19 Dec 2022

Crackdown on the Mahsa Amini protests triggers a new wave of immigration from Iran

Kourosh Ziabari

For a country that has long suffered the throes of an endemic human capital flight, the worst news is that a novel episode of social crisis that has already fragmented the society irreversibly is driving away more of its young, educated workforce; even those with less significant qualifications or educational accolades are pondering the possibilities to pursue their prospects elsewhere.

The brutal government response to the ongoing protests in Iran, triggered by the tragic death of Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old woman who had been arrested by the country’s notorious morality police,[1] has persuaded many Iranians to reconsider their priorities and life decisions. Aside from the fact that the violent crackdown will have long-term implications for the legitimacy and stability of the Islamic Republic, one of the ripple effects will be the increased tendency of the young, educated Iranians to leave their country behind and move to other settings.

The way the government handled the protests and its use of disproportionate, excessive force to quash the uprising, in tandem with a belligerent rhetoric vilifying the protesters through the state media and official podiums, have engendered a social recession in which many Iranians have concluded that the system does not understand their language and that there is no way to communicate with the clerical rulers. The outcome is that in a country where people see no prospect of betterment – despite it not being an active conflict zone – a slow but evolving immigration crisis is in the making.

The official narrative remains that all Iranians should feel that they belong, that expatriates are always encouraged to come back to their home country and make investments, and that the country remains an inclusive and hospitable place for all Iranians. To this end, the administration of President Ebrahim Raisi extended a skin-deep olive branch to the Iranians in exile, and his foreign ministry assured all expatriates that they will not face issues upon trying to visit the country even if they are dissidents.[2]

But over time, more hidebound government pundits, state-sponsored clerics, and media personalities have ditched political correctness, expressing in candid terms that those who do not find the government-prescribed lifestyle desirable and those who cannot comply with (what they say are) the requirements of Islam are welcome to leave the country. This is not just polarizing rhetoric, but proliferation of outright hate.

A notable example is the incendiary remarks by Zeinab Aboutalebi, a conservative anchor of Iran’s state-run Ofogh TV, who said in a January 2020 show: “If someone doesn’t have faith, they can pack and leave Iran. They can go to the places where there is welfare and that certain lifestyle… We have demonstrated that all of us, the Iranians, need a heroic lifestyle and appreciate it.”[3]

Although she later issued an apology, her warning to those “who don’t have faith” bespoke a broader trend of the most radical elements of the establishment who retain the political power and are under the impression that they indeed own the nation and can dictate who should stay and who should leave. This peremptory attitude in lockstep with the government blocking the avenues to communication with its constituents has spawned a dominant mood of disillusionment, with many Iranians considering themselves foreigners in their home country. The overarching conviction is that the Islamic Republic is not willing to engage in any dialogue with a resentful, displeased population, and as such the two sides are not talking or listening to each other.

Aboutalebi’s words were echoed by other top-notch figures on disparate matters, even though they did not represent the official Islamic Republic policy. In December 2021, in reaction to the government moratorium on the import of musical instruments into the country, Seyed Kazem Mousavi, a member of Iran’s Majlis (parliament) said the shipping of such goods was not expedient because the country is an Islamic Republic.

“Musical instruments aren’t essential goods that we can consider necessary to be imported. Whether or not there are sunglasses or musical instruments, that doesn’t make a difference to people’s lives. If there are people looking for musical instruments or [seeking to fulfil] their personal desires, there are other countries, and they can leave Iran,” he said.[4]

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the chieftain who has the final say on all matters, has displayed an unvarying antipathy to the idea of immigration, at least rhetorically, and has referred to those who encourage young Iranians to move out as “traitors”.

In a meeting with a group of students and professors on October 19, he described the educated elites leaving the country as “ungrateful” adding that “they grow up here, and when the fruition is due, they go and bear fruit elsewhere. They sometimes become the nuts and bolts of global arrogance to conquer nations and wage enmity against nations. They are being ungrateful, and indeed, they won’t see deliverance.”[5]

On other occasions, he railed against those who share immigration solutions with young students. In a November 2021 speech, he said: “There are elements in some universities that encourage the elite youths to leave the country. I explicitly state that this is treachery. This is enmity with the nation. And it’s not a show of friendship to that young person.”[6]

But the fact that the highest authority of the Islamic Republic detests human capital flight does not necessarily signal his concern for Iran’s chronic brain drain cataclysm, because in effect it is the establishment he oversees, and the policies it has adopted, that have triggered consecutive waves of migration, compelling the most talented, accomplished Iranians to look for opportunities and basic human rights in other corners of the world.

For context, the first wave of mass immigration from Iran unfolded following the triumph of Islamists in the 1979 revolution, prodding thousands of Iranians into bidding farewell to their motherland as they anticipated an extended period of political repression. The second wave occurred with the coming to power of the pro-reform President Mohammad Khatami in 1997, when he opened the country up to the global community and diffused tensions with the West, which created novel opportunities for young people to explore the world after years of insulation.

The Green Movement of 2009 – which saw a violent crackdown on peaceful protesters and students challenging the contested re-election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, characterized by traumatic sham trials and unprecedented social media restrictions – forced large numbers of Iranians into exile in a third substantive wave. If we consider the aftermath of the November 2019 protests that marked a consummation of the government’s heavy hand as the fourth wave post-revolution, the ongoing “Woman, Life, Freedom” uprising certainly bears the hallmarks of a full-fledged new wave being in the offing.

Ayatollah Khamenei denounces immigration because it is one of the pathways to the international integration of the people even when the government remains isolated, and the theocratic leader does not approve of any engagement between those living within the boundaries of Iran and the outside world other than what is necessary and keeps the country functional.

The Ayatollah’s aversion to immigration can be partly explained as a reflection of his sporadic appeals to nationalistic sentiments to rally a larger base of supporters behind his cause of keeping the country impervious to external pressure. But if there was indeed a genuine discontent about the nation losing its brightest and best, those deficient policies that are scaring larger cohorts of Iranians away would have been corrected and some democratic guardrails introduced.

Iran is recognized as a country with an entrepreneurial and high-educated population, and at the same time one with a lingering brain drain dilemma. When the former hardline President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad embarked on a project of purging liberal, secular-minded academics from universities in 2006, with a push for the Islamization of the curriculum, between 150,000 and 180,000 educated Iranians were reportedly leaving the country every year.[7] According to the latest figures, roughly 50,000 Iranians move out annually.[8]

These glaring figures turn out to be even more worrying when the number of exceptionally talented individuals, specialists, and crucial workers in exodus is factored in. In September, the head of the Iranian Nursing Organization admitted that the infrastructure is not adequate for keeping the trained nurses in the country, revealing that every day five to six nurses move abroad, adding up to some 150 nurses who file for early retirement and depart the country each month.[9] Even though the authorities are reluctant to acknowledge it, Iran is on the cusp of an imminent healthcare crisis, and this trend will be exacerbated as physicians, despite their usually outsized salaries, find it increasingly unsustainable to live in Iran.

In 2020 alone, some 3,000 physicians immigrated, leaving the nation vulnerable to a grave challenge resulting from the ongoing loss of medical experts.[10] At the same time, universities of medical science are hard-pressed to train the new generation of doctors as a result of insufficient facilities, the dearth of qualified faculty members, and the demerited admission system that often fails to ensure the best students are sifted to enable them to secure spots at top universities.

The Medical Council of the Islamic Republic of Iran has reported that every month, on average 300 physicians and general practitioners submit an immigration request to terminate their contracts and leave the country.[11] Although not every single petition is approved, the bottom line is that the overall picture seems to be ominous, with some tentative warnings being issued about the possibility of Iran being steamrollered into importing doctors from India, Pakistan and the Philippines, like it did decades ago.[12]

The motivation and resilience shown by Iranian expatriates in their host communities have earned them plaudits as one of the most successful and resourceful immigrant communities in the West. Even the former US president Donald Trump, whose inimical views toward Iran were always pronounced and unvarnished, conceded that he had a special admiration for the Iranian-Americans. “For many years, I have greatly enjoyed wonderful friendships with Iranian-Americans, one of the most successful immigrant groups in our country’s contemporary history,” he said in his March 2017 message on the occasion of the Persian New Year, Nowruz.[13]

Data extracted from the US Census indicates that the educational attainment of the Iranian immigrants in the United States is significantly higher relative to other immigrant populations as well as US-born citizens.[14] In 2019, 59 percent of Iranians aged 25 and over said they had a bachelor’s degree or higher, compared to 33 percent of immigrant adults and US-born citizens. While 26 percent of immigrants overall reported they did not have a high school diploma or equivalent, this percentage was only 7 percent among Iranian immigrants. Other popular destinations for Iranians include the United Kingdom, European Union countries, Canada, and Australia. There are sizeable communities in Turkey and the United Arab Emirates, as well.

Economic indicators also point to the substantial untapped potentials of the Iranian expatriates, who can easily revolutionize the Iranian economy if their assets and resources were to be harnessed to benefit their ancestral homeland. But as the nation’s isolation grinds on and the pathways for its global economic integration remain blocked with the draconian sanctions that make monetary transactions nearly impossible, there is little incentive for this dynamic collective to leverage its fortunes to help those who remain in Iran.

As opposed to so many other successful migrants, including those from Central American nations, who regularly remit funds to their relatives and family members in their countries of origin, it is not a popular trend for Iranian-Americans to wire money back home, mostly due to fears that they might face consequences for being in breach of US sanctions law, often enforced quite arbitrarily. Still, the combined net worth of the Iranian expatriates worldwide is believed to be $1.3 trillion, with some government officials floating larger figures to the tune of $2 trillion.[15]

From the eBay founder Pierre Omidyar to the former executive chairman of Twitter Omid Kordestani, many acclaimed entrepreneurs and household names in international business, finance, technology and science hail from Iranian families and heritage. Following every wave of immigration from the country, precipitated by different domestic crises and misfortunes, the community of the diaspora grows in strength and diversity while the country reels from the shrinkage of its trained and accomplished human resources.

As the phenomenal display of courage in the “Woman, Life, Freedom” movement is met with the government’s iron fist and a brutal campaign targeting activists, artists, athletes, students and journalists, who are either enlisting to participate in the demonstrations or expressing solidarity with the movement, demand for immigration has gained renewed impetus.

In particular, with the imposition of a crippling internet blackout since the eruption of protests –the culmination of years of insidious but snowballing restrictions on access to social media and connectivity – immigration appears inevitable to many. Engineers, technicians, IT experts, and e-commerce practitioners as well as academics and other professionals, whose day-to-day functioning depends on unhindered internet access, are navigating the options to relocate.

Plans to dislodge internet connectivity have been contemplated by the government for quite a while and trialed on different levels. The ideal prototype they are trying to achieve is to disable access to all international websites and social media platforms, and only make a limited line-up of domestic news websites, online service providers, and instant messengers available. At the moment, connectivity is limited in most of the country while some provinces have been hit by total shutdowns, with the majority of Iranians relying on Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) to circumvent the bans and complete their daily tasks.

Hossein Selahvarzi, Deputy Chairman of Iran Chamber of Commerce, Industries, Mines and Agriculture, said the continued internet disruptions are costing the national economy $1.5 million per hour and putting the livelihoods of some 9 million people who depend on online platforms as a stream of revenue at risk.[16]

In a May 2022 survey of 2,000 students, the Iran Migration Observatory found that 85 percent were either planning on moving overseas or were in a position of imminent immigration.[17] From the perspective of students and graduates interviewed, economic instability and flawed governance were the primary driving factors for their decisions to leave. The erosion of civil liberties and rapid human rights backsliding under the Islamic Republic have also been added to the long list of reasons why the youths and elites find Iran uninhabitable and believe a change in their geographic setting would represent a fundamental shift in their journeys, no matter where the next destination is and how conditions may look like for them in a life of exile.

Whether or not there is a consensus among the top brass of the leadership on the thumping costs of runaway human capital flight, and the need to slow down the process, is not immediately clear. Some cynical observers have suggested that the authorities do not care if the country loses its most gifted and visionary individuals, and that they are only preoccupied with maintaining their grip on power. But even if there are some at the top echelons of power who believe Iran is suffering due to the loss of its educated human resources, there is no indication that they are adopting the policies required to reverse this tidal wave.

Given the toxic rhetoric directed at the protesters, who are being called rioters, thugs and paid agents of the foreign governments, it seems the establishment is not prepared to listen to the voices of the people, which means more Iranians will decide to leave a country they believe is not receptive to them and their legitimate demands.


[1] Anisha Kohli, “What to Know About the Iranian Protests Over Mahsa Amini’s Death,” TIME, September 24, 2022, http://bitly.ws/wXGs.

[2] “Amir-Abdollahian: Iranians Overseas Should Travel to and from Iran with Peace of Mind and without Anxiety,” Hamshahri Online, November 22, 2021, http://bitly.ws/wXGQ.

[3] “Zeinab Aboutalebi: Reactions to the Controversial Statements of Iran’s TV Anchor,” BBC Persian, January 14, 2020, http://bitly.ws/wXGZ.

[4] “Those Looking for Musical Instruments Have to Leave Iran, MP Says,” Khabar Online, December 12, 2021, http://bitly.ws/wXH7.

[5] “Reaction by the Leader of the Islamic Republic to the Immigration of the Elites: They Sometimes Become the Nuts and Bolts of Global Arrogance,” BBC Persian, October 19, 2022, http://bitly.ws/wXHb.

[6] “Ayatollah Khamenei Calls Encouraging Young Elites to Immigrate from Iran ‘Treachery’,” BBC Persian, November 17, 2021, http://bitly.ws/wXHf.

[7] Hassan Mahmoudi, “Iran Loses Highly Educated and Skilled Citizens during Long-Running Brain Drain,” Migration Policy Institute, April 22, 2021, http://bitly.ws/wXHj.

[8] Kourosh Ziabari, “Iran Risks Becoming a Nation Bereft of Its Best Minds,” Asia Times, October 4, 2022, http://bitly.ws/wXHr.

[9] “5 to 6 Iranian Nurses Immigrate from the Country Daily,” Entekhab.ir, September 18, 2022, http://bitly.ws/wXHQ.

[10] Omid Khazani, “Just When They’re Needed Most, Iran’s Doctors Are Leaving in Droves,” Los Angeles Times, May 23, 2021, http://bitly.ws/wXHZ.

[11] “Decline of the Physicians’ Interest in Studying in Certain Specialized Disciplines: 300 Immigration Requests Are Filed Every Month,” October 30, 2021, http://bitly.ws/wXI9.

[12] “We Might Be Forced to Import Physicians from India, Pakistan and the Philippines,” Deutsche Welle Persian, August 25, 2022, http://bitly.ws/wXId.

[13] U.S. Virtual Embassy Iran, “Statement by President Donald J. Trump on Nowruz,” March 22, 2017, http://bitly.ws/wXIm.

[14] Tianjian Lai and Jeanne Batalova, “Immigrants from Iran in the United States,” Migration Policy Institute, July 15, 2021, http://bitly.ws/wXIp.

[15] Kourosh Ziabari, “Raisi’s Hollow Ploy to Stem Iran’s Brain Drain,” Foreign Policy, February 2, 2022, http://bitly.ws/wXIw.

[16] “Internet Blackout Will Intensify the Wave of Migration,” Shargh Daily, October 26, 2022, http://bitly.ws/wXIz.

[17] “The State of Key Immigration Indices among Different Social Groups,” Iran Migration Observatory, May 23, 2022, http://bitly.ws/wXIL.

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