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The Paradox of Development in Iran

The Paradox of Development in Iran

The youth are a challenge in the way of the development policies of the Islamic Republic of Iran (IRI). Source: MCT

Looking at the Human Development Index (HDI), the Islamic Republic of Iran (IRI) seems to have done relatively well in three key areas of health, education and income. While Iran’s score is far from perfect, it is indicative of a rather constant improvement in development areas. In HDI (2011) Iran scored 88 out of 187 countries, putting the country below the average for countries in high human development groups and above the South Asian regional average. HDI categorizes Iran under South Asia. In this region, Sri Lanka and India, which are two countries close to Iran, rank respectively 97 and 134 in the HDI (2011). In short, despite the lingering areas of improvement, the IRI’s success in maintaining a steady growth in development is evident in HDI .[i]

Nonetheless, this record may be misleading at first sight as these numbers and figures undermine paradoxes of development in today’s Iran. For years, the IRI has utilized its development programs to justify political repression. A few examples reveal an alternative narrative to the available statistics on the progress of the IRI in development. The following examples highlight the underpinning paradoxes of development in today’s Iran.

Women and Higher Education

Women and their access to education is an area of development. The impressive rate of Iranian women’s participation in higher education is no mystery to the world. According to UNESCO, Iran has the highest ratio of female to male undergraduates in the world.[ii]Currently, women outnumber their male counterparts in higher education institutions as today they occupy about 60% of university seats.[iii] However, it seems instead of maintaining this success, the IRI is concerned about the rapid academic success of women facilitated by its very own education policies. Recently, in August 2012, Iran announced that in coming academic year women will be excluded from 77 BA and BSc courses at 36 universities in the fields of engineering, accounting, education, counseling, the restoration of monuments and chemistry.[iv] Moreover, the Oil Industry University has announced that, “at the moment it did not have any need for female resources.”

Prominent Iranian women’s rights advocates such as Shirin Ebadi and Mehrangiz Kar, attribute the current ban to the IRI’s fear of further women’s empowerment and their rising efforts for greater equality in the feminist movement, which have  grown notably over the years. Rejecting the current controversy, the Science and Higher Education Minister, Kamran Daneshjoo, insists that 90% of fields are still open to both sexes and the “single-gender” courses were needed to create a “balance”.[v]

Population Control

Population control is another area of development. Iran is a success story in this regard. After the founder of the Islamic Revolution, Ayatollah Khomeini, banned birth control as a way to expand the Islamic nation, a “baby boomer” generation came about in the Iran of early- to mid-1980s. Due to this sudden increase in population growth, the IRI implemented comprehensive population control strategies. Thanks to these comprehensive efforts, Iran’s population growth rate dropped from 3.2 percent in 1986 to only about 1.2 percent in 2001. Highlighting this as one of the fastest drops ever recorded, Janet Larsen, a researcher at the Earth Policy Institute stated in 2003, “In reducing its population growth to this level, Iran has emerged as a model for other countries that want to lessen the risk of overpopulation.”[vi]

Nevertheless, with the decreasing rate in population growth, the IRI seems to have changed its mind. In July 2012, the Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, voiced concerns about the negative population growth resulting in fast aging and the state’s predicted soaring health care costs. The Supreme Leader set his ideal population size of Iran to grow to 150-200 million people. Subsequently, the IRI’s health minister, Marzieh Vahid Dastjerdi, announced that the budget for population is now eliminated and replaced by a budget allocated to encourage large families.[vii] Given its current struggles to keep the nation content, it is hard to imagine the IRI being able to meet the needs of a population that will be twice its current size.

The “Trans” Issue

The status of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered community has also increasingly become a factor that illustrates the inclusive development of a country. Many people around the world remember President Ahmadinejad’s famous speech at the Columbia University in 2007 in which he denied the existence of “gay people” in Iran altogether and firmly announced: “We don’t have any gays in Iran.”[viii] Despite such bold statements made by officials and the sobering stories of the LGBT community, many throughout the world seem impressed by the sex change operation widely practiced in Iran. As Afsaneh Najmabadi, an Iranian scholar in gender studies at Harvard University, writes, “Something happened in 2003-04: transsexuals and transsexuality in Iran suddenly became a hot media topic, both in Iran and internationally.” A few documentaries on this topic that made it to international festivals (i.e. Just a Woman by Mitra Farahani) led to much appraisal of the IRI for its constructive confrontation with the “trans” issue. The Guardian, for instance, wrote in July 2005: “Today, the Islamic Republic of Iran occupies the unlikely role of global leader for sex change (…). Iran has even become a magnet for patients from Eastern European and Arab countries seeking to change their genders.”[ix]

Unfortunately, this international hype surrounding Iran’s “trans” issue leaves out the grim living conditions of the LGBT community in Iran. In November 2011, the United Nations Human Rights Committee (UNHCR) for the first time called to account the IRI’s repression against the LGBT community. Homosexuality remains a crime worthy of capital punishment in Iran. Persecutions are at the core of narratives by this group of Iranians. Fearful of their socio-economic, familial and political fate in Iran, many of them flee to Turkey as asylum seekers only to face dismay and, most likely, rejection of their asylum cases.

To make things worse, the much appraised promotion of sex change operations in Iran that are often subsidized by the government has been advertised as a “cure” for those “diagnosed” with homosexuality. A study conducted by the Small Media Foundation reports, sex change operations that were legalized and state-subsidized following Ayatollah Khomeini’s fatwa, while seemingly liberal, are “inherently dangerous.” The report further explains, “Tragically, many gay and lesbian Iranians feel pressured to consider changing their gender to rectify their so called ‘anomaly.’”[x]

And, even the sex change operation does not help. Firstly, cases of medical negligence causing serious sexual and health conditions for the “patients” are reported by those undergone sex change operation at various international LGBT conferences in Europe and North America.[xi] Secondly, even the surgery does not help to solve the socio-political stigmas that exist in the Iranian society against this group. Thus, the Small Media report concludes that the LGBT Iranians have only two choices: “hide beneath the shroud of their geopolitical borders or abandon everything in order to seek asylum on more liberal shores.”[xii]

The “Drug Problem”

In the victorious days of the Islamic Revolution in 1979, Ayatollah Khomeini stated that he aims to eliminate the widespread corruption among the youth caused by the Pahlavi dynesty’s attempt to westernize the country.  In particular, he addressed the problem of drug consumption in Iran and promised to effectively address this phenomenon.[xiii] Today, over three decades into the rule of the Islamic Republic, the National Drug Control Headquarters of Iran (DCHQ) has declared drug addiction to be the “largest social harm and a major threat for the national health and security” as well as the main “hurdle” for development.[xiv] According to a report by Stimson Center, almost half of Afghanistan’s opiate crosses into Iran — about 15 percent of which is absorbed by Iranian abusers, ranging in numbers from 1-4 million. According to this report, “ With a population of 76 million, Iran follows only Russia in heroin consumption per capita.” Furthermore, taking into account Iran’s consumption of “nearly half of the world’s raw opium,” the country scores as the global leader in opiate abuse.

The statistics are revealing. An account on the drug consumption among the youth in Iran published in a report by the Foreign Policy Centre in the U.K. highlights sobering IRI official statistics. According to this report, there are approximately 200,000 permanent addicts and 80,000 temporary addicts in Iran, and the number is increasing at a rate of 5% to 8% per year. The increase in the number of addicts is three times more than the increase in the population. About 3% of Iranian adolescents are addicts and are able to access low-priced drugs as the price of crystal methamphetamine decreased dramatically in 2011.[xv]

All in all, the drug consumption is a complex challenge in today’s Iran. Much of the complexity is rooted in the lack of social, economic and political incentives and opportunities for the youth to pursue personal and professional advancements rather than seeking immediate relief in drugs. Paradoxically, while admitting the challenge of drug addiction in Iran, the IRI does not seem interested in seriously and effectively addressing this problem. The unwillingness to seek sustainable solutions for this challenge goes as far as the IRI officials blaming the drug problem among Iranian youth on the U.S., U.K. and Canada.[xvi]

The aforementioned development concerns illustrate the paradoxical situation in Iran. Today, we are faced with a government that appears determined to harm its own much appraised achievements in the area of development. Could it be that the IRI is ever more fearful of a mass anti-regime uprising and thereby hesitant to pursue development plans aimed at empowering citizens? While they were successful at hindering the political momentum of the Green Movement in 2009, the IRI still fears the possibility of another such movement as forceful as the Arab uprising in neighboring countries. Evidently, this underlying fear of a mass uprising incentivizes the IRI to preemptively incapacitate and pacify the otherwise young energetic and discontent demonstrators.

After all, less educated women, young parents who have to worry about the basic needs of large families, a fully silenced LGBT community struggling with basic identity and medical issues, and young addicts desperate for the constant supply of drugs will lessen the IRI’s fear of an imminent uprising. To make things even worse, the IRI has left little or no space for an independent civil society to effectively address the social and development challenges of today’s Iran. In this situation, pertinent international experts and institutions ought to see beyond the statistical figures that often undermine the paradoxes of development in today’s Iran.


[xi]  A brief interview with Mehrangiz Kar, a renowned human rights lawyer, who has attended a number of LGBT conferences in the past. September 2012



Azadeh Pourzand

Currently a program manager at an international development institution focusing on the Middle East-North Africa region, Azadeh holds a Masters in Public Policy from the Harvard Kennedy School of Government (HKS) and an MBA from the Nyenrode Business Universiteit.

The editor-in-chief of Women's Policy Journal at Harvard Kennedy School of Government in 2009-2010, her writings have appeared in places such as International Herald Tribune, CNN International and the Huffington Post.

Born and raised in Iran, in the past years she has worked and studied in the US, Mexico, Argentina, Bangladesh, China and the Netherlands and India. While in India, she worked at a Mumbai-based foreign policy think-tank, Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations, where she co-authored a comprehensive policy paper that explored India's view of the Arab uprisings.

Azadeh is the founder and president of a start-up organization (The Siamak Pourzand Foundation), promoting freedom of expression for artists, writers, journalists and creative minds in Iran and beyond.