the best jobs, usually within government ministries and academia, must be religiously and politically correct, and preferably connected to the military and cleric circles. Ostensibly, there are only so many slots that the government can generate even for its favorites, leaving the rest to struggle for positions within an anemic, ill-paying private sector.

Although privatization has been all the rage in Iran, reducing government’s share of the GDP from 80 percent in 2005 to 40 percent in 2009, the country’s political climate does not encourage the financial infrastructure, risk-taking and initiative which must come together to create engines of productivity, prosperity and job creation.

Great wealth outside the ruling circles is seen as a direct challenge to the autocracy, deserving of swift and merciless punishment usually reserved for political dissidents. The IRGC is in control of all the country’s ports, allowing both legal and illegal exports and imports to the best of its own advantage. Under such circumstances, the guards see a healthy economy and a level playing field as anathema to their own power and prosperity.

Corruption from the top touches the life of every Iranian down to the vast slums of Tehran in an accepted system of graft, bribery and influence-peddling. Most recently, 19 people were arrested for embezzlement with a price tag of $2.63 billion and involving a transfer of funds from Bank Saderat (Export Bank) for the fictitious privatization of a publicly held organization.

While young, educated Iranians run abroad -- even members of the ruling elite do not trust their country as a safe haven. Former president Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani has transferred his considerable wealth overseas, investing in numerous ventures, including Centerpoint shopping center on Highway 407 in Toronto, among other Canadian holdings.

Educated Iranians who leave and the American universities and corporations that welcome them are equally myopic.

The former … should stand their ground by starting cutting-edge businesses in an emerging information economy of bioengineering, biotechnology and nanotechnology. Shaking hands with the devil so to speak, they should seek to assure the clergy, the military and other influential circles that a thriving economy in Iran can prove far more lucrative than their pathetic graft and smuggling.

Take the case of China, whose path to prosperity after quickly and quietly disposing of the Mao regime came in part by allowing Communist Party apparatchiks -- whose support was essential in the country’s transformation into a capital economy-- to enrich themselves. Today, with such a great degree of attention focused on Iran, there is a unique opportunity for educated, progressive Iranians to bring about a similarly quiet, bloodless revolution in their own country by dollars and cents rather than fist-shaking.

Establishing global networks of partners, observers and advocates, forward-looking Iranians can use the full capability of the World Wide Web to create constructive and transparent protocols to do business in Iran. Indeed , the “Global economy” is just that, a force of information, innovation and commerce that is erasing geopolitical limitations and putting real power in the hands of individuals commensurate with their talents and abilities.

Only when [the people of Iran] realize the power at their disposal can they put behind a putrid, spent legacy of political, religious and social patriarchy and step into the light of the 21st century.

- New America Media

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