With sanctions set to be lifted, and Iran slowly opening up to the international community, we travelled to Tehran for a workshop on the ‘Design and Evaluation of Innovation Policies’ (DEIP), from 18-22 October 2015. We spoke to three lecturers about their research and training experiences in the Islamic Republic.
Dr. Michiko Iizuka, DEIP Course Leader
We ran this DEIP workshop with the Iranian Association for Management of Technology (IRAMOT), an NGO that gathers researchers from universities, public research institutions, the government and private sector. The Vice-Presidency of Iran for Science and Technology was the main funder of the event, but there were other representatives from the Iranian Government that play an active role in Science and Technology. These included the Ministry of Higher Education and the Patent Office, which is independent of the government executive. Iran’s Supreme Leader oversees a number of actors who are also engaged in Science and Technology, yet the preconception that religious leaders in Iran are averse to Science and Technology is in my experience false; they are in fact enabling it.
One of the things that made this DEIP special was the timing. On the first day of the seminar, 18 October, there was an agreement to lift some of the sanctions – a move welcomed by the population. For us, it was special and symbolic that a UN agency was on the ground, working with Iranians on the very day that the UN Security Council adopted a resolution to endorse the agreement reached in Geneva. Now the country is opening up, it is clearer than ever that Iranians need and want both training and engagement.
More broadly, Iran has huge potential to serve as gateway to Afghanistan and all the other Central Asian ‘-stans’. Iran has a young and vibrant population willing to explore these opportunities while improving their country, but there is still a gap between urban and rural areas, with the latter weighed down by illiteracy. The key will be to handle the post-sanction system together as one — which means reforming the entire economic system in order to meet the challenges ahead.
In terms of the workshop itself, we were impressed with the performance of the organisers, the panellists and participants. Many were foreign educated, had wonderful levels of English, and knew how to engage with our course material and questions.
Prof. Adam Szirmai, DEIP Course Lecturer
Iran’s innovation system is complicated and somewhat contradictory. Right now innovation policy seems to involve quite some showcasing: ‘innovation for exhibition’, rather than innovation for productivity or expansion of markets. Clearly, this cannot last forever. When the sanctions are lifted, foreign companies like Peugeot are likely to return to the country; in turn this threatens the local producers which replaced foreign companies during the years of sanctions. They will have to innovate in order to survive.
The Iranians seemed to appreciate our work: with the Vice-Presidency we even discussed the possibility of a follow-up seminar on structural change and industrial policy. From our side, Iran is an interesting case of an inward-looking Soviet-style command economy, with heavy state involvement, but which is poised for a structural transformation. They are pushing for an innovative economy and industrial development.
In the past, they followed import substitution policies which were externally reinforced by the sanctions, but they are now opening up to foreign investment, turning to the market and searching for export opportunities. They suffer from a lack of entrepreneurship, despite having many young Iranians who are eager to start their own business. There is the beginning of a shift towards the market. However, Iranians are quite worried about losing control of the process. The Iranians we met were eager to connect with the outside world. They have been forbidden to look west for over 20 years but, as the political climate relaxes, they are more than willing to engage with the Western world. Still, they are also looking east to China: and China is looking back. Therefore, Iran is at a very interesting juncture where it can properly innovate if the conditions allow it.
This moment where Iran can actually engage with the rest of the world due to the nuclear agreement is quite significant. If Saudi Arabia and Iran find a way to strategically coexist, then they might join forces to solve some of the Middle East’s problems. In this respect it is very interesting that Iran has for the first time joined international talks on Syria. The nuclear agreement has created a sense of tremendous opportunity and that is something we sensed while there. Young people told me “for the first time we have some future”. In fact our seminar was one of the biggest DEIPs ever with around 100 participants, most of them comfortable in English, and 80 people completed the entire event. The students told me “we have hope for Iran”, which I interpret as meaning that they hope to develop themselves in Iran. For the rest, the lifting of sanctions is helping the reformers to solidify their base, in terms of engaging with the outside world.
To compare this workshop to other DEIP workshops we have given across the Middle East and North Africa, Iran is similar in terms of producing many engineers (which are badly needed). Yet Turkey is far more advanced in innovation, technology and its relation with the economy. Iran is years behind Turkey but they are now starting in earnest and have tremendous potential. They have to move away from a planned economy and if they do it right, and avoid some of the mistakes other countries have made, they can become a “tiger” – like the East Asian economies of the 1990s.
Prof. Norbert Janz, DEIP Course Lecturer
Iran has the highest number of graduates in this field per capita in the world. But I’m not sure if the current system is good for the economy; the innovation system really needs to adapt to the economic reality. For a start, it’s too heavy on science with not enough focus on innovation.
Iran’s car industry is substantial, selling millions every year, but right now they cannot export outside the region due to the sanctions. However, the quality is quite low. I’m quite worried about what will happen after the sanctions are lifted, as an influx of foreign car manufacturers will bring considerable problems to the local actors of the economy. The Iranians will most likely prefer European brands which provide better quality because, unlike the Koreans, they are do not place a high premium on buying products that have been produced domestically.
One of the main problems in the region is the Shia-Sunni divide which is embodied in the Saudi-Iranian tensions. Because this issue is religious and deeply embedded in the culture of both Sunnis and Shias, it will be very difficult to solve. But to secure peace and prosperity there has to be some sort of accommodation between the parties, as historically between Catholics and Protestants across Europe.
Coming back to the workshop itself, you could really sense that Iranians saw this DEIP as a sign of hope and a true learning opportunity, which will help them face the challenges of the post-sanction period. To this end, we should focus on homegrown potential over and above any interest in and from the West. This will help our reform-minded partners in the country.