TEHRAN (Reuters) - The West may be leading efforts to isolate Iran over its nuclear program, but for some young Iranians those same Western countries represent hope of a brighter future rather than a threat.
Hundreds of thousands of hard-working and educated people have emigrated since the 1979 Islamic revolution, weighing on Iran’s economy. Many end up with Iran’s arch-foe the United States, denounced by Tehran’s leaders as “the Great Satan”.
But those dreaming of a better life abroad often struggle to win entry to Western countries, making work and residence visas a coveted prize.
Restaurant waiter Hassan, one Iranian aspiring to leave, works from before dawn to after dusk seven days a week for $200 a month. All he wants is to move to Australia.
“The salary here is very low, but in Australia it is better,” said the 27-year-old, clutching a small pile of visa forms and other documents printed from the Web site of the immigration authorities in Canberra.
“Many Iranians are preparing to get visas to Australia,” said Hassan, who like others was wary of giving his full name.
He is indeed not alone in looking for a future abroad as Iran struggles with double-digit inflation and high unemployment. Moreover, there is the likely prospect of new U.N. sanctions over the country’s atomic ambitions.
Even oil and gas resources fuelling up to six percent growth somehow do not translate into career prospects for many of the two-thirds of 70 million Iranians estimated below the age of 30.
Precise statistics are hard to find but an Iranian official was quoted last year as saying as many as 180,000 graduates want to join the 3 million Iranians who now live abroad.
“It would mean that economic potential is being siphoned off,” said senior director Richard Fox at the sovereigns department of credit ratings institute Fitch in London.
In his book The Soul of Iran, American-Iranian journalist Afshin Molavi said it had one of the highest rates of brain drain in the Middle East, with well-educated people leaving in several waves since 1979.
“It would be even higher if Iranians didn’t have trouble getting work visas,” he wrote. “A distorted, anemic economy that favors the trader and speculator has sent many of Iran’s elite professionals outside the country.”
Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has brushed off concerns about the brain drain.
“Yes, the young people go abroad, but they come back,” he said in a 2006 speech. Man had traveled only to study.
Some young people are tired of the Islamic Republic’s social strictures, like its ban on alcohol and strict Muslim dress code for women. Born after the heady days of 1979, they are unmoved by media railing against a demonic West and drawn by tales of relatives already there, by internet images and pirated movies.
“I think 20-25 percent of young people want to go abroad for studying (or) living,” said Komeil, a 23-year-old computer specialist, sipping coffee in an affluent northern part of the capital Tehran. “Because in Iran ... everything is forbidden.”
Alongside an outward-looking youth, there exists, uneasily, a more conservative, more religious Iran, embodied perhaps by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and imbued with suspicion of the West born of past domination and occupation. For them Iran, is a country unjustly vilified as a renegade, a ‘sponsor of terror’.
As the world’s fourth largest oil exporter, Iran has reaped windfall gains from a higher crude price, and Ahmadinejad’s government has increased its budget, promising to spread wealth more fairly and root out corruption.
But critics and analysts say that, while the state may be spending more, businesses are not; so inflation has soared to 17 percent and unemployment remains stubbornly above 10 percent.
Tehran’s northern skyline is dotted with new apartment and office blocks rising against a backdrop of snow-capped mountains.
“There is a lot of spending going on but it is fairly inefficient spending,” said Fox of Fitch Ratings. “The oil price is masking a lot of problems.”
The International Monetary Fund has said the government must do more to create jobs and cut inflation.
“Every year approximately 750,000 Iranians enter the labor market for the first time, putting enormous pressure on the ability of the economy to create jobs,” it said in a report.
It also warned the outlook could be hurt by escalating tension over Iran’s nuclear work, which Western powers suspect is a cover for making atom bombs despite Tehran’s denials.
Hassan, the waiter, said his worries were simple. He wanted enough cash to raise his children and treat his spouse. “I’d like to go out with my wife, but here I can‘t. I need money.”