Courtesy, The New Yorker
Misguided policies toward expatriates
April 15, 1998
Revolutions have unintended consequences. Among the unintended consequences of the 1979 revolution in Iran was a diaspora of many of the country's intellectuals, technocrats, and entrepreneurs. Since this event has been largely understudied, exact numbers are hard to find, and as many naturalize in the host country, finding statistics will prove even more challenging. However, most estimates place the number of Iranians abroad at around 1.5 million.
The Islamic Republic's attitude toward this population has been split in two distinctive camps. One camp labels them as a group of traitors comprised of a potpourri of officials of the ancien regime, "Westoxicated" Iranians, members of the opposition, and cowardly individuals who fled to escape defending the country's borders against the Iraqi aggression. Needless-to-say, this camp has shown no interest in attracting the expatriate population back to Iran. In fact, the Governor of the Central Bank, Mohsen Nourbakhsh, was once forced to resign for expressing interest in a policy that would lure technocrats living abroad back to the country. In the past, the government has proudly boasted that it had no need for those who fled.
But revolutions tend to mature. Maturation involves the loss of revolutionary zeal and a gradual move toward the restoration of order. The end of the war with Iraq has heralded an era of reconstruction and pragmatization in the history of the young republic. Starting in the Rafsanjani presidency, we have witnessed an increase in calls for the return of the Iranian abroad to help rebuild the country. In need of their management skill, their technical skills, and their investment dollars, the Islamic Republic formulated a number of policies aimed at reversing the brain drain.
Unfortunately, the Islamic Republic remains extremely myopic in the way it sees and treats its citizens abroad. The officials' initial shortsightedness as a result of radical ideology and revolutionary zeal has so far only matured into an ignorance of the potentials and realities of a diaspora. While the recent policies of amelioration are encouraging, the government is yet to realize the true worth of Iranians abroad to that country.
Given the obvious flaws in the initial behavior of the Islamic Republic toward Iranians abroad, this brief paper will only explore the shortcomings of the recent policies. Specifically, it will be argued that while the government of Iran needs to remove the barriers to the return of Iranians, it should view positively the successful assimilation of that group in their new host countries.
Certainly, the Islamic regime has been consistently trying to improve its relationship with Iranians abroad since embarking on an effort to tone down radicalism. As the regime established control and eliminated opposition, it no longer felt any credible threat from the few opposition groups that had organized abroad. No doubt, there have been exceptions.
As the war ended, and there was need for help in reconstruction and in technical expertise, there was little worry about seeking to employ the help of those who had left the country. Additionally, the government slowly awakened to the fact that many children of those who had left Iran had educated themselves predominantly without receiving any help from their home country. Hence, the number of Iranian experts and professionals abroad had increased tremendously at a time when a revolution and eight years of war had not allowed Iran to concentrate on offering high-quality education in proportion to the nation's demands.
Thus, a number of programs and policies were created in order to attract Iranians living outside the country. The Islamic Republic relaxed the tough requirements and cut some of the red tape involved in renewing passports. They instructed Iranian Embassies and Interest Sections abroad to treat expatriates more amicably. Most recently, the absurd practice of using 1979 conversion rates to calculate the dollar cost of a passport and other notary services was dropped and the cost of obtaining an Iranian passport was reduced from around $600 to $48. Another important barrier was the need to declare one's religion on the request, a practice that excluded many Baha'is from obtaining their national travel documents. Looking over the forms recently, this question was noticeably missing.
Besides technical expertise, the country desperately needed investment and management skills. While the war needed sacrifice, reconstruction needed money. Having transformed profitable private enterprises into inefficient cesspools of government money, the Islamic regime's privatization efforts included the return of selected assets to their owners. However, such offers were usually intertwined with strict conditions, including taking over the large liabilities the companies had created along with the numerous employees added to facilities. Nepotism has also been widespread in the privatization process.
Another program designed to help draw expatriates back to Iran allowed foreign-residing Iranian men to buy their mandatory two-year military service for up to $16,600 per person. This policy was in fact received with positive response as many Iranians finally found it possible to return without fear of being drafted. While the policy is very socially unjust, the government somehow feels that such sums would not present great difficulty for those abroad. Beyond the financial issues, the buying of exemptions contributes to estranging Iranians abroad from the government of Iran, as it furthers their belief that the Islamic Republic views them as little more than a cash cow, valued only in times of economic strain.
Shortcomings of the Present Philosophy
So far we have only touched briefly upon setbacks of the current policy toward expatriates. However, the said problems may be resolved through evolutionary improvements along the current policy lines. For example, similar to the reduction of passport charges, the cost of obtaining an exemption can change, and merit-based incentives may be added. Such improvements are certainly called for and will indeed be very positive. The main shortcoming of the policy, however, is often completely missed by critics and reformists. After nearly twenty years, many Iranians abroad are finally accepting that they are not in transit awaiting return to their homeland; they are an immigrant population concerned with integrating and succeeding in their new setting.
Maturing as migrants and learning the political ropes of their host country, Iranians abroad are slowly learning that they can influence policy by organizing and brandishing their voting power. They are also benefiting a great deal from advances in communication technology and the Internet in this effort. For example, recently, a radio talk show host in California made an offensive comment about Iranians. The news quickly circulated among the Iranian-American community via email. The email messages contained contact information and urged the community to write the station and remind them of the large number of Iranians in the United States, and especially California, who were highly disturbed by the incident. Within a matter of days, flooded with calls, faxes, and emails, the station announced an apology and fired the offending host.
More important than the large number of newly naturalized citizens of foreign lands is the new generation of Iranians born and raised outside of their parents' homeland -- generation with little ties and knowledge of Iran. Despite the nostalgia passed on to them, their memory of Iran can be as shallow as stories they hear from their elders about a far away land filled with cousins, uncles, aunts, grandparents and other loved ones they may have never seen; or a collection of pictures in family albums and coffee table books. Yet, somehow, many display a strong affiliation with their roots. This new generation of hyphenated Iranians does not harbor the barriers that handicapped their parents. Unlike their parents, they are not immigrants. They have been schooled and socialized in the country they are living. They do not keep an imaginary suitcase in the back of their mind, and have little incentive to permanently return to Iran. In its place, they have a much better understanding of the country they were born or raised in and a greater chance of succeeding than their parents.
What does that mean for the government of Iran? Hyphenated Iranians are a potential wealth to the country that no lobby can ever achieve. But, in order to realize their true value, Tehran must augment its current policy by establishing a positive relationship with this new population. Here, it is important to mention that by a positive policy the I am not implying a charm offensive aimed at gaining this group's direct political support. Such an outcome is highly unlikely given the current situation. Simply imagine the elapse of yet another twenty years. What are the chances that second generation hyphenated Iranians are going to return to Iran to try and find a fit in the land of their grandparents? Given the large population of Iranians abroad, imagine the number of Americans, Germans, Swedes, English, French, etc., with Iranian origins at that time.
The new generation must be made to feel that no matter how much time elapses they will be welcomed and treated with respect in the land of their parents. Officially accepting dual citizenship is a first step. The country stands to benefit immensely by the successful integration of hyphenated Iranians in foreign lands if they feel a special bond to Iran. To better explain the point, we need not look any further than another country in the region that has understood the potential of its expatriates much better, Egypt. The Nile is of vital importance to Egypt. By extension, international laws affecting the water rights are of serious concern for that country. Fortunately for Egypt, many of the current regulations are largely favorable to that country. It is particularly interesting that many influential persons holding strategic decision-making positions who can change these laws are of Egyptian decent, holding the passport of a Western country. It is well known that the Yousef Boutros Ghali, the Minister of Finance and nephew of the former UN Secretary General, benefited tremendously by his six years working as a denizen of the IMF. As a result of his personal clout, Egypt's long drawn-out negotiations with the fund culminated in a favorable deal that concluded a major debt-restructuring program. No doubt successful expatriates can play an extremely important role for their home country.
Picture the mood in the U.S. Congress with Senators of Iranian origin. Could France have sold the sophisticated technology it did to Iraq during the Iran-Iraq war if the French foreign ministry housed influential French-Iranians? Clearly Iran stands to gain substantially should its expatriate population hold decision-making power in foreign lands. Then, the Iranian government should be cognizant that the inevitable assimilation and naturalization of its expatriate population is in accordance with the long-term interests of Iran.
After well over a decade, Iranians abroad are slowly accepting that they are an immigrant population and not simply in temporary exile. They too are maturing and learning how to affect policy and influence the political process of their host countries. An entire new generation of hyphenated Iranians has been created, a generation that knows little of the land its parents have come from. Iran will benefit considerably by encouraging this group to organize, position itself in strategic nodes of power as citizens of the host country, and to learn how to effectively influence political process there.
This paper has only argued for a shift in Tehran's thinking toward its expatriate population. Demanding the recognition of dual citizenship and the respectful treatment of expatriates and hyphenated Iranians is not nearly adequate in offering a concrete strategy toward that goal. I eschewed making such recommendations given the paucity of survey information and studies geared toward understanding the needs of some 1.5 million Iranians abroad. I cannot speak for them all.
In a message issued on occasion of Noruz, President Khatami extended his congratulations to Iranians living abroad and added, "the beloved Iran belongs to all Iranians who long for sublimation, independence and progress of the country." He then asked the youth living in foreign countries to preserve their Iranian identity. The challenge presented to Khatami's government is to create the initiatives that will make these sons and daughters of Iran feel welcomed in their motherland and accepted for who they are.
* Also by Siamak Namazi:
- At peace in the Iranian army