DUBAI: Aryan’s timing was impeccable: Months after he returned to Iran from college in Canada, job offers started to pile up. A decade of economic sanctions was drawing to an end in early 2016 as he settled back home, prompting a frenzied chase for Iran’s small pool of white-collar professionals.
“It’s a battle for talent,” said Aseyeh Hatami, founder and managing director of Iran’s leading jobs website, Iran Talent. Those with skills “and who are fit for a professional work environment are seized immediately,” she said.
The thriving metropolitan upper middle class that includes Aryan is a natural constituency for moderate President Hassan Rouhani, the architect of the 2015 nuclear deal with world powers that ended Iran’s isolation, as he seeks a second term at May 19 elections. Less clear is the degree of his support among the poor, leaving him vulnerable to accusations by hardline critics that his policies have failed to spread the benefits.
The nuclear accord has brought in about $12 billion (Dh44 billion) in investment, and led to a jump in oil output. The rewards have been unevenly felt.
An April poll by Toronto-based IranPoll showed that while a majority of those surveyed have a favourable opinion of him, 72 per cent of the respondents said the agreement hasn’t improved the living standards of average Iranians.
Hatami’s recruitment website, meanwhile, has seen a 110 per cent surge in the number of jobs for professionals posted by foreign companies.
“Abroad, you’re a small fish in a big pond,” 26 year-old Aryan said as he relaxed in a cafe garden after a day drafting investment strategies for clients of the European consultancy he works for.
“Here, each person can be the first to launch something or become a leader in their field.” Aryan asked for his last name to be withheld, a common request among Iranians when speaking to international news organisations.
Sanctions linked to terrorism and missile development weren’t removed last year, leaving many firms wary of investing in Iran, especially with a US president who views the nuclear agreement as a “disaster.” Yet foreign companies that have entered the nation of 80 million need personnel to navigate around language and cultural barriers, while those established in Iran, like Nestle and Siemens, are adding staff.
Most are looking to attract as first choice the Iranians who often saw their future overseas and headed to university in North America or Europe. A legal challenge to Donald Trump’s first attempt to lock out citizens of seven Muslim-majority nations counted more than 3,000 doctorates awarded to Iranian students by US universities in the past three years.
Local graduates require more training. Martin Tronquit, founder of a Casablanca-based data research company that entered Iran last year, said that while there’s no shortage of “brains,” soft skills are rarer.
The firm might have to hire engineers who know nothing about business and train them “how to interact with clients, how to best communicate,” he said. “Investment in on-the-job training will be significantly higher than in other countries where we operate.”
The International Monetary Fund in February lauded an “impressive recovery” in Iran, with growth expected above 6 per cent for the last 12 months, and inflation in single digits. Last week, Rouhani defended his record, saying pensioners and those on minimum wages or welfare had seen their incomes double during his presidency.
The president was responding to criticism from Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s ultimate authority, who said the government has failed to lift living standards of average Iranians.
Latest available data show that poverty rates in Iran increased during Rouhani’s first year in office because growth “was apparently not pro-poor,” according to Djavad Salehi-Isfahani, a professor of economics at Virginia Tech University in the US, who publishes a blog on the Islamic republic’s economy.
Ebrahim Raisi, a conservative cleric who is widely seen as Rouhani’s main challenger next month, latched on the theme, kicking off his entrance into the race by promising that his government would be that of “Dignity and Work.”
Conservatives have also tried to block Rouhani’s efforts to ease lifestyle restrictions, an obstacle in attracting qualified Iranians who live abroad back home.
“These are mostly people who said goodbye to Iran, so they will only return for a good reason, for an organisation they believe in,” said Hooman Damirchi, chief operating officer and co-founder of TAP30, a cab e-hailing company in Iran. His partner at the firm, Milad Monshipour — who attended a French business school and worked for Boston Consulting Group in Toronto — taught a tax course on one of Tehran’s MBA programmes, partly to identify promising students.
Aryan, whose employer also has offices in Dubai, Seoul and Kuala Lumpur, is earning a salary that’s comparable to what he’d get abroad. He gets to mix with local and visiting executives. So far, he has few regrets over his decision to build a career in Iran.
“The boom that everyone expected, an explosion of interest and investment, didn’t happen,” he said. “But at the end of the tunnel there’s still light. Friends abroad email me to say, ‘If you see a cool vacancy, let me know.’”