In this paper, we present trends in the international migration of Iranians and discuss their underlying causes and ramifications for the future of Iran. Our analysis is based on a dataset compiled from statistics published by the national governments and international agencies. Additionally, we developed a classification algorithm to identify scholars of Iranian descent working in foreign countries through analyzing global publication records of the past decades.
The compiled data indicate that the total number of Iranian-born emigrants increased from about half a million people prior to the 1979 revolution to 3.1 million in 2019, corresponding to 1.3% and 3.8% of the country’s population, respectively. Overall, top destination countries for Iranian migrants include the United States, Canada, Germany, and the United Kingdom. We also estimate that a total of about 700,000 Iranian-born individuals have attended foreign universities. The trend in the number of Iranian-born students enrolled in foreign universities has shown three distinct phases: the number sharply increased in the decade leading to the 1979 revolution, then significantly declined in the two decades ensuing the revolution, and again has been on an upward trend thereafter. With 130,000 Iranian-born students enrolled in foreign universities, the figure is at its highest record today. Over the past several decades, there has been an increase in the ratio of graduate to undergraduate students as well as in students who were already residing abroad prior to enrollment (children migrated with their families) while the tendency of students for returning to Iran has declined from upward of 90% in 1979 to less than 10% today. We also identified around 110,000 scholars of Iranian descent affiliated with universities and research institutes outside of Iran. In rough terms, this figure corresponds to one-third of Iran’s total human resources in research as measured by headcount and, arguably, a far greater share based on productivity and impact. As a proxy for the brain drain issue at large, the total number of active scholars among the Iranian diaspora has undergone a ten-fold increase since 2000.
Iran’s ongoing brain drain crisis can be attributed to the compounding effects of multiple factors, most notably: decades of poor governance, political repression, human rights abuses, bleak economic outlook, corruption, and socio-demographic factors. Here, we discuss major factors that collectively shape the environment in which Iranians make their migration decisions. These factors are classified into four broad categories (predisposing, proximate, precipitating, and mediating) depending on how they impact people’s migration decisions—spanning from root causes to triggers to catalysts—and the timeline over which they are acting.
Iran’s brain drain crisis along with decades of detachment from the global economy, insufficient investment, entrenched corruption, closure of demographic window of opportunity, and the foreseeable decline in the relative value of the country's fossil resources, collectively, suggest that Iran could possibly lose generations of economic growth. In principle, the elite members of the Iranian diaspora could significantly help alleviate these challenges through various forms of contributions including: virtual and actual return to Iran, direct investment, philanthropic contributions, tourism, and remittances. However, no such developments will occur without major breakthroughs in Iran’s current political landscape.