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Human Rights is the Real Reason for Iran’s Brain Drain

89 percent of those who graduate with doctoral degrees remain in the US. The reasons, no doubt, are numerous and include much greater economic opportunities outside of Iran, as well as greater social and political freedom with which to apply one’s newly-acquired education.

 While Forouzandeh cites disputed elections and political rhetoric as factors driving Iranian exoduses to other countries, he focuses on the economic angle when speculating about the future of Iran’s brain drain. He suggests that the acquisition of seven billion dollars in sanctions relief amidst nuclear negotiations may slow the trend of Iranian students going away in order to stay away.

 Forouzandeh points out a slightly decreased inflation rate and a modestly positive IMF forecast to further support this assertion. But these figures ignore persistent indicators of economic mismanagement and cronyism in Iran. Domestic gas prices have recently doubled, creating additional hardship for the majority of the low-earning population, especially in light of losses in the value of the rial.

 Meanwhile, President Rouhani has attempted to convince Iranians to voluntarily give up government subsidies, apparently fearing that the entire economy would be in danger in this money was not saved. Only 2.4 million of the country’s 77 million person population agreed to give them up. Many of the others simply cannot afford to do so.

However, this doesn’t mean that nobody in Iran is well-off. Those who enjoy connections to the regime or to regional oligarchs are likely to enjoy much better positions in society. The Brookings Institution reports that 40 percent of people surveyed in Iran believe that cronyism has contributed to a lack of job prospects.

 This comes close to a more salient point about the situation that graduates face if they choose to return to Iran. It is one thing to highlight positive economic factors while ignoring negative ones; but it is quite another issue if one chooses to ignore the social and political situation.

 There are no well-publicized studies on the reasons for the Iranian brain drain, but in absence of data that says otherwise, it is fair to assume that graduates are more fearful of the repressive Islamic regime than they are of a lack of economic opportunity.

 Last week, a population communication app was banned because it had been purchased by Facebook, which the Iranian regime described as being run by an “American Zionist.” And on Wednesday it was announced that the government of Iran had just shut down another daily newspaper, on vague accusations of “spreading lies.” Fortunately, however, reports of that ban do not indicate that the publishers of the paper have been arrested for their statements.

 But the same cannot be said of all journalists in Iran, nor of all lawyers, teachers, students, or activists. Iran holds about 800 “prisoners of rights,” and these people are placed in a prison system known to have deplorable conditions including a lack of medical care and arbitrary raids and beatings. The system has also seen a precipitous increase of its already-high rate of executions under the current presidential administration. Iran’s execution figures are second only to China, and their legitimacy is similarly suspect, especially in light of past incidents in which thousands of political prisoners have been executed.

 Amidst this political landscape, which is not impeded or confronted in any way by nuclear negotiations or sanctions relief, it seems clear that students who study abroad have more reasons not to return to their home country than because the economy has been held down by Western pressure. If world powers continue to alleviate that pressure, we will see how many educated Iranians still make the choice to avoid returning to a nation where their educated opinions can lead them to imprisonment.