Iran Loses Highly Educated and Skilled Citizens during Long-Running “Brain Drain”
Driven by government repression and a struggling economy, large numbers of well-educated Iranians have left their country in the years since the 1979 revolution. The number of departing scientists, scholars, writers, and other intellectuals has fluctuated in recent decades, with emigrants attracted by educational and employment opportunities abroad.
Emigration can be prompted by highly skilled Iranians’ perceptions about the potential for their future careers, earnings, and ability to express themselves. Often, Iranians studying abroad do not return after graduation, instead putting their expertise to work in their countries of residence. In the process, they deprive Iran of the brainpower that could propel a stuttering economy worsened by international sanctions; they also send a signal to others that career prospects are better elsewhere. At times, the government has adopted a hostile attitude towards academics and researchers, making alternate countries more attractive. Other factors are also at play in Iran, including an infrastructure that has not developed in proportion to rapid population growth over the past 40 years, as well as bribery, corruption, and mismanagement that have had a significant negative impact on people's quality of life. Western rivals, meanwhile, have long encouraged scientists and other experts to leave Iran.
Critics say this “brain drain” has contributed to a dearth of expertise, innovation, and productivity that is holding back advancements in Iran’s economy and cultural institutions. Iran's population more than doubled from 1979 to 2019, to 83 million people. Over the same period, Stanford University researchers have estimated that the share of emigrants—including both permanent and temporary migrants—has grown nearly threefold. A large number of these emigrants have been well educated or are in prominent social and cultural positions. Gallup’s Potential Net Migration Index, taken between 2015 and 2017, found that more than one-quarter of highly educated Iranian residents would leave the country if they could.
In recent years, Iran’s isolation from the world has worsened. After taking office in 2017, U.S. President Donald Trump reversed the outreach of his predecessor, Barack Obama, and unilaterally withdrew from the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran. Both countries have engaged in high-stakes brinksmanship since, including cyberwarfare and the U.S. assassination of Maj. Gen. Qassim Suleimani, head of Iran’s powerful Quds Force, in early 2020. Despite a change in rhetoric under new U.S. President Joe Biden, the fundamental contours of the U.S.-Iran relationship remain mostly the same, and tensions have only mounted in the wake of an April attack on a key Iranian nuclear facility that officials have linked to Israel.
Nuclear issues aside, Iran’s economy has been through three straight years of recession, with the country facing international sanctions, the economic effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, and a currency freefall. Its economic fortunes undoubtedly will factor into the decision-making by current and future workers and students whether to migrate.
This article covers the emigration of highly educated and specialized workers and students from Iran in the decades since the 1979 revolution and the effect this loss of talent has had on Iran’s economy.
Beginning of the Flight of Talent
In October 1979, just months after Iran redefined itself as an Islamic republic, revolutionary leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini remarked on the large numbers of well-educated people who had left the country. “They say the brains escaped. Let them escape, they are not educated people, and are treacherous brains,” Khomeini said. “It does not matter if they are university scholars; they are the ones who are pro-Western civilization, let them go. We do not want their services and contributions.”
More than four decades later, the echo of these words lingers, as the flight of well-educated Iranians has persisted. These migratory flows have varied over time. After the 1979 Iranian revolution, the country went through a period known as the Cultural Revolution, when regime policies aimed to eliminate non-Islamic and Western movements from universities, government offices, and other institutions. Universities were officially closed for about three years as a government-designated council developed curricula that agreed with Islamic principles, offering a prime period for academics to leave. According to data from the Ministry of Culture and Higher Education, there were 44 percent fewer professors in Iranian higher education institutions in 1982 than in 1980.
The emigration rate increased after the end of the Iran-Iraq War in 1988, spurred by political crackdowns as well as economic and social disintegration that remained in the wake of the eight-year conflict. This period decimated Iran's scientific and research infrastructure, depriving scholars of opportunities for advancement. It also saw the rise of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, which during the war evolved into an institutionalized force for suppressing domestic political revolt. Researchers with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) reported in 1999 that 25 percent of Iranians with a tertiary degree were living abroad in countries that were members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).
Student protests during Mohammad Khatami’s presidency paved the way for President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2006 to launch a policy of ridding universities of “liberal and secular” academics and influence, which he linked to colonialism. The posture pushed many university professors and faculty members into retirement, and may have had a significant role in spurring the emigration of scholars and professionals. Around this time, an estimated 150,000 to 180,000 educated Iranians were leaving Iran each year, according to media reports and analysts. Reza Malekzadeh, a member of the Supreme Council of the Cultural Revolution of Iran, said in 2014 that one factor behind the emigration was “because we lack the necessary research and development infrastructure; we cannot prevent them from leaving the country.”
In recent years, the government of President Hassan Rouhani has downplayed the extent of ongoing loss of talent. Government entities have declined to provide statistics on the departure of academics, professionals, and students, in part citing methodological difficulties in distinguishing them from other flows. Critics claim that this lack of accounting prevents the government from enacting policies to keep well-educated workers satisfied.
One reason for the high emigration rates of well-trained Iranians is that large numbers of university students have graduated into an economy that is unable to employ them. Lately, factors including plummeting currency values, international sanctions, and the pandemic have contributed to the pressures for emigration of highly educated workers. In 2020, 900 university lecturers reportedly left the country, and members of Parliament have criticized the government for offering professors low salaries compared to other countries. University leaders have similarly complained about challenges retaining faculty members.
Favorable conditions for well-educated migrants in the West have also been put forward as a pull factor for Iranians. The United States has been a particularly popular destination for well-educated Iranians—hosting slightly more than 30 percent of all Iranians abroad as of 2019, according to the United Nations—with significant numbers also in Canada and throughout Europe.
Quantifying the Effect of the Brain Drain
The departure of educated Iranians has serious economic costs for the country. In 2014, then-Science Minister Reza Faraji Dana estimated that the talent drain translated into an annual loss of $150 billion, though this might be on the high end; a more recent World Bank estimate placed the cost at $50 billion per year. This figure is several times the value of Iran’s recent petroleum exports, which in 2019 amounted to less than $20 billion.
Nonmonetary metrics also illustrate the scope of this migration. According to data compiled by the Economist, 96 percent of patents registered by Iranian-born inventors between 2007 and 2012 were recorded by Iranians living abroad. By comparison, for China, this rate was 17 percent. Iran’s Haft Sobh newspaper found that the top ten performers on the country’s 2007 university entrance exam were no longer in Iran as of 2013 and had instead moved to countries including Canada and Switzerland.
Meanwhile, Iranians abroad tend to be well educated and earn high incomes. Nearly 60 percent of Iranian immigrants in the United States had at least a bachelor’s degree as of 2019, with more than 30 percent holding a graduate or professional degree. Iranian immigrants’ median household income was nearly $79,000 in 2019, significantly more than U.S.-born residents ($66,000) and immigrants overall (nearly $64,000). Likewise, more than 47 percent of Iranian asylum seekers living in Germany in 2018 had a university degree, the German Federal Office for Migration and Refugees said in a recent report.
Rapid development and economic growth during the 1970s enticed many students to return to Iran after their studies abroad. However, those heading to international destinations now tend to stay abroad. In 1979, 90 percent of Iranian students in the United States intended to return to Iran, whereas fewer than 8 percent of doctoral recipients on temporary visas said the same in 2017, representing the lowest number for any foreign nationality in the United States answering the query.
Until recently, Iranians who chose to emigrate were mostly university graduates, doctors, and other medical professionals. However, this trend has begun to reach into lower levels, including Iranian college students and high schoolers. Researchers with Stanford’s Iran 2040 Project estimated that approximately 130,000 Iranian-born students were enrolled in universities abroad in early 2020, an historic high.
Migration of Doctors and Nurses
Iranian health-care workers have also been prone to emigrate. Approximately 1,000 Iranian nurses have left the country annually in recent years using employment channels in recent years, aggravating a domestic nursing shortage. This trend may be explained by the hard conditions for health-care workers in Iran. Nurses’ working hours have increased and many have reported that their salaries are low and they are not respected or supported in their jobs. This migration of doctors and nurses has placed a strain on Iran’s health-care system.
In recent months, the COVID-19 public-health crisis has exacerbated some of the economic factors that have been driving emigration. Oil production hit a record low in 2020, the currency fell, and economic challenges continued to mount. Over the first ten months of the coronavirus outbreak, nearly 3,000 health-care workers reportedly left the country, and the number of nurses applying to emigrate tripled.
Iranian residents were also hit particularly hard by the virus, and the government was widely criticized for failing to prepare the public and medical workers for its deadly toll. The pandemic has continued to prey on the country, which hit record rates of infection in April. A shortage of health-care workers might have been responsible for some of the high infection and mortality rates. Health-care workers were also especially vulnerable; during the public-health crisis’s peak, about one medical professional died each day. These challenges may have made emigration more appealing to medical workers.
The Government’s Response
Prominent Iranian medical and scientific researchers have urged the country to develop plans to convince top talent to remain. But despite the obvious trends, the government has taken few steps to create facilities and other incentives that could reduce the draw of emigration. Instead, it has continued imposing restrictions on research institutions, universities, and medical centers, and also punished those protesting for better research assistance.
Other authoritarian governments could provide a model. China has spent years investing in strategies to woo its emigrants to return. Talent development policies, generous research grants, and a booming economy have encouraged thousands of “sea turtles” to return and build up Chinese sectors such as technology, health care, and academia. Between 2011 and 2012, the number of returning migrants in China grew by 47 percent.
The Iranian government has repeatedly denied or downplayed the emigration of highly educated citizens over recent years, but its challenges are serious. Without change the trends will continue, and indeed may only accelerate as the economy, which was already struggling, remains trapped in a downward spiral. The consequences for Iran will be long-lasting.
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