The deteriorating conditions within Iran prompted many of its citizens to seek a better life elsewhere, especially its educated professionals. For a variety of reasons, Iran’s intelligentsia—including academics, researchers, doctors, and skilled workers—have left the country in growing numbers over the past half-decade, resulting in brain drain, which Iran’s government has struggled to combat. This trend has significant implications for the country’s economy, its education sector, its research and development programs, and its overall prosperity—but there are no signs of reversal because of bleak prospects for political and economic reform.
Highly Skilled Professionals Leave Iran in Droves
In a recent meeting with managers and specialists in the medical field, Iran’s president, Ebrahim Raisi, expressed his concerns about the increasing waves of migration by doctors. Despite a clear understanding of the consequences of the increased outflow of professional citizens, Iran’s government has done remarkably little to convince them to stay. Indeed, the alarming increase in migration by skilled workers in the healthcare sector, among other professional classes, has reached a new level in Iran. Specialized doctors are in short supply in some fields, and there are many vacancies waiting to be filled in the medical field in general. In 2019, Iran had “the second-largest brain drain in the world, with the migration of nearly 180,000 educated professionals,” according to Iran News Wire.
Within four key social groups—college students, graduates, doctors, and professors—between 40% and 53% expressed a desire to emigrate in social surveys. Additionally, half of Iran’s tech startup workers want to leave the country, according to some surveys, with the majority of them planning on staying abroad. The negative effects of this trend are already visible in the IT sector, as growing emigration is creating difficulties for the government and the businesses alike.
The process of brain drain also includes future professionals. More than 90% of Iranians currently studying in the United States expressed a desire to remain in the country permanently without the possibility of returning to Iran. This phenomenon is not restricted to students currently outside of Iran; a study conducted by the Emirates Policy Center revealed that 82 out of 86 Iranians who won international science competitions opted to leave Iran, and only 4% would voluntarily return.
Effects of Unemployment and Repression
Many factors contribute to Iran’s brain drain. The performance of Iran’s economy has been abysmal for many years, and the unemployment rate is extremely high. Iran’s economic crisis has led to higher unemployment. According to the Iranian Statistical Center, there are over one million unemployed college graduates—keeping in mind that the statistics agency considers a citizen ‘employed’ if he or she works for a single hour per week. This is in combination with the hyperinflation that led the riyal to lose 45% of its value in the previous Persian year (March 2022 through March 2023)—a depreciation that naturally affects the salaries of Iran’s professional class. As a result, 900 university professors left the country in 2020 alone because of dissatisfaction with their salaries.
The political situation in Iran is another particularly unattractive factor. Iranians have protested several times against the country’s dreadful political and economic conditions, but these demonstrations have not led to tangible changes in the government’s policy. The latest protests against the compulsory wearing of the hijab have lasted for nearly a year, and hundreds have been killed as a result. The economic and political spheres have also had a spillover effect on other areas. For instance, Iran’s academic and research sectors face funding constraints, limitations in access to resources, and a lack of incentives such as research grants and recognition for professionals.
The economic hardship also means that Iranian students largely lack access to state-of-the-art laboratories, advanced technology, and specialized equipment for conducting cutting-edge research. Even if Iran experienced a financial windfall, allowing it to upgrade such equipment, many Iranians would nonetheless prefer to live in a more open political system and a more tolerant environment that aligns with their personal values and aspirations.
Brain Drain Deconstructs Iran’s Potential
The phenomenon of brain drain has extracted a high cost from Iran’s economy and society. Given that public universities in Iran are free for the citizens, the Iranian government must bear the cost of training a professional cadre that will eventually leave Iran to work elsewhere. The costs of these universities are significant for Iran’s cash-strapped regime. For example, Asghar Jahangir, Deputy for Social Affairs and Crime Prevention of the Judiciary, stated last year that training a nurse cost the Iranian state approximately $68,000—keeping in mind that the importance of the professional staff can increase in critical times such as the advent of Covid-19.
The emigration of professionals and experts also means that the country is losing valuable human capital that can potentially increase economic growth and human development. The outflow of professionals from Iran disrupts the country’s employment ecosystem by reducing the pool of experts available for collaboration, thereby slowing down the pace of innovation. Iran’s former Minister of Science, Research and Technology indicated that Iran was estimated to lose $150 billion per year because its educated professionals were elsewhere. Moreover, the researchers, scientists and academics that leave Iran cause a decline in research output and innovation. Reduced innovation stifles the development of new technologies, products, and industries, which are essential for economic progress. According to some studies, 96% “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.”
Efforts to address the brain drain in Iran must involve a combination of economic reforms, improved funding for research and education, increased support for entrepreneurship and innovation, and creating a more conducive environment for skilled professionals to thrive. Crucially, addressing this complex issue will also require a comprehensive and multi-faceted approach that takes into consideration various socio-economic and political factors. This process would start with the political will to reform the country, which would entail more freedoms and less oppression in the domestic front and a less confrontational foreign policy abroad. Neither prospect appears likely in the foreseeable future. Therefore, the brain drain will continue, and possibly increase in intensity, as conditions within Iran continue to deteriorate.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.