Why Arabs Need Iran

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In 2011, when Arab revolts began to sweep the Middle East and North Africa, the view from Washington and its closest allies was one of concern. How would the removal of mostly pro-Western dictatorships affect the balance of power in the region? More importantly – how to prevent these events from boosting Iran’s influence?

Two years on, the regional competition for influence is in full throttle. In its sights – among many other developments – are recent efforts by Iran and Egypt to upgrade their relationship.

The spoilers will have none of it. Said Steven A. Cook last week on the website of that most prestigious of US institutions, the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR): “Other than some quick cash and subsidized energy, there is nothing that Tehran can offer Cairo that will, in the long run, be to Egypt’s benefit.”

He has it entirely wrong. “Quick cash and subsidized energy” can only be used to describe the superficial offerings of countries like Saudi Arabia and Qatar, both vying for influence in this new Egypt.

There is no contest whatsoever between that kind of assistance and what Iran can bring to the table. Iran has achieved its economic independence the hardest way imaginable – through a devastating eight-year war with Iraq and decades of potentially-debilitating sanctions. It has shrugged off the yoke of imperialism, built infrastructure, social services and industry from scratch, harnessed its own resources toward establishing domestic self-sufficiencies, created a dynamic – if imperfect – indigenous political system of representative government, and managed to maintain the security of its oft-threatened borders through military innovation and soft power.

In short, with similar-sized populations (Iran’s 78 million to Egypt’s 82 million) and the experience of tackling monumental state-building challenges with varying degrees of success, there is simply no country better situated to provide developmental guidance to Egypt – and other economically vulnerable Arab states – than the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Seeing is Believing

Other than a frustratingly brief trip some years ago to attend a Tehran conference where I had little opportunity to get around, I had not visited Iran in eight years. In the latter part of 2012, I made three trips to the country – in large part to discover how Iran continues to thrive despite the “biting sanctions” we keep hearing about.

And thrive it does. Visitors land at the brand new Imam Khomeini international airport as a first step in experiencing an utterly revamped Tehran. You drive into the city on new highways, lit up almost excessively by closely aligned lampposts and the Iranian penchant for colorful lighting at major intersections. Streets are lined with trees, shrubs and flowers planted and nurtured by a succession of rather remarkable mayors that Tehran residents like to boast about.

Those are the city planners who develop well-manicured parks and children’s playgrounds to break up the urban monotony, build women’s sports facilities to encourage good health, spearhead campaigns on AIDS awareness, and pass out free condoms and hypodermic needles to prevent infection among drug users.

Tehran feels new and fresh – like it has had a facelift. New buildings abound, each more luxurious than the last, although sales have slowed dramatically in recent years, much like in other capitals hit by economic slowdown and ridiculously expensive housing. I cannot believe the greenery – this is a dry climate and I cannot seem to recall the city ever overflowing with late summer foliage like this.

New restaurants, cafés, and boutiques dot the boulevards; the bazaars are well-stocked and cleaner than I recall. Nothing seems to be in shortage – and Iranians are producing more of the food products on their supermarket shelves than ever before. In 2011, Iran ranked 11th globally in agricultural output, just behind Japan, Russia, Turkey, and Australia – and is ranked first and second worldwide in the production of a variety of fruits, vegetables, spices, and nuts ranging from apricots, cucumbers and walnuts to pistachios, saffron, and watermelon.

This is a country hell-bent on achieving self-sufficiency, after all. Under threat of increasingly punitive US-sponsored economic sanctions, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei last year promised the development of a “Resistance Economy” that will aim to stop all dependence on oil revenues and switch to knowledge-based industries and vital commodities instead.

After eight years away from the country, none of Tehran’s significant advances impressed me as much as the pollution-solution. Surrounded by the Alborz mountain range that traps pollutants, the capital has struggled for decades to lessen air pollution, much of which stemmed from aging vehicles that service a city of more than 12 million residents.

During past trips to Tehran, the stench of petrol from cars was omnipresent in congested areas – you'd have to clean blackened particles from your nose every day. In 2012, I experienced none of these things. The city still has high alerts on dangerous pollution days, but has come a long way from the days when the municipality enforced alternative driving days for cars with even and odd license plate numbers.

For starters, during my eight-year absence, Tehran has launched around 80 subway stations servicing more than 2.5 million passengers daily, and inaugurated a 60-station rapid transit bus system with just under two million daily users.

More impressive yet is the Islamic Republic’s nationwide effort to convert public transportation and privately owned vehicles from petrol engines to ones that run on Compressed Natural Gas (CNG).

Pay attention now. Iran’s experiment to switch to alternative fuel-based vehicles is the kind of super-efficient central government initiative that the country now frequently launches – with varying degrees of success. It is one of many zero-to-a-hundred projects initiated in recent years that seeks to diversify the economy, create jobs, generate revenues or solve a problem. To Iran’s credit, at least they think big and make the effort – few other governments engage in these kinds of expansive nation-building activities anymore.

Partly to help stem air pollution, and mostly to reduce the country’s dependence on imported gasoline – and therefore mitigate the effect of US-backed sanctions against companies that sold refined petroleum to Iran – the Islamic Republic embarked on an ambitious program to adopt Natural Gas Vehicles (NGV) based on alternative fuels.

In just a few years, Iran has established a fleet of around 3 million NGV, the largest in the world (by contrast, the US has just over 200,000) and now has the capacity to domestically manufacture 1.5 million CNG cylinders per year at extremely competitive costs.

Big Thinkers Build Nations

In writing this series of articles based on my Iran trips, I am constantly reminded of an MSNBC promotional ad featuring Rachel Maddow, where she stands in front of the Hoover Dam in a blue hardhat and gets sentimental about big-projects-that-build-nations:

“When you are this close to Hoover Dam, it makes you realize how small a human is in relation to this as a human project. You can’t be the guy who builds this, you can’t be the town who builds this, you can’t even be the state who builds this, you’ve got to be the country that builds something like this. This is a national project – this is a project of national significance. We’ve got those projects on the menu right now and we’ve got to figure out whether or not we are still a country that can think this big.”

The current mayor of Tehran Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf – a former commander in the Revolutionary Guard and national police chief who is widely admired for his big thinking and ability to get the job done – happens to be one of eight candidates running for president in the June elections.

Tehran residents are attached to their mayors, and in a city of between 12 to 14 million, are able to propel them to the presidency (current Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was the previous mayor). And after eight years in this role, you would be hard pressed to find a Tehrani who doesn’t praise Ghalibaf for his role in developing their capital. If he emerges as a national frontrunner, Tehran will push him over the line.

Among the other eight 2013 presidential contenders is Dr. Gholam-Ali Haddad-Adel, a former speaker of parliament (majlis) who holds one of Tehran's 30 majlis seats and a close adviser to Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, to whom he is related through marriage.

I met with Haddad-Adel during one of my trips to Iran last year – not to discuss regional or domestic politics – but to learn about four “academies” set up by the Iranian government two decades ago. These academies are meant to drive “big thinking,” establish best practices, and initiate macro planning for national projects in the areas of Sciences, Medical Sciences, Arts, and the Farsi language.

The Farsi language as a big national project? As it happens, that’s the academy headed up by Haddad-Adel, who holds a PhD in philosophy and has translated Immanuel Kant’s books into the Persian language.

What could be so urgent and critical about the national language that would move a country under prohibitive international sanctions to direct resources toward it?

“Farsi is as old as Iranian civilization – they are inseparable,” explains Haddad-Adel. “We Iranians are proud of our national language and literature. We regard our Persian literature as one of the most important elements of our national identity. And we have to support this language against the dangers that threaten it – new words, idioms and terms entering the language through science, technology and culture – mostly through the English language.”

Under Haddad-Adel's tenure, one of the 15 departments dedicated to the task of preserving the Persian language has created a nine-volume dictionary converting over 40,000 foreign words into Persian equivalents. A quick glimpse through the final volume shows that a lot of the terminology being replaced are technological, medical and scientific words (laparascopy, intra-muscular injection, binary pulsar, supramolecular). But also covered are subjects like political sciences (interdependence, deconstructionism, national security), music (chord, grand-barre, capo d'astro) and sport (play-offs, kayak, surfboard).

Seventy different university groups and more than 150 people are involved in this task. The academy has developed complicated software for finding Persian equivalents for English terms.

“Language is not something that can be improved by command though,” says Haddad-Adel. “The velocity of development is so rapid, it is not possible for the public to follow it. We try to disseminate it through cultural ways.”

Another project of the academy: a Persian-to-Persian dictionary covering at least 1,000 years of the language - and tracking words like “khasteh” which means “tired” in modern Farsi and “injured” in old Persian through its exportation to the Ottoman Empire and current usage in modern Turkey as “hastehan” which means “hospital.”

Yet another department is developing a six-volume encyclopedia containing the “whole history of Persian language and literature in the Indian subcontinent.” Explains Haddad-Adel: “Persian was welcomed by Indians. It was a language of culture and has been for more than 800 years the official language of the old Indian courts and intellectuals. British colonialism ended this.”

There is more to this than the preservation of language – cultural revivalism, national security, identity politics, nationalism are woven into the fabric of the academy's work. The Iran of Haddad-Adel isn't a nation in decline – it appears to be getting geared up to lead a renaissance.

Mississippi Calls on Iran for Help

I next visited the director of the Medical Sciences academy Dr. Alireza Marandi, a pediatrician by training, two-time minister of health, university professor and a current member of the Majlis from Tehran.

In 2009, I had read an article in the UK-based Sunday Times (reproduced on this blog) that told the remarkable story of Iran’s provincial health houses. The post-revolution initiative to rapidly deliver basic medical care to underserved rural areas was able, in a short time, to reduce child mortality rates by 69 percent and maternal mortality in rural areas from 300 per 100,000 births to 30.

So astounding were these results that the US state of Mississippi – which, according to the Sunday Times article, has "some of the worst health statistics in the country, including infant mortality rates for non-whites at Third World levels" – turned to Iran for advice, assistance and training on how to achieve these results back home.

Dr. Marandi was Iran's minister of health around the time the first health houses (khaneh behdasht) were established in post-revolutionary Iran. He recalls the difficulties in getting funding back in the early 1980s:

"During the Iran-Iraq war we had very little oil to export – we were limited to about one million barrels per day. The price of oil had come down to about $7-8 per barrel. The country was under bombardment. Yet during this time, the country still focused on developing a primary healthcare system."

That wasn't even the hard part. When majlis-approved funding finally came in to run one pilot program in each of Iran's provinces, the planners had a difficult time finding local men and women with the required five years of elementary education to staff the health houses – especially the girls. Today, with literacy rates among Iran's youth (ages 15-24) at 98 percent according to the World Bank, all health house workers have at least a high school education.

The women are trained for basic healthcare procedures – monthly check-ups for mothers, vaccines for children, schedules and checklists, breastfeeding guidance, preventive care. The men are largely responsible for environmental health issues like water and sanitation – they check village water supplies, add chlorine where necessary, teach locals personal hygiene, how to disinfect things, install basic toilets, and lay water pipes.

Today, says Marandi, Iran has some 20,000 health houses in 65-70,000 villages around the country and has established a primary healthcare "network" connecting health houses to larger health centers in larger towns, which in turn plug into hospitals and specialized medical facilities in urban areas. Although challenges still exist in this system, Iran has solved a vital social service and healthcare challenge that continues to plague most developing nations.

Despite a lack of funds, Marandi's ministry of health tackled many more major health problems in those early days. In 1983, the highest rate of immunization in Iran was 25 percent. A few years later, that rate skyrocketed to 95 percent throughout the country. Iranians desperately needed more physicians (only 12,000) and a more diversified medical worker base, so the ministry of health under Marandi pushed through a bill that took all health-related schools (midwifery, dentistry, nursing, etc) away from the ministry of education. By streamlining and adding to existing resources, in that first year 1,200 students were increased to 6,000, students were directed into undermanned specialties where jobs awaited, and new schools of medicine were built – at least one for each province.

Today, there are 120,000 physicians in Iran. The country is self-sufficient in the production of medical experts and support staff, and has diversified into specialties like fertility treatments, heart, cornea, and kidney transplants that Iranians were forced to seek outside the country a few decades ago. Iranian expertise and relatively low-costs now even draw medical tourism from near (Iraq) and far (Canada).

"We now have every subspecialty you can think of," says Marandi, who received an award for his accomplishments from the World Health Organization (WHO) in 2000.

While Iran has the benefit of considerable oil resources to cushion its economy, throughout the 1980s the country was broke. Economically, Iran was in not much better a position than Egypt or Jordan are today, both countries just months away from bankruptcy. There is a missionary zeal that permeates the higher echelons of government and their immediate ranks below. Many decision makers I interviewed are driven by both religious faith and geopolitics – determined to satisfy public needs and focused on discovering efficiencies that will thwart the negative effects of sanctions. Despite frequent accusations of corruption and mismanagement, clearly a lot is getting done in the country – and with a real spirit of innovation.

In the second installment, I will write about my interviews with leaders in technological and scientific fields including Iran's controversial nuclear energy program, huge achievements in nanotechnology, political insights on what top Iranian politicians think about US-sponsored sanctions...and the unexpected fact that Iran has cloned sheep.

Sharmine Narwani is a commentary writer and political analyst covering the Middle East. You can follow Sharmine on twitter @snarwani.


I'm ready to move! Iran has last through decades of sanctions and will continue to do so. The US might actully learn something from these successess, that is if they would think of something else besides war.

Yes....US is delusional about Iran.....Naturally Arabs are the losers...The secterian war that is being planted on Muslims is going to make Iran even stronger because of its Shii teachings....Time will tell...

Wonderful article. Iran was the only country in the region to oppose the US invasion of Iraq, it is the only country in the region that opposes Israel, the only country that opposes the US Takfiri alliance against the people of Syria, so no wonder it's people are punished by the Zionist, US, takfifi alliance. However, it's to strong for the US and EU to bring to its knees.

Iran's so-called "opposition" to the US invasion of Iraq wasn't worth the wing of a fly and were empty words contradicted by the actions of Iran's Iraqi poodles on the ground who collaborated and incited the Jewish Neocons to attack Iraq, rode American tanks into power, were cemented in their rule by the Americans and took billions from the Americans and the majority of the Syrian people, the Syrian Sunnis oppose the Assadi mafia ruling over them and don't need sectarian hypocrites to speak in their name.

I'm all for resistance economies and think Iran's achievements under sanctions are impressive. But this article is journalistically equivalent to a NYT travel section piece heralding gay night life in Tel Aviv as a sign that all is well in the settler-colonial entity. I would posit that it's no coincidence that Narwani takes pages straight out of the hasbaraist playbook.... even when she's straining to employ them to convince people of her resistance credentials.

Luxury buildings and manicured lawns! Eye candy for wealthy returnees!

A very well written article. The author has the courage to say what the western media is unwilling to admit. Thank you.

Sharmine writes the most charming articles, and researches them very well, but please bear in mind who her current employers are. She is a Senior Associate at St Antony’s College Oxford, which is one of UK’s premier spook nests. You’ll find her under ‘Senior Associate Fellows’ at the bottom, here:


Senior Associate Fellows are normally visitors to the College and the University for periods of up to a year who are pursuing a specific research objective of their own. They or their academic work must be known to the Governing Body Fellow who is acting as their Sponsor. In her case that will probably be Walter Armbrust:


I would interpret all this as background research for a forthcoming British charm offensive aimed at popular Shi’ism, similar to that conducted by ‘ex’ MI6 man Alastair Crooke vis-a-vis Hamas:


Where did you slither away to when confronted with your brazen lies?!

Walter Armbrust is not my sponsor at St Antony's; I am clearly not a spook as most of my work challenges the narratives of western governmentsi; Oxford University hosts a diversity of students, faculty and fellows - the vast majority of whom wouldn't know an intelligence agency if they stumbled across one; senior associates at St Antony's can remain in their designation for periods well beyond one year (as is the case with me); and if you followed me on Twitter you would see that "charm" is not one of my "offensive" strategies. Finally, do you imagine by pasting a link to Alistair Crooke you magically made us the same person? I'd like to be the Emir of Qatar for a day to set some things right - can you post a link and make that happen?

Anything else you want to lob at me in the desperate hope that something will stick?

"Anything else you want to lob at me in the desperate hope that something will stick?"

Yes, if you dare answer, why have the Iranian regime and Hezbollah, who have made takhween of all of the Syrian opposition from day one, not utter a single word against their allies who rode to power on American tanks in Afghanistan and Iraq, taking billions from the Americans and having their rule cemented by them? Why the brazen hypocrisy?
And what does your ridiculous sycophantic article have to do with the situation in Syria and how Iran is backing the Assadi regime in its war against Syrian Sunnis?

Let's also add how Israel which is hated so much by Iran destroyed the Osirak, Iraq nuclear plant during the Iraq-Iran war in 1982 saving Iran from Saddam eventually using nuclear weapons against Iran. The U.S. then saved Iran by destroying Saddam Hussein. Any fool could have predicted that a weak Saddam Hussein would lead to a strong Iran. The stupidity of the Second Iraq war against Hussein by the U.S. bankrupted the U.S. and killed many U.S. soldiers. However, Iran came out the winner with the fall of Saddam in Iraq. Greater Iran with Iraq, Syria and Lebanon is being shaped before us from Persia Gulf to Caspian Sea to Mediterranean Sea.

Oh god here we go again. Has a British Somali let me point out to you this is why the rest of the world laughs at the Arabs. The fact that people like you defend your action by using Sunni Islam makes it worse. Lets get this straight, people like you or in the Gulf do not represent Sunnis. We are all over the world and unlike you most of us don't hate Shias nor do we have an inferiority complex towards Iranians. You know what is even worse? It's sectarian people like you who bring embrass Muslims that are the cause of most destructiveness and deaths.

Why don't you go and look at the internet search. Saddam the cruelest dictator who murdered 200k and gassed the Kurds was backstabbed not by Iranians but by the Gulf Arabs. When the Americans wanted to invade Iraq they used Bahrain,Kuwait,Qatar and Saudi Arabia has staging ground and command centre for the invasion. In fact it was the Saudis who funded the media campaign in the '90s to demonise Iraqi soldiers has baby killers. They celebrated when the Americans and the British murdered in cold blood Iraqi troops that were retreating has ordered by the UN and the sanctions that lead to the death of thousands of Iraqis. They even paid for the cost of the war.

Iran was never a friend or an ally of Saddam. They suffered at his hands when he invaded them. The only difference was that Iran isn't a Banana republic like the Arab oil countries. The Iranians managed through incredibly difficulties to push out the Iraqis and capture Iraqi territory. It was only the fact that Saddam was using chemical attacks on Iranian troops and was being helped by the west that stopped the Iranians.

Oh and go and look up Afghanistan pre-2001. The Taliban pretends to be a Muslim group when they're an ethnic Pashtun movement. They spent their time in power massacring Afghans who weren't Pashtun. When the Americans wanted to invade, the victims of the Taliban joined and took revenge for the murders they committed. Even to this day the Taliban survives in Pashtun areas.

Personally the real question I have to wonder is why the Iran wants to talk to deal with the Arab world. There are to many Arab leaders who take Saudi/Qatari money and become their stooges. To many clerics who sell out Islam to take money from the Saudis. The Arab world is being held back by the Gulf Arabs who won't even let women drive. Saddam is the perfect example, he spent so much time gassing Iranians with the Gulf countries and the US cheering him on, in the end it was those very same countries that took him out while Iran did nothing.

Saddam and Taliban did engage in brutal oppression against their enemies and Saddam was the worst dictator in the Arab world in the last 50 years, but you speak as if their enemies were innocent and don't themselves have a long history of oppressive leaders and if those oppressed by Saddam and Taliban, have the right to collaborate with the Americans for revenge, than are the Syrian Sunnis afforded the same right and to say that Iran had nothing to do with the American invasions is an utter lie:


and bringing up the treachery of the Khaleeji rulers is a red herring, ignoring that this treachery was staunchly opposed by many Saudi shuyookh and tens of thousands of their followers, many of them who spent years in Saudi dungeons, unlike the hypocrites from the Iranian regime and Hezbollah who didn't utter a single word against their "thuwar Nato".

No, you have it wrong, you're the one who has no right to speak for Sunnis while you support the Assadi mafia which is engaging in Saddam-like tactics against Syrian Sunnis, the majority of whom oppose Bashar, and the majority of Sunnis oppose the sectarian agenda of he Iranian regime which speaks and acts with a forked accent and I certainly don't have an inferiority complex towards the Iranian regime considering the cowardice of its defenders here who always slithered away when confronted with its brazen hypocrisy towards its allies who rode to power on American tanks and whose rule in power was cemented by the Americans.

I've read your pathetic pro-Bashar rants elsewhere and your post is full of lies, hypocritical takhween and double standards and "British Somali", if you are honest, go to your local Somali masjid and sing the praises of Bashar and the Twelver Shi'a whose fundamentals is the takfeer of Abu Bakr and Umar, and considering them lower than insects, swine and detritus and many Sunnis, not just the Khaleejis and "takfiris" oppose the hegemonic and sectarian agendas of the Iranian regime which wants to impose their agenda on Sunni countries and spread their sect of takfeer of Abu Bakr and Umar while they hypocritically call for Islamic unity.

Finally the facts are purging through the media. Bear in mind that the real impediment for most Arab speaking countries who are ethnically "Non-Arab" and may want to follow Iran's prescription is Saudi's policy of quick dash for continued fanaticism.

An excellent article that will be heavily criticized I'm sure. As an Iraqi who has spent years living in both Iran and the UK, I've often found it hard to say anything good about Iran among Brits and some Iranians without being heavily criticized and sometimes even silenced. However, I am always amazed at the changes I see every time I travel to Iran. Despite the crippling and vicious western sanctions, the economy still functions, major infrastructural projects are being completed, and the country is witnessing an increasingly exciting presidential campaign. The oil rich Saudi, Qatari, regimes along with western powers want to divide Arabs and Iranians, but in order for this part of the world to thrive, the opposite must happen. My advice: Go to Iran and spend some time outside Tehran and in small cities and you will be impressed.

Are you forgetting who brought your Nouri al-Maliki to power you sectarian hypocrite?

I watched discussion of high level, academic conference on monetary policy and central banks with presentations from academics world wide.On PressTV. Sophisticated

This is a most enlightening article to people like me who are force fed the western narrative by our media and government. It shames me that my country is out front in western efforts to demonize Iran and push ever more encompassing sanctions on that nation.

Thank you Sharmine- this image of a thriving progressive Iran is hidden in the mainstream media.

This is a well-written and insightful article, Sharmine. I'm looking forward to part two.

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