TEHRAN (Press Shia Agency) – Western sanctions against Tehran have made Iranians self-sufficient and they have become less reliant on the West, says Hafsa Kara-Mustapha, a London-based political analyst specializing in the Middle East and Africa.

Hafsa Kara-Mustapha is a journalist, political analyst and commentator with a special focus on the Middle East and Africa. She has worked for the FT group and Reuters and her work has been published in the Middle East magazine, Jane's Foreign report and a host of international publications. A regular pundit on TV and radio, Hafsa can regularly be seen on RT and Press TV.

Following is an op-ed penned by Kara-Mustapha for Iran’s Farheekhtegan‎‎ Persian-language newspaper. The English version of the article is as follows:

Sanctions? Bring them on

When a speaker at the New Horizon Conference described Iran as the new leader of the free world, there was some bemusement in the audience.

For those whose knowledge of this vast Middle Eastern country comes solely from Western media the statement did appear almost absurd until the debates got underway.

Organisers gathered over fifty thinkers and activists from a wide variety of backgrounds for the three-day conference held in the holy city of Mashhad. Unaware of who where fellow-attendees, participants were involved in lively discussions on issues as varied as Trump, Islam, Hollywood and Croatian politics. Exchanges were interesting, enriching, and at times heated but they revealed something truly unexpected: Iran really was a leader of the free world.

For the many journalists and academics whose work had been regularly censored, finding such an open platform for debate was genuinely liberating and contrasted sharply with other forums in which ‘no platforming’ and intimidation of guests were routine.

With this in mind, it was fitting to follow on from Mashhad and visit the historical city of Isfahan.

This desert city that blooms amid sandy mountains and arid land is home to mesmerizing palaces, breathtaking mosques and the famous Khadju bridge representing one of the finest examples of Persian architecture.

From Silk Road to tech city

At the foot of a majestic mountain towering above the city was Isfahan’s science and technology town.   This giant tech resort was not unlike similar compounds found in America’s iconic Silicone Valley: acres of well-kept lawns and lush gardens blooming in the desert and where some of Iran’s most brilliant minds are hard at work.

On a side mural overlooking the student dorms were two portraits: one of the late leader of the Islamic Revolution Imam Khomeini and the other his successor Ayatollah (Seyed) Ali Khamenei. Both are smiling as they look upon the legacy of a revolution that increased literacy by over 40% and insured the most impoverished people of the country could access the best education.

This, after all, is the country of Omar Khayyam, al-Tusi , Razi to name but a handful of the countless scientists Iran gave humanity in the fields of mathematics, astronomy or engineering.  Following on from this proud legacy it’s hardly surprising that the country is already looking beyond the oil and gas age. In a bid to arm itself for the challenges ahead, the country is banking on the development of the tech sector that could propel the 80m strong nation to BRIC-like status in the coming decades.

The choice of this historical city at the center of the Silk Road is not fortuitous. Iranians are eager to remind visitors that this is a country that can easily blend thousands of years of history with a space program, pharmaceutical discoveries and pioneering oncology treatments.

The Isfahan Science and Technology Town or ISTT mirrors those ambitions perfectly. Amid modern office blocks and swanky boardrooms are water features and bird sanctuaries designed to remind us that despite all the modern surroundings, Isfahan remains faithful to its proud heritage where once travelers rested from the grueling trading journey to find shelter in the city’s cool and soothing gardens.

The student foyer is perhaps where all of the country’s intriguing identity becomes the most obvious.  Young men and fashionably dressed women sit around, sharing meals on traditional Persian wooden benches on which the region’s trademark rugs are scattered.  This is all very reminiscent of a student café anywhere in the world until the fountain in the middle of the room reminds you that you are in the heart of the Middle East where water is precious and requires an exceptional piece of artwork to magnify its beauty.

Did you say sanctions?

Amid the many businesses that operate within the ISTT was a medical equipment startup that retained particular attention, its owner proudly exhibiting some of the sophisticated machinery aimed at treating various types of cancer. First, however, the engineer cum entrepreneur was keen to remind visitors of the heavy price Iran has to pay for wanting to extract itself from underdevelopment and dependency on foreign support: a wall featuring pictures of all the scientists killed from this one campus alone.

Since the revolution in 1979, foreign governments, in particular Israel, routinely target the nation’s most promising minds in order to stop it from developing itself; All this in the context of an internationally deafening silence.

The pictures are a sad reminder of the ongoing strain this country suffers for simply resisting Western, and in particular American, hegemony.

While neighboring Saudi Arabia diligently buys billions of dollars worth of arms to use against fellow Arabs in Yemen or where royals make eye-watering donations to Ivanka Trump’s farcical organizations to remain in Uncle Sam’s good books, Iran invests money in educating its youth and ensuring future generations of Iranians are equipped for the modern age.

The medical engineer then reveals the jewel in his factory’s crown: a cancer treatment unit 95% Iran made and which is only manufactured in four other countries.

The obvious question thus arises. How are sanctions affecting you, and will an increased round further impact your business?

The answer is as surprising as the setting. Since sanctions were imposed, ‘we’ve been forced to work harder, turn to non-European and American partners and develop technologies all by ourselves,’ said the eager engineer.

It appears sanctions have indeed had the beneficial effect of forcing Iranians to roll up their sleeves and progress becoming less reliant on Western partners.

At a time when US secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, pursues his John Wayne-like rhetoric, threatening Iran with increased and more crippling sanctions, Iranians are going about their daily business.

Sanctions? Asks the medical engineer.  ‘Bring them on.’