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Iran peeks from behind the veil

Fast-growing Tehran is at the heart of the economic and demographic pressures for change in Iran. EPA/Abedin Taherkenareh

Iran is involved in P5+1 talks with the US and Europe ostensibly about nuclear capacities. But the real talk in Iran and around the world is that Iran’s government knows things have to change. As Egypt, Syria, Iraq and Ukraine fall apart, Iran is looking like a better potential friend than most in in the region.

A major Iranian university consortium recently invited me to a conference on urban development. The real purpose of the conference and meetings was for Iranians to express to international visitors like me that they want to be full members of the Western world community. Iran’s new president Hassan Rouhani is the means and the messenger for this movement.

The context is that Iran is a modern industrialised state caught in a time warp. It has been isolated by the west for nearly 30 years after the American embassy hostage crisis. Sanctions cut off Iran economically and politically.

But Iran is a western nation in the Middle East. Iran cannot cling rigidly to the past and shape a satisfactory future for its people. Iranian leaders recognise that we live in a global economic age, so Iran has to reach out beyond China and Russia to join the global community of nations.

Why Iran must reach out

For Iran, the reason is simple. The economy grew less than 2.5% last year and is deteriorating. The official inflation rate is nearly 30% a year. The true rate is closer to 40%. In Teheran, bank loan rates are 25% per month for assets like houses and more for consumer goods.

Iran’s population of 78 million is educated but unemployed. The majority are under 25 and either educated or pursuing educations. So the problem for Rouhani is not a nuclear bomb but an educated youth bomb.

Iran has turned the corner on educating women too. At the conference I attended, more than half of the 300 delegates were female university students pursuing degrees in civil engineering, urban planning and design or architecture. But at the construction and infrastructure worksites I visited I didn’t see a single woman doing such work.

Until recently, Iranian technicians were sought after by other Middle Eastern nations. Iran’s education and science facilities are excellent. Therein lays another challenge for the west. A sophisticated, well-educated population with modern physics labs has the capacity at any time to produce weapons of mass destruction quickly.

On the other hand, the great marvel of Iran that curbs the threat of war is the rapidly rising and powerful consumer middle class. I shared more than a few lattes in small coffeehouses with Iranian colleagues. War or hostility toward the west was non-existent in any conversation.

The big problem in Iran is big cities. Every major city has vast suburbs anchored by Westfield-style shopping centres as well as large bazaars and traditional shopping strips. There isn’t anything one cannot buy.

Tehran has an official population of seven million but the actual population even within the city limits is double this, nearly 14 million. There is no doubt Tehran and all the major urban centres I visited need serious urban planning and infrastructure upgrades. The question is how to deliver this in a system with such a fast-growing population. Most large-scale projects are well behind time and some are stalled with no completion dates.

Energy is critical for urban expansion so delays for new forms of power are out of the question. Atomic energy seems a no-brainer for Iran. It is fast and cheap and easy to install. Any attempt to build hydro or solar or other forms of power could not possibly keep pace with the demands of very rapid urbanisation.

What Iran wants and can give in return

So what does Iran want from us and what can it give in return? Iran needs to export its brain power to the world. Iranian engineers are needed and welcome in many places. But they can’t be used on projects funded by the United State or through many development agencies.

As Iran grows, its brain power needs capital to build or rebuild. And Iran is in the brain business. Agriculture is in decline because overuse of water combined with climate change means cropping is poor and unsustainable.

Oil production is up. But fossil fuel use will decline around the world. Some Iranians suggested they will need to use their engineering and technical know-how to produce biodegradable or recyclable plastics and other oil-based products.

Tehran hosted 600 major energy companies from 32 countries at an exhibition this month, a measure of interest in Iran’s emergence from isolation. EPA/Abedin Taherkenareh

Also, Iran’s old mainstay, fabrics and rugs, are being undercut by their major trading partner, China. The Chinese have reverse-engineered carpet production to replicate the handmade rugs of Persia. Almost all textiles are being driven from the Iranian export market even without sanctions.

So Iran needs money and markets in the west to produce and export higher-end sophisticated goods. But no-one is lending Iran real convertible currency for foreign trade.

One major export for Iran is higher education. With a number of first-class under-enrolled universities, Iran has surplus education capacity. I visited a school of veterinary science as good as many US schools, which would be ideal for educating African and South Asian Muslim students.

Lifting sanctions is all that is required for students to flock to Iran for cheaper high-quality degrees. No one can even buy education in Iran because sanctions translate to non-recognition of Iranian degrees in many Western countries. Moreover, with an unstable currency how does anyone price the educational offer?

Hope of a transformative role

If the sanctions and suspicions are reduced Iran can become a much-needed peace broker too.

Iran is well situated to reach out to Arab spring nations. Iran has able human resources that can be used in the rebuilding of nations on its doorstep like Syria and Afghanistan as well as Libya and Egypt. These nations need the high-quality human skills of a nation with a shared Islamic heritage but a Western orientation.

International aid flowing through Iran would, in my opinion, be more secure and better administered than national bilateral aid approaches. When I mentioned this idea to Iranian colleagues, they became very excited about being global aid emissaries. They even proposed controls to ensure aid reached the right people and places.

Iranians like to call themselves Persian, creators of the modern world. As I stood on the first paved tile street in the world, built nearly 1000 years ago, it seemed easy to imagine Iran and the West working together to rebuild the Middle East. Such a joint venture would release thousands of skilled Iranians to help rebuild war-torn Middle Eastern nations and reduce tensions in Iran.

If the nuclear talks are successful, Persia could once again flourish and help bring peace to the Middle East and tranquillity to the world.

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