Iran as the odd man out

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January 31, 2017 by AK

I can understand Washington’s resolve to keep out people from disorderly (ex-)polities such as Libya, Somalia, Yemen and Sudan, as well as from the ISIS-infected Syria and Iraq, but Iran is an entirely different matter. To begin with, it’s a real country – bluntly speaking – while the others on the list are patchwork states and/or archaic tribal unions. There’s a certain continuity to their long history: a fair share of present-day Iranians are probably descended from the subjects of Cyrus, Darius and Xerxes. They’ve also kept the language – surely it evolved over the millennia and fell under the influence of Arabic, but was not supplanted by it. All in all, they are among the principal inheritors of the medieval Persian civilization.

Iran has a sizable middle class and an educated elite whose size is underscored by the scope of the brain drain out of the country. One indicator I’m interested in is the country’s performance at international math olympiads. Iran’s math team hasn’t been as good lately as in the 1990s (it won the 1998 olympiad) but on average, Iran has done better in the past decade than India, Israel, France and the UK. Despite the ayatollahs’ preference for keeping women at home, the majority of science and engineering graduates are women. Maryam Mirzakhani, who received her BSc from a Tehran college before going to Harvard, is the only woman to have received the Fields prize.

And there’s the cinema. Every now and then, there’s news of an Iranian director getting flak from the ayatollahs – which means the art of movie-making is alive and well in Iran. I’m not talking pure escapism or entertainment – there’s a pretty long tradition of somewhat realistic filmmaking there. In contrast, haven’t heard of world-class films produced by Saudi, Kuwaiti or Qatari directors, to compare Iran with its Arab neighbors across the Gulf.

Obviously, my arguments are fragmentary and subjective but I hope serious Persianists will agree with my overall view. Substitute the USSR for Iran: the US would have never shut the door on Soviet dissidents. However, this substitution only works for Iran, not for Somalia or Yemen.


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