By Austin Bodetti
As manager of the Stanford Iran 2040 Project, Pooya Azadi makes a point of tracking Iran’s economic, environmental and social trends. Recently, he found himself at the center of them. In a May 29 speech, Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei accused Azadi’s research group of “questioning the scientific achievements of the country” and undermining Iran’s “important academic projects.” Overnight, Khamenei launched Azadi to the front pages of Iran’s state media.
While a 36-year-old chemical engineer at Stanford University might seem an odd target for the world’s most powerful ayatollah, Azadi’s multidisciplinary interests have enabled him to spearhead a research group with a focus far beyond his academic background. “Dr. Azadi has a unique combination of skills and talents that can rarely be found in a single person,” says Mohsen Mesgaran, an assistant professor of plant sciences at the University of California, Davis, and a longtime friend of Azadi.
Conducting data-driven research on economic policy, environmental degradation and governance in Iran, Azadi takes a scientific approach to the oft-emotional debate over the country’s trajectory.
“If you look at the literature, you will find a surprising scarcity of quality, systematic analysis of Iran’s economy and society,” says Azadi. “When you think about the future of a country of 80 million people, this lack of fundamental understanding of the issues becomes scary.”
THE STANFORD STUDY SEEMS TO HAVE MASSIVELY UNDERMINED THE CLAIM OF THE COUNTRY’S EXTRAORDINARY SCIENTIFIC ACHIEVEMENTS.
ALI FATHOLLAH-NEJAD, A VISITING FELLOW AT THE BROOKINGS DOHA CENTER
Born in Tehran in 1983, Azadi enjoyed playing soccer as a kid, but his interest in sports never interfered with his scholarly ambitions. In middle and high school, he attended the National Organization for Development of Exceptional Talents, a form of gifted education for promising Iranian students. Azadi studied chemical engineering after enrolling in the University of Tehran in 2001 because his generation considered engineering a “fashionable” choice. Nonetheless, the budding scientist soon discovered that he had a passion for a subject that, in his words, allowed him to “explain complex phenomena with mathematical models.”
In 2006, Azadi left Iran to pursue a master’s degree in chemical engineering at the University of Toronto, later earning a doctorate there. After departing Canada in 2012, he worked at several top American and British universities. The longer he spent away from Iran, though, the more he returned to the same question.
“Living in developed countries presented me with a dilemma: What was preventing Iran from becoming one of them?” says Azadi. “Iran is rich in natural resources and human capital, yet the country is still struggling with widespread poverty and many other deep-rooted problems.”
Azadi started the Stanford Iran 2040 Project three years ago to find an answer. Envisioned as a platform for scholars from the Iranian diaspora to chart Iran’s economic development, the research group has published reports on topics as varied as agriculture, monetary policy and population dynamics. Iranians and Westerners alike have cited them. Even Iranian officials seemed impressed with the Stanford Iran 2040 Project’s work prior to Khamenei’s speech. Mehr News Agency, part of Iran’s state media, referenced one of the research group’s studies in 2017.
“There is in him a refreshing combination of scientific rigor and patriotic concern for the plight of Iranian society,” says Abbas Milani, director of the Program in Iranian Studies at Stanford. “His training as an engineer helps his rigor, and his life in Iran accounts for his informed passion.”
Azadi hopes that the Stanford Iran 2040 Project’s output will help Iranians address pressing but understudied problems, among them the looming crisis of water scarcity. He argues that most Iranian scientists have focused on narrower topics more likely to appeal to academic journals. In fact, Khamenei’s outburst came in response to a Stanford Iran 2040 Project report called “The Scientific Output of Iran: Quantity, Quality and Corruption” that dubbed Iran “an extreme example of the publish-or-perish paradigm.”
“I am not sure if those who criticized us have a good understanding of the differences between scientific output and outcome,” says Mesgaran, a coauthor of the research paper.
The report charged that Iranian officials inflated the quantity of Iran’s scientific literature by pressuring Iranian scientists to publish more articles without regard to the quality of the content, providing little benefit to the scientific community or the public at large. This strategy allowed Iran to achieve the world’s highest growth rate for the publication of scientific literature, a spike that Azadi and the report have dismissed as superficial.
“Iran’s rising scientific output over the last few years has been singled out by Iranians across the spectrum as the single most undeniable success story of the Islamic Republic — amid an otherwise overall bleak picture of its achievements,” says Ali Fathollah-Nejad, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Doha Center. “The Stanford study seems to have massively undermined the claim of the country’s extraordinary scientific achievements, providing a more nuanced picture by looking behind the facade.”
In the wake of Khamenei’s speech, the Iranian science minister deemed the authors of the report “inexperienced and biased toward the subject.” The Iranian health ministry, meanwhile, called Iran’s scientific progress “undeniable,” arguing, “What the Iran 2040 Project claimed to be a scientific bubble is a solid and rooted structure that the powerful hands of Iranian scientists make stronger every day.” Azadi views these criticisms as “contentless and not serious.”
“If totalitarian regimes fail to deliver on their development goals, they usually claim other achievements commonly associated with superpowers and developed countries,” says Azadi. “In reality, however, these seemingly big achievements are of little or no value when considering the actual process of development and its impediments.”
Going forward, Khamenei’s words could hamper Azadi’s ability to conduct public engagement with his target audience of Iranian scientists, which includes running the Stanford Iran 2040 Project’s 1,630-member channel on the popular messaging app Telegram. Iranian authorities have banned Telegram and detained academics critical of their domestic policies in the past.
“Khamenei basically portrays the study as a foreign plot designed to undermine the country’s ‘great feat’ of scientific achievements and those propagating its findings to be engaging in nothing less than a ‘mixture of malevolence and treason,’ ” says Fathollah-Nejad, quoting Khamenei’s speech.
Despite these challenges, Khamenei’s attack has so far failed to slow Azadi’s work. The research group posted its most recent report just a month after the speech. For its part, Stanford has decided to ignore one of the stranger episodes in its 128-year history.
“Only Khamenei knows what goes on in his mind,” says Milani. “As in the past, neither Stanford nor the Program in Iranian Studies has chosen to respond. Some attacks you just wear as a badge of honor.”
Note: The Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies and the Hamid and Christina Moghadam Program in Iranian Studies sponsor the Stanford Iran 2040 Project.