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Rediscovering Iran’s Potential

If upcoming elections in the United States and Iran result in victories for the extremes, then the unproductive mutual hostility that has marked bilateral relations for most of the past 40 years will likely deepen. But should more moderate voices prevail, there will still be a chance to unlock Iran’s rich peaceful potential.

MADRID – Almost a millennium ago, one of the most renowned Persians in history, Omar Khayyam, was born in the city of Nishapur in present-day Iran. In the West, Khayyam is known mainly as a poet, owing to the translation of his most important works into English in the nineteenth century. But, in his time, he forged his reputation mostly in mathematics and astronomy. In fact, the practice of representing the unknown in an equation with an x is thought to derive from Khayyam himself. He referred to unknowns as shay (“thing” in Arabic), a term that in old Spanish was transcribed as xay, from which supposedly emerged the now universally used x.

Humankind owes innumerable advances to Persian thinkers, who for centuries distinguished themselves by their extraordinary scientific sophistication. Today, Iran ranks fifth in the world for the number of recent graduates in the STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics), behind only China, India, the United States, and Russia. In this regard, Iran is well ahead of technological powerhouses such as Japan – which has, moreover, a population that is around 50% larger.

Nevertheless, scientific progress can be a double-edged sword. That was true, for example, of Iran’s clandestine nuclear program, which came to light in 2002. Although Iran’s leaders insisted that the program’s aims were peaceful and fully compatible with the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, the international community reacted with caution. Thus, as the European Union’s high representative, I was tasked with reaching a diplomatic understanding with Iran, whose first negotiator was Hassan Rouhani, the national security adviser at the time. After many ups and downs, the circle finally closed in 2015, when the main global powers and Iran – where Rouhani had become president – reached a truly historic nuclear agreement: the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).

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