Another Perspective

Numbers

When it comes to Iran, they don't lie.

By 7.7.06

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Came the other day in the mail an annual supplement from the Economist, titled "Pocket World in Figures, 2006." I love books like this. By chance, the very first page I opened was Iran's.

Iran, we find, has 68.9 million people, with an average lifespan of 70 years for men and 73 years for women. They maintain this apparent stout level of health with 1.1 doctors per 1,000 people (the United States has 2.8). Iranian marriages occur at a rate of 9.9 per 1,000 population, while divorces happen at a rate of only 1.0 per thousand. To complete a profile of a society very unlike our own, Persians own 9.5 color television sets per household. Under "Internet hosts per 1,000 households," the guide lists a simple dash.

The Englishness of the darn book does trip me up. Am I an "Internet host" because I have an Internet account? Surely they could not mean that nobody in Iran has the Internet. They could not mean maintainers of websites. Again, the U.S. is shown as having 680 "hosts" per 1,000 people. That's more like an Internet participation rate.

Whatever, Iranians aren't hanging out much on the web.

THE PRESENT CRISIS IS CLEARLY illustrated under the heading "energy." Here, Iran is shown as producing 240.5 million TOE (tons of oil equivalent). Its energy consumption is 134.0, just above half as much energy as it produces.

No, Iran does not need nuclear power.

Its main source of ready cash comes from exporting oil, with nearly 30 percent of its exports going to Japan. (Japan is a lot more important to Iran than Iran is to Japan. Iran does not rank as one of Japan's principal sources of import.) Inflation, we find, runs at Nigeria-type rates, 16.5 percent. Nearly 30 percent of the country's population is under 15, while only 6 percent is over 60, which bodes well for a dynamic future.

The Economist also publishes the United Nations' "human development index," a scale that runs from 0 to 100. It combines adult literacy, life expectancy, income level, and years of schooling. A rate above 80 is considered high; below 50, low. Iran's is 73.6. The United States ranks number eight in the world, at 93.9.

The economic freedom index runs from 1 to 5, rating how free people are allowed to be in their commercial activities, with 1 the most free and 5 the most restricted. Savvy observers have long pointed out how Iran, in its economy, resembles an old-fashioned Mafia family. Its economic freedom index is a highly restrictive 4.16. Matter of fact, as I page through the Guide, looking for comparisons, it appears that Iran's EFI is the worst in the world. By far. (It's worse than China's.)

SO WHAT COUNTRIES RESEMBLE IRAN? In the 60-70 million population range lie Egypt, Turkey, Ethiopia, Thailand, France, and the UK. In the youth of its society, Iran resembles Turkey. In its isolation from the Internet, it is most like Egypt. In life expectancy, it is much like Thailand and Turkey. Of countries that size, only Iran depends so completely on a single source for cash, that source being oil.

Can statistics predict a country's future? Single-crop economies, like the Old South, offer, of course, a classically vulnerable profile to the rest of the world. Right now, Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad plays games with the West, games that drive up the world price of petroleum -- there's a "terror premium" in oil prices. What happens if the rest of the world gets fed up? Alternate fuels are not really on the horizon, but when they appear, their use will grow at incredible speed.

That's one thing. For another, that economic freedom index, together with a high inflation rate, set alongside Iran's very young and fairly well-educated population, would seem to create a steam kettle about to blow.

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About the Author

Lawrence Henry writes every week from North Andover, Massachusetts.