Kaveh Madani, a young Iranian environmental scientist living abroad who returned home full of hope last year to serve as the vice-chairman of Iran’s Department of Environment, resigned April 19 on Twitter while outside the country. The scandal surrounding his departure again brings to light a question that the Iranian diaspora has been debating for decades: Does one remain in exile, or return to the homeland and try to drive change from within?
Madani, an established academic at the Imperial College in London, returned to Iran less than a year ago at the Rouhani administration’s invitation “to serve” his country in the problematic area of the environment. He faced numerous problems and obstacles that made working in Iran impossible for him.
Madani was reportedly jailed for some time with several other environmentalists in February. One of the environmentalists later died in prison, and though the official cause of death was suicide, the man’s friends and family are unconvinced.
Iranian intelligence published some of Madani’s private photos they had confiscated from his computer at the time of his arrival in Iran in an attempt to tarnish his image. Madani said in his letter of resignation that some of his relatives were also harassed by security officers.
Unfortunately, Madani’s experience is not exceptional. Many young Iranians who return home hoping to make a difference in their country end up leaving under similar circumstances, disillusioned and disappointed.
Beyond the global trend of brain drain affecting all economically troubled countries, Iran’s wealthy and educated elites leave their native country because of the non-transparent political system, censorship, suppression of civil society, religious, cultural, political, and gender-based discrimination, a rouge judiciary system, a parallel government of the security apparatus, widespread financial mismanagement and corruption, and tense relations with other countries.
Research shows that countries like South Korea, Brazil, and South Africa have managed to control or even reverse the brain drain trend by introducing political and economic changes and other reforms.
Change breeds change, and when the economy is healthy, culture and the sciences can also flourish with the help of the returning diaspora.
But Iran’s elites will never return when they are harassed and intimidated as Madani was; when they are accused of being spies and their families threatened. Quite the contrary, this attitude will keep them abroad, which may be what the ruling powers in Iran really want.
Iranian officials must understand how invaluable human resources are in the development of the country. Iranians leave their homeland looking for work in countries that respect human beings and their rights and freedoms, where there is rule of law, gender equality, job security, a healthy and transparent judiciary system, democracy, and no gender, political, religious, and ethnic discrimination.
Madani’s experience is a good example of how an inefficient, corrupt, and non-transparent Mafia-like managerial class becomes a powerful deterrent force preventing highly-motivated young men and women who wish to serve their country from re-engaging with Iranian society.