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Iran’s Exiles Trickle Back in Wake of Reforms

May 1, 1991

TEHRAN, Iran (AP) _ Thousands of Iranians who fled after the 1979 Islamic revolution are trickling back, lured by the more liberal economic and social climate under reformist President Hashemi Rafsanjani.

But many of the 2 million Iranians who have left the past 12 years appear reluctant to come home, fearing old prejudices and wary of putting their faith in Rafsanjani’s regime until he has cemented his power.

One returnee, mechanical engineer Sattar Pandukho, said ″the business climate has never been better.″

But he cautioned: ″The only question is whether it can last in light of political developments.″

To be sure, some Western consulates in Tehran are still packed with Iranians, many of them sorely needed doctors, engineers and other professionals seeking to emigrate after more than a decade of revolutionary turmoil, religious fundamentalism and economic hardship.

There’s a thriving black market in under-the-counter foreign visas.

″I’ve been welcomed back, which I certainly didn’t expect, given what the American media has been saying about Iran,″ said Said Saatchi, 35, a jeweler with a store in Tehran’s fashionable Kerim Han street.

″They’ve opened the door wide to everyone willing to work,″ said Saatchi, who returned from New York City two months ago after spending 15 years in the United States.

Many of the Iranians who fled during the revolution and the 1980-88 war with Iraq were professionals: engineers, scientists, industrial managers. Faced with a growing shortage of skilled people, Rafsanjani’s technocrat- dominated government is seeking to attract these people back to help reignite Iran’s economy.

He has said the dire shortage of skilled managers is a major obstacle to economic improvement.

To bolster confidence, Rafsanjani has created a presidential commission to encourage exiles to return.

There are no official figures for the number of returnees. But diplomats estimate as many as 15 percent of the exiles have come home the past two years. They include former industrialists who have returned to claim factories seized during the revolution.

But many who fled for political reasons remain reluctant to chance coming home, despite assurances that they will not be persecuted as long as they offer allegiance to the new regime.

Fear of a conservative backlash appears to have kept many prospective returnees from coming back, despite financial incentives offered by the government.

These include grants for young, college-educated exiles and soft bank credits for those wanting to start businesses.

Rafsanjani was elected president in July 1989, a few weeks after Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, founder and symbol of the revolution, died of cancer.

His death, more than any other event, opened the way for Rafsanjani to begin undoing the fundamentalist straightjacket that had stifled Iran for more than a decade.

Two years ago, Rafsanjani declared: ″If we give up some of the short- sightedness, some of the crude aspects which were the requirements of the early stages of the revolution, and which we do not need today, we will (get) the exiles back.″

Pandukho, 54, who spent several years in Germany and the United States before returning last year, said the exiles often had too high expectations about what life in the West would be.

″They thought they’d find paradise, that the streets in the West are paved with gold. But it wasn’t like that for a lot of people,″ he said.

He is establishing a construction materials company with a German partner in Bakhtaran, 270 miles southeast of the capital.

He praised Rafsanjani’s market-oriented reforms aimed at encouraging private enterprise and attracting foreign investment.

″They’re good for everyone, employers and employees alike,″ he said. ″Rafsanjani wears the robes of a mullah (holy man), but he’s a pragmatist who thinks of Iran and the Iranian people first.″

The government’s program of privatizing unprofitable state-owned firms, many of which have been kept afloat only through costly subsidies, has been generally well-received.

But the fundamentalist radicals who dominate the 270-member Majlis, or parliament, are bitterly opposed to bringing back what they consider Western values, a phenomenon they contend the revolution was waged to eliminate.

Rafsanjani has largely marginalized his political foes, but they continue to try to undermine his economic, political and social reforms and remain entrenched within the bloated, corrupt bureaucracy.

The radicals, who say they want to preserve Khomeini’s ideals of revolutionary purity, claim that proposed changes will only deepen the rift between rich and poor.

They have sought to block proposed labor legislation that would allow unhindered hiring and firing of workers by management.

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