OUTLOOK 2021 Iran

OUTLOOK 2021 Iran
2021 is a crux year for Tehran and the rest of the Islamic Republic of 83mn.
By bne IntelIiNews January 30, 2021


No-one ever expected a smooth transition from Donald Trump’s abandonment of the 2015 nuclear deal to Joe Biden re-embracing it. Neither Iran nor the US can afford to lose too much face in dealing with the other, domestic and international politics on both sides have long seen to that. Thus the current jockeying for position and leverage seen coming from Tehran and Washington. Drop the Trump sanctions and we’ll quickly get back to full compliance with the nuclear deal, says Iran. Get back to full compliance and we’ll drop the sanctions and re-enter the nuclear deal, says the US.

At face value, at the time of writing, there seems little room for compromise, but a more optimistic reading might suggest that the Biden administration, while keeping the sanctions for now, could relent on enforcing them (there is some evidence that Iran is already stepping up oil exports, expecting less interference from prying US officials), while Iran slows its incremental breaching of the nuclear accord (formally the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA) ahead of bilateral talks—either seen or behind the scenes—that might pave a way forward.

Illustration by Iran's Tasnim news agency
published after Donald Trump abandoned
the nuclear deal
(Image: Tasnim, cc-by-sa.4.0).

Purely on grounds of fairness, one might suggest that it should really be the US that makes the first move. After all, as US president, in May 2018, Trump smashed through international diplomatic convention by unilaterally abandoning a multilateral agreement (painstakingly put together over many years by the Obama administration of which Biden was vice president) that, according to UN inspectors, Iran was entirely respecting. And then he declared a brutal economic war, bringing in sanctions, unprecedented in their scope and stringency, as he sought to diminish Iran’s role in Middle East affairs in favour of Israel and Saudi Arabia, two of his almost unfailingly loyal allies. But hard politics doesn’t work like that and Biden needs to be seen to extract a tough transaction.

Whether Iran’s ruling hardliners can be persuaded to fall in line with far less than a US capitulation by the pragmatic, moderate presidency run by Hassan Rouhani is moot (six years ago he infuriated the hardliners by agreeing the nuclear deal with the US amid protests that the Americans could never be trusted. After Trump went to work, he could subsequently only haplessly plead that it was not his fault that the Americans put a "tradesman" and "bully" with a "weakness of intellect" in the White House). Yet look at the parlous state of the Iranian economy—Trump crushed the Islamic Republic into three years of miserable recession even if he didn’t manage to break the Iranians’ resistance—and you have to think they might.

Millions in Iran have been pushed into extreme poverty over the past three years and, with three waves of the coronavirus pandemic having severely exacerbated deprivation, the anger in Iranian society is building—more dashed hopes coming from news of a fatal breakdown in negotiations with Biden’s diplomats could see it erupt on to the streets.

A piece from UPI this week quoted Faramarz Tofighi, head of the wages committee of the Islamic Labour Council, an industrial relations group, as saying: “More than 60% of Iranian society live in relative poverty because the workers’ wages are enough for about a third of their costs of living. Half of those who live below the poverty line struggle with extreme poverty.”

The news agency cited Saeed Laylaz, a reform-minded economist, as confirming Tofighi’s figures and observing that the number of those in Iran struggling with extreme poverty had increased fivefold in the three years since the US quit the JCPOA and reimposed sanctions.

Rising poverty has added to pressure on the regime to reopen talks with the US, said Laylaz, adding: “After the pandemic, if the Islamic Republic cannot curb poverty, it could face political and social instability. The government has to compensate… for the huge pressure on people over the past three years.”

Iran’s smart cash payment system covers around half of the country’s 83m-strong population and is used to get government payouts to those with no source of income. The poorest families—with an average of four members—are entitled to a minimum of Iranian rial (IRR) 5.7mn ($136 at the official exchange rate, $36 at the free market rate) each month, enough to afford bread and potatoes. This has helped make bread “affordable for many families and helps them not to starve”, said Laylaz.

Whether Tehran likes it or not, the wretched state by now of the lives of so many of Iran’s people will give the US bargaining power in getting the nuclear deal back on the rails on terms acceptable to enough sceptical members of its Congress. Those terms may include a demand that a restoration of US nuclear deal participation, and the contingent lifting of sanctions, provides for an opening of talks on matters separate from the restricting of Iran’s nuclear development programme, including the country’s ballistic missile programme and arming of proxies in Middle East conflict zones.

So help me God. Antony Blinken (l), newly sworn in as US secretary of state, has the vexing job of fixing the JCPOA (Image: US Dept of State).

For now, however, the two sides are simply butting heads. Antony Blinken, the newly appointed US secretary of state, while suggesting there is unlikely to be any major progress in negotiations until after Iran’s June presidential election (that in itself could be a bluff), said: “President Biden has been very clear in saying that if Iran comes back into full compliance with its obligations under the JCPOA, the United States would do the same thing and then we would use that as a platform to build, with our allies and partners, what we called a longer and stronger agreement and to deal with a number of other issues that are deeply problematic in the relationship with Iran.

“But we are a long ways from that point. Iran is out of compliance on a number of fronts. And it would take some time, should it make the decision to do so, for it to come back into compliance in time for us then to assess whether it was meeting its obligations. So we’re not—we’re not there yet, to say the least.”

Iran's foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, wants to see the US show some goodwill first (Image: Tasnim, cc-by-sa.4.0). 

Blinken’s standpoint and suggestions from France that Iran needs to make the first move in reviving the JCPOA—France, Germany, the UK, Russia and China are its other signatories—brought a scathing tweet from Iran’s foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, who wrote: “Why on earth should Iran—a country that stood firm & defeated 4 years of a brutal US economic terrorism imposed in violation of JCPOA & UNSC Resolution—show goodwill gesture first? It was the US that broke the deal—for no reason. It must remedy its wrong; then Iran will respond.”

One piece of news from Blinken that will have pleased Tehran was his announcement that the US was suspending the simply massive arms sales deals with Saudi Arabia that were arranged under Trump. This could simply amount to a show of due caution ahead of authorising the deals, but Iran will hope not as it has grown increasingly wary of a regional arms race. Zarif in December called on Riyadh to limit its $67bn annual defence spending to Iran’s $10bn, and challenged the Saudis to stop the spread of weapons across the Middle East.

Away from the Persian Gulf, Iran continues to keep a close eye on events in its Caucasus backyard where Turkey, exercising the hard power that Trump was only too happy to let it get away with, last year armed close ally Azerbaijan in a fashion that enabled it to win a comprehensive victory within 44 days over Armenia in an autumn war for control over the Nagorno-Karabakh enclave. The Turks and Azerbaijanis are now pressing Armenia to agree to a Russian-guarded land corridor across Armenian territory that would link Azerbaijan to its Nakhchivan exclave, which borders both Turkey and Iran. Quite apart from the geopolitical influence Tehran risks losing in the South Caucasus neighbourhood, it stands to lose economically. The corridor would put an end to much Turkish and Azerbaijani import-export trade that presently has to transit either Iran or Georgia.

Iran—which must take into account the feelings of the one-fifth of its population that is Iranian-Azerbaijani—has offered to help Azerbaijan reconstruct the parts of Nagorno-Karabakh that it managed to reclaim in the conflict.

Armenia, meanwhile, is busy implementing an embargo on Turkish supermarket goods. In many instances, it is replacing them with Iranian alternatives.

So where will Iran be at year’s end? Trump’s trampling on the JCPOA proved a boost for the hardliners who, conspiring to bar the more progressive candidates from standing in the early 2020 parliamentary election, took control of the legislature. A failure by Iran and the US to shake hands on a near resumption of the status quo that existed prior to the rise of Trump could five months from now give the hardliners the presidency. On the other hand, the big economic shot in the arm Iran would get from a nuclear deal resumption and the dropping of major US sanctions could mean a much different political story.

Relations between Rouhani—who cannot take part in the upcoming election as he has served the two consecutive terms as president he is allowed by law—and the hardliners are anything but rosy. This week he told the hardline judiciary that instead of prosecuting his telecoms minister—Mohammad Javad Azari Jahromi is accused of refusing an order from on high to block Instagram and impose restrictions on other foreign social media and messaging platforms—they should try him instead.

“These days, the internet is like oxygen for people... to want to restrict it would be absolutely wrong.... How else can we expect people to do everything from home and teach their children online during the [coronavirus] pandemic?” Rouhani asked. Not that anyone in the judiciary has been in any mood to listen of late. In October, the founder and manager of Iran’s main video-sharing platform, sometimes dubbed “Iran's YouTube”, was sentenced to 10 years in prison for “encouraging corruption” in society.

A little ironically, Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, often proves a dab hand in the use of social media and the internet. On January 22, Khamenei’s official website, and for a time his Twitter account, carried a photomontage (above) of a blond-haired man bearing the likeness of Trump in the shadow of what appears to be a stealth aircraft or drone, with the heading "Vengeance is certain" written in Farsi.



As things stand, the IMF sees 5% of lost GDP in Iran in 2020 with a 3.2% bounceback in 2021 (Graph: IMF DataMapper). 

Iran has endured three years of recession under the renewed US sanctions. The first of those sanctions kicked in halfway through 2018, a year that brought a GDP contraction of 6%. Things worsened in 2019 as the sanctions screw was tightened, with economic output falling 6.8%. The World Bank estimates it declined by 3.7% in 2020.

Looking ahead, the January edition of the World Bank’s Global Economic Prospects report forecasts that GDP growth of 1.5%, from a very low base, is in reach for Iran in 2021. But the situation is fluid. The dropping of the sanctions by the Biden administration would lead to a big revision in prospects—in November, the Institute of International Finance (IIF) trade body said Iran’s economy could expand by as much as 4.4% in 2021 and grow by 6.9% in 2022 and 6% in 2023 if the sanctions were chucked out.

(Table: January 2021 edition of the World Bank’s Global Economic Prospects). 

The path that the coronavirus crisis takes in Iran from here will of course also be crucial to outcomes—Iran was among countries last year that had to dip into their sovereign wealth fund to mitigate fiscal pressure caused by the effects of the pandemic.

The International Monetary Fund (IMF) with its World Economic Outlook figures presented last October (thus a bit behind the curve by now) predicted that Iran’s GDP would contract 5% in 2020 but bounce back by 3.2% in 2021.

Iranian consumer prices in 2019 rose 41% and were on course to grow 30.5% in 2020 and 30% in 2021, the IMF said. However, the official annual inflation rate now stands at 46.2% (compared with less than 10% at the point in May 2018 that Trump quit the nuclear deal) and price growth is very unevenly spread among the various goods and services categories. Food and drink price growth is alarming to many Iranians, with complaints cited by UPI that chicken, rice and egg prices have nearly doubled over the past year while fresh fruit, beans and vegetable oil prices have increased by around threefold.

The IMF anticipates Iran will edge a current account surplus of 0.3% in 2021 with plenty of room on both the upside and the downside for forecasting changes given the uncertainty surrounding the future of the nuclear deal and US sanctions (Graph: IMF DataMapper). 

Looking at Iran’s current account balance as a percentage of GDP, the Fund gave figures of 1.1%, -0.5% and 0.3% for 2019, 2020 and 2021, respectively. Unemployment was expected to grow to 12.2% in 2020 from 10.7% in 2019 and rise to 12.4% in 2021, the IMF added.  

A month before November’s US election, Iran’s rial hit the 300,000-to-the-dollar threshold for the first time ever on the unregulated free market in Tehran as tensions with the Trump administration tightened and a coronavirus third wave took its toll on the economy. That put the rial 46% down against the dollar since the start of 2020. The currency has since recovered to around 240,000, but remains volatile. During the course of the four-year Trump presidency, the rial lost 80% against the greenback.

The IMF last October calculated that the Iranian government's net debt would reach around $260bn by the end of 2020, equivalent to 44% of GDP. Before the reimposition of US sanctions, it stood at less than $118bn. Muddying the picture, however, is the fact that estimates of how much crude oil Iran manages to sell on the grey market despite US sanctions vary rather widely.

On January 20, Iran’s deputy minister of economic affairs and finance said the country’s foreign debt was currently very insignificant at nearly zero. Utilising foreign debt could be a good opportunity for the government to meet investment needs inside Iran, Mohammad-Ali Dehqan Dehnavi added.

Last October also brought an IMF forecast that Iran's total budget deficit for the current fiscal year (ending on March 19) will be around $58bn. In an April report, the IMF predicted that Iran's foreign exchange reserves would be $85bn in 2020, but around 90% of the reserves are frozen abroad by sanctions.

Iran’s non-oil foreign trade reached a value of $58.7bn in the first 10 months of the 2020/2021 Persian year (ended January 19), Islamic Republic of Iran Customs Administration (IRICA) data showed this week. Exports fell 20% y/y to $28.06bn, while imports decreased 15.5% y/y to $30.63bn. The main export destinations included China ($7.2bn), Iraq ($6.3bn), the UAE ($3.7bn), Turkey ($2bn) and Afghanistan ($1.9bn). 

Garbis Iradian, the IIF’s chief economist for the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, said in November that, assuming a lifting of the US sanctions by late 2021, foreign direct investment (FDI) inflows into Iran would increase progressively from 2020’s $890mn to somewhere below $2bn in 2021 to more than $6.4bn in 2025. Most FDI would arrive from China, Iradian said.

To many analysts, Iran’s dalliance with Beijing is something that Tehran would, as a ‘Plan B’, turn into something much more serious should efforts to repair economic links with the West founder. In the past year, Iran and China have stepped up work on drafting a 25-year strategic trade, investment and security pact that could potentially have a value of hundreds of billions of dollars.

Facts about the putative Sino-Iranian pact are few and hard to come by, with Beijing saying little, and the Islamic Republic’s leaders wary of a backlash from nationalists claiming Iran is about to become a Chinese client state. The Financial Times reported in July last year that under the deal “China would invest in airports and ports, telecoms and transport, oil and gas fields, infrastructure and banking, acquiring assets as it addresses Iran’s unmet investment needs. In exchange, it would take massive, discounted deliveries of Iranian oil over those 25 years, to feed an import need that last year reached 10m barrels a day. This is roughly what Saudi Arabia, Iran’s arch-rival, produces.”

Observers see Iran backing away from the deal, or scaling down its size, if it can normalise, as far as possible, trade and investment channels with the US and European Union and rest of the world.

Not that foreign investors should expect ‘post-Trump’ Iran to be a free-for-all. Indeed, in early January, the country’s oil minister, Bijan Namdar Zanganeh, warned that it would not be. Foreign companies looking to re-enter the country would be required to work under conditions different to those they secured prior to leaving Iran under pressure from the Trump administration, Zanganeh said.

Iranian companies had in many ways successfully struggled to fill the vacuum caused by their foreign counterparts’ departure and, said the minister, “If foreign companies come [to Iran], we will cooperate with them, but it doesn’t mean that we will abandon what we have achieved [alone during the Trump era].” He added: "Sanctions are mortal and will be gone, but we will not give up on the capacities we have created and we will organise and strengthen them."



The Tehran Stock Exchange (TSE) is one Iranian entity desperately in need of some good news on the sanctions front. In mid-January, the head of the TSE and the Securities and Exchange Organisation of Iran (SEO) resigned from both of his posts in the wake of a “Black Monday” market crash. Hassan Ghalibaf Asl went as angry protests grew outside the exchange building, trading was halted and the TSE website was pulled.

The Tehran Stock Exchange price board as seen during its recent "Black Monday" (Image: bne headline with photo from Tasnim, cc-by-sa.4.0). 

Investors, many of whom were new entrants to the market in 2019 when officials encouraged new players to look for value in the bourse, have lost billions of dollars in market turmoil that saw the TSE’s main index, the TEDPIX, plummet back down to near a million points, having broken through the million threshold for the first time in May 2020 and smashed through the two-million barrier just three months later.

Analysts said the TEDPIX made its astronomical gains despite there being no economic fundamentals to drive it to such highs. However, with Iran’s economy—particularly the Iranian rial (IRR)—battered by sanctions, many investors, encouraged by signals from the government that there would be a growing amount of privatisation and a slew of state enterprise flotations, appeared to stick with the TSE as their best bet to get a good return on investment. Then it all went pear-shaped.

Despite the carnage, there are plenty of analysts who believe that great value would be unlocked in Iranian stocks should the country shake off the economic shackles. In September, it was reported that more than 250 companies had registered an interest in listing on the TSE.

On the bond market, speculation that the cash-strapped Rouhani administration was set to sell oil bonds to citizens has gone nowhere, with jitters about Iran’s oil export prospects said to have hindered the plan. Mohammad Hossein Farhangi, a lawmaker for Tabriz, told local press in August that he thought Iranians nationwide had $35bn stashed in their homes, almost equal to the state budget for one year.

On the banking front, which for years has been going through a grindingly slow consolidation, June 2020 saw officials move to create a “mega bank”. State-owned Bank Sepah—Iran’s first ever bank, it opened in 1925—was merged with military-affiliated Bank Hekmat Iranian and Mehr Eqtesad Bank. Three other military-affiliated lenders—Ansar Bank, Ghavamin Bank and Kosar Credit Institution—were then merged with Sepah at the end of last year. The government said the mega-merger demonstrated its commitment to curb the military's role in the economy.



Iran is planning crude oil and condensate output of 4.5mn barrels per day starting from March 20 (the first day of the 2021/2022 Persian year), with exports at 2.3mn b/d, if the US sanctions are lifted by the Biden administration, Iranian Oil Minister Bijan Namdar Zanganeh said in mid-December. Some analysts think that it would take Iran a year or more to scale up to such an export level even if the way was clear. Among the many estimates of how much oil Iran is managing to export on the grey market, there are some that suggest shipments have lately climbed as high as 800,000 b/d.

There are wide variations in estimates of how much crude Iran is able to export on the grey market (Image: Fars News Agency).

One of the big departures from Iran brought about by the Trump sanctions was the pullout by France’s energy major Total from developing Phase 11 of the Iranian side of the supergiant South Pars natural gas field (the other side is Qatari territory) in the Persian Gulf. The Chinese involved in the venture were also supposed to have left, but did they actually ever leave? The net value of the field to Iran jumped from an estimated $116bn in late 2019 to $135bn in late 2020, a senior oil and gas industry source who works closely with Iran’s Petroleum Ministry, told OilPrice.com in November. The key reason was reportedly that progress across all areas of the South Pars development, including Phase 11, picked up pace on the back of an increase in the involvement of various Chinese companies operating under the US sanctions radar through individual contract-only projects, rather than as official field developers.

Iran—sitting on the world’s second biggest gas reserves and fourth largest oil reserves—keeps up a steady stream of big investment project announcements in gas, oil and petrochemicals, which benefit from the abundant cheap gas and oil feedstock.

Ten days ago, Iran announced it had readied what it described as the biggest gas refinery in the Middle East and West Asia for operation. The $3.4bn Bidboland Gas Refinery Company facility in southwestern Khuzestan province is said to have a gas production capacity—ranging across methane, ethane, butane and propane—of 2bn cubic feet (56.6mn cubic metres) per day.

The Goreh-Jask pipeline will enable Iran to ship crude without needing to send tankers through the Strait of Hormuz chokepoint, seen on the right (Image: ISS, Nasa).

In southern Iran, officials are enthusing about a billion-dollar oil pipeline that will allow Iran to ship crude exports without needing to send tankers through the Strait of Hormuz chokepoint (unlike some Gulf rivals). With a target launch date of mid-March, the 1,000-km-long, 1mn b/d conduit will run from Goreh near the Persian Gulf port city of Bushehr to the port town of Jask in southern Hormozgan province on Iran’s Gulf of Oman coastline.

In late November, the president inaugurated an $800mn ammonia and urea (carbamide) production complex in southwestern Chaharmahal and Bakhtiari province.

Iran produced seven million tonnes of petrochemical products in the first seven months of the 2020/2021 Persian calendar year (ended October 22), marking an 8% gain, official data shows. Petrochemicals are Iran’s second biggest foreign currency earner.

In mid-December, Iran's Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency Organization (SATBA) predicted that the country will hit one gigawatt of renewable energy capacity by August 2021. Iran lends itself to solar field arrays and wind generation due to its climate and topography.



In mid-December, Iran executed Ruhollah Zam, a journalist who ran the anti-government website Amad News, by hanging. The Islamic Republic said Zam used the website to incite the country’s 2017-18 protests. The son of a previously high-ranking pro-reform Shia cleric, Zam, who was living in exile in Paris after being granted political asylum, was, according to BBC Persian, detained after being lured to Iraq to meet the Grand Ayatollah Sistani in the hope of securing his support. In response to the execution, European nations withdrew from an online Europe-Iran business forum, causing it to fall apart. The forum was set to debate what opportunities might present themselves in a post-sanctions Iran.

A first shipment of mobile harbour cranes in mid-January was delivered by India to Iran for the development of sole Iranian oceanic port Chabahar on the Gulf of Oman. India and Iran are jointly developing the port, looking to unlock trade flow connectivity between Afghanistan, Central Asia, Iran and India, with sea routes across the Indian Ocean linking to new rail and road routes into and out of Chabahar.

The new year brought news of Iranian authorities cracking down on illegal bitcoin (BTC) mining factories. The sheer proliferation of cryptocurrency farms—both legal and illegal—across the country and the energy drain they cause have been increasingly blamed for power outages and worsening air pollution from power plants in cities across the country. Each winter, Tehran finds itself fighting acute episodes of smog.

Iran during early January war games displayed hundreds of domestically produced combat drones. The Iranian armed forces reportedly successfully test-fired an Azarakhsh (Thunderbolt) air-to-air missile fired from a Karrar-class drone. US defence officials have briefed Western media that some of the drones could potentially be loaded with explosives and deployed in "kamikaze" strikes.

Iran is expected to launch one or two more satellites in 2021. Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) in April said it had put its first military satellite into orbit. Named “Noor 1”, or “Light 1”, it was reportedly launched on a two-stage rocket that took off from Iran’s Central Desert. 

Turkey, Iran and Pakistan are reviving a railway route connecting Istanbul to Islamabad via Tehran. Officials in early January said they were willing to relaunch the 6,524-kilometre Istanbul-Tehran-Islamabad (ITI) railroad—including passenger services—with the aim of enhancing connectivity with China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) for trade and investment infrastructure. The route would connect with services from Pakistan to China’s Xinjiang autonomous region.

Iran and Afghanistan have opened a rail link, the Khaf-Herat railway. Officials said in early December that when fully constructed the line could eventually mean significant trade gains for Afghanistan, Iran and Turkey, as well as, in the long run, other countries including India (thanks to rail freight routes linking to Iran’s Chabahar port on the Gulf of Oman). 

A Caspian Sea containerized line between Iran and Russia’s port of Astrakhan was launched on December 5, with the pilot unloading of the first container cargo.


Iran has acquired six “Caspian Sea Monster” ekranoplan ground-effect vehicles, or GEVs, from Russia to transport passengers and cargo (Image: artist's sketched impression by uncredited US defence intelligence employee, dated 1988, Wiki).

In July, Russia sold Iran six “Caspian Sea Monster” ekranoplan ground-effect vehicles, or GEVs (see picture below for an older version). The ekranoplan is often mistaken for an airplane, seaplane, hovercraft or hydrofoil—but the GEV, which flies using the lift generated by its large wings when within about four metres above the surface of the water, is recognised as a distinct technology, originally trialled in the 1970s by the Soviets. The technology has been given a new lease of life thanks to the private backing of the ORION company and interest from countries around the Caspian Sea and elsewhere looking for alternative forms of transport for shipping people and cargoes.

Ayandeh Bank, a large privately owned bank in Iran, announced in mid-December that it planned to sell the expansive $3.4bn Iran Mall in the west of Tehran. The first phase of the mall opened in 2018, but the double hit taken from US sanctions and the coronavirus crisis has significantly hampered the massive complex, locally dubbed the “biggest mall in the world”.

In early November, Iran’s Ministry of Communications and Information Technology said it was moving ahead with a telecoms infrastructure shake-up involving the lifting of the monopoly held by the Telecommunications Infrastructure Company (TIC).

The Iran-Syria Joint Chamber of Commerce in October outlined a plan to export up to $1bn in Iranian products and machinery to Syria in the next 12 months following the inauguration in Damascus of the first Iranian Trade Centre.

Iran in September commenced its long-awaited scheme to push on to the market thousands of apartments and homes kept empty by owner-speculators by imposing an “empty home tax”. A barrage of SMS messages was reportedly sent out to hundreds of thousands of mobile numbers, thought to be those of the owners, informing them of their tax liability.

Iran, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan were among 19 countries for which the inaugural edition of the Ecological Threat Register (ETR), released by the Institute for Economics & Peace (IEP) in September, brought particularly ominous news. The 19 countries, of 157 assessed, were deemed the most fragile with high exposure to ecological threats and the highest risk of future collapse with mass population displacement in the decades ahead. Iran was one of five countries ranked on the ETR as having the highest water stress.

As 2020 got under way, Prince Charles told the Sunday Times he would like to make an official visit to Iran, saying: “Yes, obviously I would like to [go to Iran]. I know that Iran has been such an important part of the world for so many centuries and has contributed so much to human knowledge, culture, poetry, art. I mean, really remarkable people.” The heir to the British throne visited Iran in 2004. If he manages to this year book his second trip, we can take that as a fork in the road.