On Aug. 13, Iranian-born Maryam Mirzakhani became the first woman to win the Fields Medal, the highest prize in mathematics. President Hassan Rouhani of Iran tweeted a picture of Mirzakhani, both with and without the hijab, and reflected the widely shared sentiment in writing that her achievement made “Iranians very proud.” Mirzakhani is a professor at Stanford, did her PhD at Harvard, but completed her undergraduate studies in Iran at Sharif University in Tehran.
Her academic career reflects those of many of Iran’s key leaders. Iran is a country run by technocrats, and in order to hold a ministerial office it is almost obligatory to hold a doctoral degree. Shortly after Rouhani’s cabinet was formed in late 2013, journalists touted the remarkable fact that his cabinet members hold more American PhDs than those of Barack Obama, and more than those of France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Russia and Spain combined.
The notion that Iran, a member of the so-called “Axis of Evil,” is governed by men who lived and studied in the United States may be surprising. But with almost 9,000 Iranian students currently enrolled at American universities, education is one of the rare areas where the two countries remain meaningfully connected. As Iran enters into the next round of nuclear negotiations with the P5+1, it remains to be seen whether the international community will bet on Rouhani’s ability to deliver on promises of wide-ranging reform. But if the United States is committed to building new bridges with Iran, it ought to focus first in the area of education, where both historical and contemporary ties exist, and where so many opportunities remain untapped.
Despite the achievement of figures such as Maryam Mirzakhani, Iran’s educational system faces significant structural issues. The existence of a profound “brain drain,” confirms the quality of Iranian minds, but also speaks to limited opportunities within Iran itself. Top graduates are regularly siphoned off to conduct doctoral or postdoctoral work in Europe and the United States. The World Bank estimates that 300,000 Iranians left the country between 2009 and 2013. Research by the National Science Foundation indicates that 89% of Iranian doctoral students in the US will not return to Iran once receiving their degrees.
Moreover, while Iran’s scientific and research output is not negligible, and the country ranks 18th worldwide in articles published annually, the quality of these articles has a great deal of variation and the rate of citation is low. Perhaps most troublingly, although women make up the majority of university students, the place of women in classrooms has been challenged by hardliners who have sought gender segregation and even outright bans in particular subject areas.
Since his election in 2013, President Rouhani has been outspoken about the need to address the flaws in Iran’s educational system. He has challenged the lack of academic freedom, spoken of the mismatch between the number of graduates and the available jobs that contribute to brain drain, and most recently decried both internet censorship and gender segregation as harmful policies. These statements are another indication of his administration’s bold commitment to bringing about meaningful reform in Iran.
There have also been promising signs that American institutions recognize the ability to connect with Iran through academic channels. On March 20, the US Treasury Department issued General License G, a blanket exemption from sanctions regulations that allows academic exchange between the US and Iran. Just a couple of months later, the online course provider Coursera was able to resume offering its content in Iran—having earlier ceased its outreach because of compliance issues.
In many ways, Iran defies regional stereotypes when it comes to education. The national culture privileges learning. This is true whether one looks to the celebration of historical figures such as the philosopher Avicenna, or to the fact that the chief ideologue of the Islamic Revolution, Jalal Al-e Ahmad, spent his whole career as a schoolteacher. US policymakers ought to recognize the unique role American institutions have played in the modern history of Iranian education, and indeed in the education of Iran’s current leadership. With this central role comes the opportunity to build trust and understanding through the renewed exchange of information and expertise.
Modern education in Iran actually has American roots. In the 1920s, the modernizing monarch, Reza Shah, undertook a program to send students to Europe and the United States to received elite education as engineers, doctors, scientists and statesmen. However, the Shah was wary of making Iran too dependent on foreign institutions. In order to develop indigenous expertise, he advocated a total reform of the educational system. And so, between 1928 and 1935, 108 students went abroad to study various subjects specifically so that they could return to Iran and take up positions as professors in the newly formed Iranian universities. Of these 108 students, seven specialized in the study of educational science itself. Among these seven students was the chief architect of Iran’s modern educational system, a noted civil servant and intellectual named Issa Sadiq.
Sadiq would begin his studies in educational science in France and the United Kingdom. But in the academic year of 1930-31, he received a formal invitation to attend the International Institute of Teacher’s College at Columbia University. Sadiq’s doctoral thesis was titled “Modern Persia and Her Educational System,” and was authored as a kind of handbook for the reform of Iran’s schools and universities. In its pages, Sadiq exhibits his commitment to American pedagogy. He had been heavily influenced by John Dewey, also a professor at Teacher’s College, who is remembered as one of the most important American philosophers of education and democracy. When Sadiq returned to Iran, he began to institute his reform program by founding Tehran Teachers College, which later became the nucleus of the famous University of Tehran. By the 1950s, an American pedagogical style became the norm in Iran, displacing the earlier European models of teaching.
The early modeling of Iran’s educational system on that of the United States—by then renowned as the strongest in the world—proved wise. Building on this legacy, Iran’s overall educational system remains strong, and despite political turmoil, the prolonged Iran-Iraq war, international sanctions and general isolation from the global community, Iranian universities remain mostly productive centers for learning and research. But in the face of stymied growth and development, Iranian educators and students will need outside support to generate solutions for the future. American institutions could prove the ideal partners.
In his thesis, Issa Sadiq remarks on the importance of education by observing that it “is so mingled with the whole of life, so directly dependent upon all the elements that make a nation.” For Americans to understand the nation of Iran in all its complexity and to build a lasting relationship for peace and prosperity, education is the key.