Iran’s Islamic regime is no model to follow

Iran’s Islamic regime is no model to follow

In 1979, the Shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, was overthrown and replaced by an Islamic Republic basing much of its governance practices on its interpretation of Islam. Today, 30 years later, the answer to a basic question is overdue: Did the theocracy deliver a better life for the Iranian people? The answer is a resounding no. Iran is far worse off today – an argument supported by the continuing political unrest and economic contraction associated in many ways with the country’s ongoing brain drain.

According to the International Monetary Fund, of 91 countries tracked according to the displacement of their elite citizens (those with advanced education and technical know-how), Iran ranks first. It is estimated that 250,000 Iranian engineers and physicians currently reside in the United States. The American government estimates that 70 percent of Iranian immigrants in the US have a college degree. In fact, the value of Iranian assets transferred to the US and Europe in the form of specialized human resources is estimated at well over $10 billion. It is believed that the number of Iranians scattered around the world to be between two and seven million people. IMF estimates the wealth of Iranians living abroad at some $400 billion. Nor is there any indication that the brain drain is slowing down.

The regime in Tehran is showing signs of both political and economic fatigue.

According to Iranian government sources, the unemployment rate in the Islamic Republic is 12.5 percent. However, international economists believe the real rate of unemployment to be twice as large. Politically, the recent June presidential election brought to light the deep dissatisfaction of the Iranian population, which was expressed in the streets of Tehran. Even if the current regime survives, it is wounded and appears to be significantly weaker. If the Islamic Republic is a product introduced in 1979, its shelf-life is expiring. Iran’s revolution has depleted the human and natural resources of the nation.

What transpired in Iran in the last three decades must be viewed as a warning to Arabs tempted to see Islam as the political solution to their problems of governance.

Many in the Arab world, moved by the rise of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini to power in 1979, came to regard Islam as the answer, and solution, to their state of decline. Since Arab secular nationalist regimes were unable to bring political stability and economic prosperity to a region falling behind – proponents of this view believed – some sort of Islamic governance might achieve both. Politically and militarily, secular Arab leaders failed to defeat Israel. Economically they failed to invigorate and launch an economic renaissance that would employ their increasingly younger populations.

Political Islam, which Iran’s revolution helped push forward and empower regionally, has gained both in the Middle East and beyond. On most Arab streets, the veil has become the custom rather than the exception. Bearded men – a signal of Islamic observance – are increasingly frequent. Islamic political parties have gained influence throughout the Arab world. The Muslim Brotherhood has become more vocal in Egypt; Jordan, Morocco, and Algeria, among others, have also seen an increase in Islamic organizations and political movements. In Lebanon, Hizbullah has become a powerful political movement. In Gaza, Hamas has forcibly taken over control of the territory – in a Palestinian society hitherto known for the strength of its secular impulses.

The failure of the Iranian regime to provide improvements to its own people should be an eye-opener to those Arabs hoping to emulate the Iranian model. The establishment of Islamic regimes in other nations may well prove as devastating as Iran’s experience. Substantial brain drains will provoke further economic contractions. There is a danger that Christians – who make up an important sector of the population in many Arab countries – would be among the first to leave. Vital and educated human resources would have little problem emigrating and integrating into the global economy.

Islamist-dominated regimes would drive the brightest, educated and most productive to relocate elsewhere. For example, about 3-4 million Iraqis have relocated as a result of the Iraqi conflict. A rise of Islamic parties to power in Baghdad would very probably further deplete Iraq’s human resources.

The Arab world is a very complex neighborhood, with different sets of challenges that each country must face individually. Yet, all countries share the need to reform their markets and educational systems. Three valuable decades have been wasted since the formation of the Islamic Republic of Iran; the region cannot afford another such period. Political Islam is not the answer. Skeptics should look at Iran and take note. It is not a pretty picture.


Raja Kamal is senior associate dean at the Harris School of Public Policy Studies at the University of Chicago. He wrote this commentary for THE DAILY STAR.