The Case for Giving Iran's Scholar-Diplomats a Chance

We'd be foolish to not let the battle between technocrats and theocrats play out.
Iran's Glasgow Caledonian-educated president, Hassan Rouhani, speaks with an aide. (Adrees Latif/Reuters)

Hassan Rouhani, Iran’s president, has more cabinet members with Ph.D. degrees from U.S. universities than Barack Obama does. In fact, Iran has more holders of American Ph.D.s in its presidential cabinet than France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Russia, or Spain—combined.

Take, for example, Rouhani’s chief of staff, Mohammad Nahavandian. He spent many years in the United States and has a Ph.D. in economics from George Washington University. Or Javad Zarif, the foreign affairs minister and chief negotiator in the recent nuclear deal between Iran and six global powers. He studied at the University of San Francisco and completed his doctorate at the University of Denver. For five years, he lived in New York and was Iran’s ambassador to the United Nations. Ali Akbar Salehi, head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization, has a Ph.D. in nuclear engineering from MIT. Mahmoud Vaezi, the communication minister, studied electrical engineering at Sacramento and San Jose State Universities and was enrolled in the Ph.D. program at Louisiana State University (he ultimately earned a doctorate in international relations at Warsaw University).  Other cabinet members have advanced degrees from universities in Europe and Iran. Abbas Ahmad Akhoundi, the transportation minister, has a Ph.D. from the University of London, while President Rouhani got his from Glasgow Caledonian University in Scotland. The new government in Tehran, in other words, might well be one of the most technocratic in the world.

Does this matter? On the surface, perhaps not much. We all know how often the governments of the “best and the brightest” disappoint. And it’s important to keep in mind that many of these highly credentialed cabinet members were also active participants in former Iranian administrations and backed policies that earned Iran’s theocracy its bad name.

And let’s not forget that it is Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader, who really reigns supreme. He can initiate or stop any initiative. There’s also Major General Qassem Suleimani, who offers a sober counterpoint to the scholarly crowd in the cabinet. Suleimani is a product of a rural town in Iran’s interior and acquired a vast education in the battlefields and the dark alleys of terrorist plots, rather than in classrooms. He is enormously respected by his allies, admirers, and staunchest enemies both in and outside Iran. For the past 15 years, he has commanded the Quds Force, a division of the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps that answers directly to the supreme leader. The group’s official mission is to export the Islamic revolution and take care of “extra-territorial operations.” Among other achievements, Suleimani is recognized for successfully turning Hezbollah into a feared military force, for organizing the armed resistance that killed thousands of American soldiers in Iraq, and for his effective support of the forces loyal to the Syrian government as they sought to regain ground lost to the armed insurgency. Former CIA officer John Maguire told New Yorker journalist Dexter Filkins that “Suleimani is the single most powerful operative in the Middle East today.”

Presented by

Moisés Naím

Moisés Naím is a contributing editor at The Atlantic, a senior associate in the International Economics Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and the chief international columnist for El Pais and La Repubblica, Spain's and Italy's largest dailies. He is author of more than 10 books, including, most recently, The End of Power. More

Former U.S. President Bill Clinton has said that The End of Power "will change the way you read the news, the way you think about politics, and the way you look at the world." George Soros added that this "extraordinary new book will be of great interest to all those in leadership positions [who] will gain a new understanding of why power has become easier to acquire and harder to exercise."

Before joining the Carnegie Endowment, Naím was the editor in chief of Foreign Policy for 14 years. In 2011, he launched Efecto Naím, a weekly television program highlighting surprising world trends using video, graphics, and interviews with world leaders. The show is widely watched in Latin America today.

Naím’s public service includes his tenure as Venezuela’s Minister of Trade and Industry in the early 1990s, director of Venezuela's Central Bank, and executive director of the World Bank.  He was also a professor of business and economics and dean of IESA, Venezuela's main business school. He is the Chairman of the Board of the Group of Fifty (G-50) and a member of the board of directors of the National Endowment for Democracy, the International Crisis Group, and Population Action International.

Naím also writes regularly for The Financial Times. His columns are syndicated internationally and appear in all of Latin America's leading newspapers. In a 2013, the U.K.'s Prospect, magazine conducted a survey that named him one of the leading thinkers in the world. He has an M.Sc. and Ph.D. from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

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