Raisi’s Hollow Ploy to Stem Iran’s Brain Drain

Without real reform at home, Iranians will continue to seek opportunities elsewhere.

By , a journalist and Asia Times correspondent.
A small number of Iranians walk past shuttered shops on a mostly empty sidewalk.
A small number of Iranians walk past shuttered shops on a mostly empty sidewalk.
Iranians walk past shuttered shops at Valiasr Square in Tehran on Aug. 16, 2021. ATTA KENARE/AFP via Getty Images

In a bid to shore up its wobbly legitimacy, Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi’s administration is appealing to the sizable Iranian diaspora to consider returning to its ancestral homeland and contribute to Iran’s economic, social, industrial, and technological development. As the ultraconservative cleric finds his government hamstrung by its own nebulous economic and foreign-policy agendas, capitalizing on the enterprise and assets of the thriving community of Iranians abroad could serve as a handy remedy to the nation’s myriad challenges.

In December 2021, Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian announced the administration was preparing to submit a bill to parliament to “support the Iranians abroad” and had created an online platform where Iranians in other countries could make enquiries and ensure safe travel to Iran without being concerned about arbitrary judicial or intelligence prosecution.

He added that the ministry of foreign affairs would take full responsibility to protect the rights and freedoms of diaspora residents when traveling home, insisting that uncertainties surrounding the Islamic Republic’s position on dual nationality should be resolved once and for all.

In a bid to shore up its wobbly legitimacy, Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi’s administration is appealing to the sizable Iranian diaspora to consider returning to its ancestral homeland and contribute to Iran’s economic, social, industrial, and technological development. As the ultraconservative cleric finds his government hamstrung by its own nebulous economic and foreign-policy agendas, capitalizing on the enterprise and assets of the thriving community of Iranians abroad could serve as a handy remedy to the nation’s myriad challenges.

In December 2021, Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian announced the administration was preparing to submit a bill to parliament to “support the Iranians abroad” and had created an online platform where Iranians in other countries could make enquiries and ensure safe travel to Iran without being concerned about arbitrary judicial or intelligence prosecution.

He added that the ministry of foreign affairs would take full responsibility to protect the rights and freedoms of diaspora residents when traveling home, insisting that uncertainties surrounding the Islamic Republic’s position on dual nationality should be resolved once and for all.

According to Article 989 of Iran’s Civil Code, the government does not recognize dual nationality, and the second nationality of people of Iranian origin who have obtained a foreign passport after 1901 is deemed null and void.

Iranian authorities have long griped about the spiraling number of Iranians immigrating to other countries in search of investment, employment, and education opportunities, withdrawing millions of dollars of capital that could potentially be used to benefit their own cash-strapped country. Yet the government has done little to examine or address the root causes of this human capital flight.

Estimates of the Iranian population overseas vary, and exact figures can be difficult to gauge because many don’t wish to be identified with their country of birth; however, Iran’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs concluded in a 2021 report that around 4 million Iranians live abroad, including roughly 1.5 million people in the United States. According to the most recently available U.S. Census Bureau’s annual American Community Survey, released in 2018, more than 467,000 Americans identified as having Iranian heritage.

Iranian expatriates’ combined net worth is believed to hover around $1.3 trillion, but some government officials have come up with higher appraisals to the tune of $2 trillion.

As the nation’s economic prospects grow bleaker, civil liberties are further circumscribed, and maintaining normal relations with the outside world proves elusive, Iranians have increasingly embraced immigration, not only to high-income countries in Europe and North America but also to neighboring countries, such as Armenia, Georgia, and Turkey, where it is not those governments’ stellar democratic credentials that enthrall Iranian immigrants but just the bare-bones social freedoms, international mobility, and economic possibilities they cannot achieve in Iran.

As reported by the Iran Migration Observatory, a research arm of Iran’s vice presidency for science and technology, between 2017 and 2020, the number of Iranian migrants increased threefold compared to preceding years. In 2020 alone, following the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic that saw the Iranian government’s botched response and the health sector’s collapse, 3,000 doctors submitted requests for early retirement and immigration, unable to cope with the workload while their wages remained disproportionately low.

Indeed, in academic research on international migration, Iran has become synonymous with brain drain. A 1999 International Monetary Fund report found that some 25 percent of Iranians with a post-secondary education had immigrated to Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development countries, a problem that has persisted in the years that followed. As a result of its highly educated and skilled citizens leaving the country, Iran incurs whopping economic losses, which by some accounts amount to $150 billion annually.


It is axiomatic that a country targeted by stringent economic sanctions, riven by endemic corruption, and bedeviled by sweeping poverty and unemployment would lose its luster for its inhabitants, who turn to other destinations hoping for a more promising and peaceful future. Making a bad situation worse, the Iranian government has kept its people on a tight leash in terms of cultural, social, and civil rights, accentuating economic strangulation with an airtight clampdown on personal freedoms and persuading its younger generation that to pursue a happy life, the most reasonable decision is to pack one’s luggage and move out.

If the nation’s kaleidoscopic economic woes can be partly attributed to external pressure, which is a bone of contention itself, it is unaccountable why the government insists on adding layers of complexity to the untenable status quo by intruding into its citizens’ lifestyle choices and assailing the last vestiges of their liberties, giving rise to new cycles of migration.

To name just one example, the government and the majlis (or “parliament”) are currently working in cahoots to enforce a plan to curtail Iranians’ global internet access and roll out a national internet scheme. Experts warn this could prompt a new tide of professionals—including web developers, programmers, and information technology engineers—to flee the country because if earning a living under sanctions was difficult but possible, earning a living under sanctions and without internet access would be inconceivable.

It has evidently dawned on Iran’s leadership that unbridled human capital flight would only compound the nation’s regression and foist new costs on a government floundering to survive amid a full-fledged economic embargo. This is indeed an auspicious realization. But there are no indications the government is willing to concretely recalibrate its relationship with the diaspora community and build on its potential to reconstruct the crisis-stricken country. The steps the Raisi administration is taking will do little to smooth the path for the country’s diaspora to have thriving and safe lives in Iran where essential rights are upheld and international integration, which many outward-looking Iranians desire, is actualized.

Legislation aimed at supporting Iranians abroad is one of the Raisi administration’s many publicity campaigns that are, by no means, guaranteed to produce any meaningful results. That is first and foremost because enticing Iranians to return would require reforming the underlying orthodoxies that have driven thousands of Iranians from their homes—such as the government’s heavily politicized discourse on mandating modest Islamic dress for women, the shrinking freedoms of student unions and mass media, and the extravagant nuclear enterprise backed up by a truculent diplomacy. Nor is Raisi the sort of leader to champion such reforms.

In recent years, scores of Iranians with dual nationality have been detained after flying to Tehran for brief respites, family reunions, or interim occupational and academic opportunities. Each instance has severely strained the Islamic Republic’s relations with the countries that had granted those individuals citizenship.

Perhaps the most byzantine standoff has been the case of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, an Iranian British charity worker behind bars in Iran since April 2016 on espionage and national security charges. Five consecutive U.K. foreign secretaries have toiled away to secure her release, and the matter is now a serious diplomatic sticking point between Iran and Britain, broached in the British Parliament multiple times and even expressly protested by British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his predecessor Theresa May on several occasions. Iran has obdurately refused to set her free, even on humanitarian grounds.

At least 15 dual nationals—including an Iranian Austrian businessman, an Iranian French university professor, and an Iranian German women rights activist—are presently in custody in Iran, either awaiting a trial or serving their similarly lengthy sentences.

Aside from bolstering its image as a hostage diplomacy juggernaut that weaponizes dual nationals as bargaining chips to extract political, security, and economic concessions from its interlocutors, even if it might not be the case, the Iranian government is, in effect, scaring off thousands of dual nationals through its arbitrary judicial measures and lack of transparent proceedings, spoiling their plans to visit the country.

Iranians whose professional track record or activist and advocacy efforts might involve expressions of criticism against the Islamic Republic or were a part of legitimate activities that don’t sit well with the Iranian government, including contributing to foreign media or international organizations that Tehran’s authorities view with cynicism, have no good reason to travel to a country they know won’t treat them hospitably and may even take retributive action against them.

It is indeed a progressive idea to engage the diaspora community and harness its knowledge, expertise, experience, and wealth to benefit an investment-thirsty, recession-laden nation. But before the Raisi administration makes a public announcement that it has crafted such a vision, it needs to set the record straight and concede that it is determined to work with Iranians of all stripes, that ideological vetting and politicking will not be part of this engagement, and that harmful policies that have long wedged a divide between Iranians abroad and their motherland are going to be scrubbed.

Admittedly, there are huge roadblocks to normalizing relations with the diaspora. Launching a website where travelers can obtain clearances and be assured they won’t be indiscriminately arrested at Tehran International Airport isn’t the most pragmatic way to facilitate such bonds. If it is not a nonstarter, it is certainly one of those formalities that will fade into insignificance once Iranians overseas recognize there is little determination to genuinely welcome them back home.

Kourosh Ziabari is a journalist and Asia Times correspondent and a former Chevening scholarship recipient. He is an alumnus of the Senior Journalists Seminar Fellowship by the East-West Center, a 2021 Dag Hammarskjold Fund for Journalists fellow, and a 2022 World Press Institute fellow. He was a finalist for two Kurt Schork Awards in international journalism in 2020 and 2021, and his writings have appeared on the National InterestopenDemocracyResponsible StatecraftMiddle East Eye, and the New Arab. Twitter: @KZiabari

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