Nuclear Iran: The Role of Islam and Capitalism
Religion & Liberty Online

Nuclear Iran: The Role of Islam and Capitalism

For years, the international community has pressured Iran to throw out its alleged nuclear weapons development program and has imposed crippling economic sanctions as a tool for compliance. Two week-long talks have just resumed with the Islamic Republic, yet little is expected to come out of them. Sanctions have only continued to mount in recent years, blocking both individuals and firms from engaging in many commercial interactions with Iran, further solidifying its ongoing economic disaster. If Iran elects to agree to a settlement on the nuclear proliferation issue, lifted sanctions would mean more access to the global free market, culminating in prosperity for the Islamic Republic and its citizens and furthering capitalist ideals into a new state. Yet a faith based argument poses the greatest challenge to Iran adopting a more free market philosophy.

This poses the question: Why are the ruling theocrats so disinterested from partnering with free market states? Such is best addressed by the Ayatollah Khomeini, leader of the 1979 Islamic Revolution, who wrote in his last will and testament:

Islam does not approve of an oppressive and unbridled capitalism that deprives the oppressed masses who suffer under tyranny. On the contrary, it firmly rejects it both in the Qur’an…it considers it against social justice.

But is capitalism tyrannous and against the tenets of faith? Simply put, no. Too often, capitalism is misinterpreted as a policy of corruption and injustice – as has also been illustrated though Pope Francis’s belief that society has developed “a crude and naïve trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power.”

Greed and capitalism are not synonymous, and the free market can make room for faith and virtue to generate wealth and empower all of society’s members. In respect to Islam, Acton University lecturer Mustafa Akyol addresses this concern stating that the religion clashes with capitalism only “if the word ‘capitalism’ means nothing other than greed, exploitation or injustice.” He continues:

However, if capitalism merely means an economic system of private property, free enterprise and free markets, then there would be nothing “un-Islamic” about it, as the economic history of the Islamic civilization proves. Being founded by a merchant (Prophet Muhammad), and directed by a scripture (the Quran) whose longest verse is about how to write a proper loan contract, Islam, at its core, is a capitalist religion…

The free market is a beautiful system that ought to be embraced, especially by states that are truly interested in building a flourishing culture. According to the International Monetary Fund, sanctions have caused a serious economic contraction effectively crippling the nation. Notwithstanding this, Iran has showed some progress in respect to an increase in both the per capita income and living standards, but Iran remains below other comparable counties. Just imagine what engagement with the free-market could bring to this nation.

A virtuous state can employ a capitalistic approach guided by moral principles. As the world’s only theocratic republic, Iran certainly has the capacity to do this and enforce it in the name of Islam. Capitalism need not be understood as a nefarious, greedy system, but one sustained through virtue as a means toward honorable economic flourishing.

The nation boasts the second largest natural gas reserves and the fourth largest of crude oil. The longer Iran digs in its heels on a nuclear compromise, the more damaged its resources will become, or they will lose them altogether. With every year of stalled negotiations, oil refineries waste away in the desert. And more dangerously, Iran is losing its human capital, perhaps its most valuable commodity.

When assessing Iranians who have left their homeland in exchange for the American free market — data from the US Census Bureau suggests that these Iranian immigrants, Persians,  could be arguably the most successful ancestral group in the nation. Fifty-eight percent of Persian-Americans earn a bachelor’s degree, compared to 30 percent of America as whole. They also have a per capita income 1.7 times greater than native born Americans. The median household income also surpasses both native born Americans and all other immigrant groups.

The Huffington Post addresses that the Persian people have prospered in the United States “precisely because of their spirit for growth and entrepreneurship, their vision for a better life that takes into account the full spectrum of leadership skills.” America has undoubtedly profited from Iran’s “brain drain,” while the Islamic Republic should bemoan the loss of highly talented exports.

In a recent op-ed, Secretary of State John Kerry recognizes how the choice to compromise and re-enter the global market is essential:

If Iran is able to make these choices, there will be positive outcomes for the Iranian people and for their economy. Iran will be able to use its significant scientific know-how for international civil nuclear cooperation. Businesses could return to Iran, bringing much needed investment, jobs and many additional goods and services. Iran could have greater access to the international financial system. The result would be an Iranian economy that begins to grow at a significant and sustainable pace, boosting the standard of living among the Iranian population.

The nuclear proliferation issue extends beyond the issue of energy, be it for peaceful or military purposes – it is a choice of either economic prosperity or continued crippling isolation from the free market. The Iranian economy has been plagued with high inflation, unemployment and a weak currency. Iran has all the resources to reverse this economic downfall — a well-educated and motivated populous as well as a vast wealth of natural resources. Unfortunately, the economic principles guiding the country have not utilized these tools to map a path to prosperity.

If the negative connotation of capitalism can be eliminated and partnered with morality and responsibility, then perhaps Iran will embrace a policy bringing it closer to the free market states of the West, which would facilitate an internal adoption of the free market. Iran not only has the potential to flourish as a global economic powerhouse, but it is its destiny to reclaim its past economic glory as the Persian Empire, if its leaders bestow it the “gift of capitalism” citizens can again flourish  in global and domestic open exchange.


Jacqueline Derks

Jacqueline Derks is a 2014 Charles G. Koch Fellow at the Acton Institute. She attends New York University, majoring in Politics and Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies.