Iran is a country that maintains something of the fascination it had in ancient times, when it was both fabulous and remote. In our times, it remained somewhat remote, but also something that couldn’t be ignored as it went through a series of dramatic events, from the revolution of 1979, the hostage crisis, the Iraq-Iran war from 1980 to 1988, and much more. The latest political convulsion was the “Green Revolution” in 2009 that quickly abated, but the country clearly keeps evolving, especially in its relations with the West. It is impossible for anyone, including perhaps the Iranian themselves, to evaluate everything that’s going on in their country. For sure, Iran is complex, changing, varied, and fascinating, perhaps as much as it was at the time of Marco Polo when it was the hub of the merchants carrying silk and spice from China. These are some notes from a trip to Tehran where I stayed for a week in October 2019.
The first impression you have when you arrive in Tehran is of chaos: heavy traffic, throngs of people, movement and noise everywhere. But it takes little time to understand that this is friendly chaos. Especially if you happen to be Italian, you find yourself rapidly at ease in the confusion. Tehran is appropriately exotic in the bazaars, but also quiet in the suburbs, and very modern in places such as the shopping center near the Azadi lake, where you could think you are in Paris.
One thing about Iran is that it is a remarkably friendly place. That’s not unexpected: in most places in the world, the local people will normally be able to separate real foreign visitors from the image their TV presents to them. Most people everywhere are naturally friendly if they don’t feel threatened, or feel that they are being swindled or chided. If, as a visitor, you approach them in a friendly manner, they will almost always reciprocate in the same way. In Iran, Western governments are often perceived (and for good reasons) as evil entities, but that doesn’t apply to individual foreign visitors.
Just to give you some idea of the Iranian attitude, let me tell you of when I was sitting with my wife at a local restaurant (by the way, if you happen to be in Teheran, try the Baba Mirza on the Mirza Kurchak Khan street: Iranian fast food, absolutely great!). There, we entered in a conversation with another customer who turned out to be a civil engineer. When he learned that we were heading to see the Abgineh (glassware) Museum of Tehran (again, a highly recommended visit), he accompanied us there and then he insisted to pay our tickets in order, he said, “to show us the traditional Iranian hospitality.” That surely takes Iran several notches upward in the classification of friendly countries but it was not the only example in our experience in Teheran. That friendliness may also extend to American visitors even at the times when the US was referred to as the “Great Satan,” as Terence Ward reports in his book “Searching for Hussein” (2003).
This said, Iran doesn’t seem to be just friendly to foreigners, it seems to be friendly also to Iranians — at least these days. Of course, for a foreigner it may be difficult to detect social tensions brewing below the surface but what I can tell you is that in Tehran there is no heavy security apparatus detectable, unlike what you can see in many Western cities. We were taken to see from outside the residence of president Hassan Rouhani in a building in the Northern Area of Tehran: the security of the President seemed to require only a few policemen standing around the building. Of course, there may have been other, invisible, security measures. But it is impressive how they don’t seem to expect serious troubles.
In terms of social tensions, the obvious thing that comes to the mind of a Westerner about Iran, just as for all Islamic countries, is the status of women. Iran and Saudi Arabia are probably the only states in the world enforcing by law the Islamic tradition for women to cover their heads. Yet, the time when women were harassed by the police if they didn’t cover their heads well enough seems to be a thing of the past. In Iran, if a woman likes to wear a black chador that makes her look like a European nun, she is free to do so and many do. But most Iranian women, at least in Tehran, tend to interpret the rules creatively. The headscarf, the hijab, is worn halfway over the head and it is often light and brightly colored. The dress is also colored and decorated, women also wear jewelry and makeup. The result is often very elegant and lively. My wife reports that after a few days in Teheran she felt completely at ease wearing the hijab and that she even felt a little strange when she had to abandon it, coming back to Europe.
Then, of course, the impressions of a week may be badly misleading, but what I noted in terms of the social structure of the country seems to be consistent with the data. In Iran, women are still a minority in terms of being part of the workforce, but their role is important and larger than in other Middle-Eastern countries. Also, the gap seems to be rapidly closing. Of course, Iran remains a relatively poor country: in terms of GDP per person (PPP), it ranks at about half that of Italy and one third the value of the US. Nevertheless, in terms of social equality, as measured by the Gini coefficient, Iran does better than the United States, although not as well as Italy. Iranians also have a good public health service.
A country’s educational system is a good indicator of social cohesion: dictatorial governments have no interest in an educated citizenship — they rather tend to exterminate their citizens or use them as cannon fodder. Iran, instead, shines in this area with the state providing free of charge education for all citizens with impressive results. Some 4.5 million students enrolled in university courses, which is only slightly less than in the US in relative terms and much larger than in Italy. Iran has one of the largest ratios of students to the workforce anywhere in the world.
Of course, an evaluation of the Iranian education system would have to consider the scientific level of the universities and it is true that, right now, they don’t score as high as Western ones. But the universities I visited seemed to be staffed by competent people and the research level was good. Here, one has to take into account the language barrier that often puts non-native English speakers at a disadvantage in the competition for space in the best scientific journals. I noted also that the research institutes I visited were massively staffed with women although, as it happens in Europe, the top-level positions are still mostly in the hands of men. That may rapidly change, though.
Islam is also part of the national Iranian culture: visiting Iran at the time of the Arba’een celebration gives you some idea of the importance of some religious traditions: you need not be a Shi’a Muslim to understand how deep the feelings for these traditions run and how fascinating they can be. Nevertheless, I would say that the current Iranian society is remarkably secularized. I can’t quantify that, just take it as a personal impression.
And now something about the current situation and perspectives. The first question is population: The number of Iranian citizens reached 80 million and it continues to grow, although at a progressively slower pace: Iran is moving toward its demographic transition, but it is not there, yet. It is also a population that’s becoming more and more urbanized, a typical characteristic of many non-Western countries. That may be a serious problem in the future: Iran is a large country but mostly dry and only a fraction of its land is arable. The result is that food must be imported from abroad. So far, this has not been a problem: globalization has made it possible to buy food anywhere and the result has been the near disappearing of hunger and famines worldwide. But things keep changing: globalization is on its way out and we may see a return of the old maxim that says “thou shalt starve thy neighbor into submission.” The food supply problem seems to be recognized by the Iranian government, hence the emphasis on research on desalination and water management (incidentally, the reason why I was in Tehran). But desalinated water, so far, has been way too expensive to be used in agriculture. In any case, water management is a vital element in the future of Iran.
Then, there is the question of oil production. Here are the latest available data for Iran. (From “peakoilbarrel.com” — the Y scale is in thousands of barrels per day)
At its peak, around 1978, the Iranian oil production had reached about 6 million barrels per day making Iran one of the main oil producers in the world. After the revolution and the war, it reached a certain stability near 4 Mb/day. But you see the effect of the economic sanctions: Iran’s production was nearly halved and exports nearly zeroed. At the current prices of oil, it is a loss of revenue of tens of billions of dollars, not at all negligible for a GDP of less than 500 billion dollars.
The Iranian economy can survive the loss of revenues from oil: it is surviving it right now, although with difficulties. But, in a certain sense, the sanctions are not completely bad: they can be seen as a stimulus to move in a direction in which Iran has to move anyway. The national oil resources are not infinite and the gradual loss of demand worldwide is going to bring Iran to a point where it will have to cease to be an oil-based economy. These are the same challenges faced by all countries in the world: abandon oil and move to an economy based on renewable energy. It is a difficult challenge that won’t probably be met without trauma and suffering, but it is not a choice. Willing or not, we all have to go in that direction.
One problem, here, is the evident lack, in Iran, of what we call “environmental awareness.” Of course, university researchers and teachers are aware of climate change, but most people in Iran seem to think that it is just one more Western hoax concocted to force them into submission. Seeing the world from the Iranian side, I can’t fault them for being oversuspicious. In recent times, Western governments have been doing their best to lose even the last shreds of credibility they had managed to maintain. And the results are easily detectable: I asked a group of about 30 students of the faculty of engineering of Tehran University what they thought of Greta Thunberg. It turned out that none of them had any idea of who she was.
Overall, though, I am not pessimistic about the future of Iran. Facing a difficult challenge, Iran has some advantages. One is that of being at the hub of the nascent Eurasian exchange zone. Another is to be a well-insulated country that makes it especially suitable for solar energy. In the end, I would agree with the idea proposed by Hamid Dabashi in “Iran, the Birth of a Nation” (2016) where he notes that Iran was a nation before it was a state. The Iranian nation is kept together by strong cultural traditions and linguistic ties. It has survived tremendous challenges in the recent past, it has a chance to survive the new ones that will come.
Ugo Bardi teaches physical chemistry at the University of Florence, in Italy and he is also a member of the Club of Rome. He is interested in resource depletion, system dynamics modeling, climate science and renewable energy. Contact: ugo.bardi(whirlything)unifi.it