The Struggle for Development in Iran
The Evolution of Governance, Economy, and Society
Pooya Azadi, Mohsen B. Mesgaran, Matin Mirramezani



Writing about Iran and its complex history of development in the modern era is a difficult task. Much of the serious literature on modern Iran focuses on politics, political history, geopolitical affairs, or narrow economic or technical subjects. The intellectual discourse about the impediments of growth in Iran is dominated by an exaggerated notion of the role of ideology, class struggles, imperialism, and historical contingencies while overlooking the profound impacts of institutions and fundamental socioeconomic trends. In this environment, ironically, stating the truth based on undeniable facts and data is often deemed as a political act. Furthermore, there are issues with the availability and quality of data which render broad data-driven studies of Iran a tedious undertaking. The primary sources of data on Iran are sparse, nonhomogeneous, and often not available in a format that can be readily used. Secondary datasets, such as those compiled by international organizations, are limited in temporal coverage and scope, and in some cases, are inconsistent with the underlying primary source. These are the reasons, despite the great deal of attention that Iran receives from scholars and the media, there is still a lack of understanding of the fundamental forces and trends in its economy and society. Without deciphering Iran’s current issues by looking at the facts and data, predicting how the future of the country will unfold, both in domestic and international contexts, will remain guesswork. To address this issue, the Hamid and Christina Moghadam Program in Iranian Studies at Stanford University launched an initiative, the Stanford Iran 2040 Project, in 2016 to conduct data-driven research on key strategic areas relating to long-term development in Iran. The project has also been supported by the Freeman Spogli Institute at Stanford from the early stages of planning and development. The content of this book is based on the research conducted under this initiative.

In this book, we offer a multidimensional analysis of Iran’s struggle for development over half a century between 1970 and 2020. Iran in this period witnessed one king, two supreme leaders, over a dozen prime ministers and presidents, a revolution, a long war, numerous episodes of economic crises, international sanctions, and political turmoil, as well as profound social changes toward more modern ways of life. The book consists of a short introduction, nine chapters on different subjects pertinent to development, and a final reflection of what the future may entail for Iran. We hope we have constructed a fair and somewhat holistic picture of some of the complex issues of development in Iran’s modern history. The text has been written in clear and concise language which makes it accessible to a broad readership. The audience of the book encompasses researchers of a variety of disciplines, policymakers, journalists, and the business community. It can also be used as a textbook for a wide range of topics including Iranian studies, Middle Eastern studies, international development, political economy, and comparative politics.

Much of the content of this book is positive economics and data-driven analysis with a focus on fundamentals, institutions, and long-term trends. However, we have not been reluctant to criticize policies and policymakers if evidence and data warrant it. This approach distinguishes the present study from that of some other diaspora scholars whose work on Iran is, sadly, driven by their ideologies which can be anywhere across the political spectrum. For example, there has emerged a group of Islamic Republic apologists among the Iranian diaspora scholars with powerful roots in every domain of Iranian studies who are willing to openly or discreetly defend the regime under any circumstances using transparently fraudulent data and purposefully misleading arguments. On the opposite end, there are scholars who glorify the Pahlavi era with no regard for its shortcomings and the widespread dissatisfaction across large segments of Iranian society which ultimately led to the overthrow of the Shah and ended Iran’s dynastic era. We strived to produce an unbiased account of the developments in Iran’s troubled history of the past half century by drawing on evidence and citing data for every argument made throughout the book.

We welcome comments from scholars and experts and hope that this book contributes to professional and honest discourse among those who genuinely care about Iran and its future.

Pooya Azadi


June 2021