Interview with Dr Seyed Sadegh Emamian, founder and director of the Governance and Policy Think Tank (GPTT) in Iran

3 August 2021

[This interview was undertaken in August 2019 by Andrea Baertl and the article written by Cristina Ramos.] 

Dr Seyed Sadegh Emamian is the founder and former director of the Governance and Policy Think Tank (GPTT), established in Tehran in 2015. It is a university-affiliated think tank at Sharif University of Technology. GPTT’s mission is to enhance and improve the governance structure and policymaking processes inside Iran as necessary components for the holistic, sustainable and long-run development of the country. In this interview, Dr Seyed Sadegh discusses his own trajectory, the challenges encountered in establishing a think tank in a context where this is a novel idea, and his daily activities as director.

Andrea Baertl: Could you please share your background and how you became the director of GPTT?

Seyed Emamian: Before I traveled to the UK in 2012, we established a research center within the University in Tehran dedicated to policy research. The main idea was to provide policy recommendations for national issues and challenges. Just whilst the research started, I moved to the UK to do my PhD in public policy and governance at Edinburgh University. While writing my thesis, I found out about different policy research institutions involved in the process of policy making there.

My thesis was about energy policy in the UK and I was actively participating in policy events related to this. I found out about the active role that think tanks play in providing policy recommendations and on the process of policymaking there, and this was very inspiring for me.

As a postdoc researcher, I spent more than a year in London to study think tanks there. I was involved with a few think tanks in London and I was very inspired by their work. They were not the same institutionally, they were not necessarily alike, but their functions were very important, and I was inspired by the idea. When I moved to Tehran in 2015, I found a necessity to expand our research institution towards the policy area, because it was a very active part of academia and was somewhat successful, but there was a disconnect between academia and policy. I found that we needed a bridge between academia and policymaking, and that was the main idea behind the GPTT.

Going back to your question, my background is in policymaking and governance, and I was inspired by the role of think tanks in the UK, so then I tried to use this concept in Iran to bridge academia and policy.

AB: Can you tell me about the early days of GPTT?

SE: My main function as a founder not just as a director was to establish the institution. We defined ourselves as a university-accredited think tank, so I started to approach former colleagues who had graduated from the best universities in the world and had returned to Tehran, and I asked them to join the initiative. One of the main challenges was attracting prestigious academic figures who were interested in the policymaking process, rather than just being academics, and also attracting young, talented, recent graduates as policy researchers.

The second challenge was the challenge of the unknown. The concept of think tanks in Tehran was very new when we started. It wasn’t a national concept that everybody knew about. We tried to define what a think tank is, the reasons behind establishing one and why we need to have think tanks when we already have research institutions within public departments or academia. So, defining, rationalising and legitimising our institution was an important challenge.

Another challenge that I can mention was how to establish and maintain ourselves as an independent think tank that is not politically biased or academically attached to a specific school of thought. And also fundraising. This was challenging at the beginning and continues to be a challenge.

AB: The issue of independence is interesting. Let’s talk a bit more about establishing and maintaining your independence. How did you do that in an environment where the concept was not known?

SE: First, we worked with the university affiliation because we were established as a university-affiliated think tank, and it is a very well-respected university in Tehran. We capitalised on this reputation and we defined ourselves as a new institution that was an extension of the university.

Secondly, we tried to focus on policy issues rather than on political issues. We deliberately distanced ourselves from politically sensitive issues, particularly in a country like Iran. We try to be very pragmatic, very much evidence based, and rigorous, rather than being politically inclined to a specific idea. We defined ourselves as a national institution committed to national interests rather than political interests. It was not easy because we missed, and we are still missing, opportunities to be funded or supported by specific government or political parties, but we try to keep ourselves at a distance.

Another challenge that we are facing is that think tanks are generally a capitalist-based Anglo-Saxon idea. And how do you translate that to a country like Iran, with its particular sociopolitical dimension? You have to think about whether you are going to follow the way of Anglo-Saxon think tanks or if you are going to be a grassroots institution in a different sociopolitical context.

AB: And how do you fundraise in this environment?

SE: We have had different stages of fundraising. In the beginning we capitalised on the reputation of the university. We gathered a group of talented graduates from the best universities and some young, talented policy researchers and the idea was interesting for some funders that had already funded universities and university institutions. We also were able to use the facilities that the university already had, like the building or staff who were already working there.

Once we started to function and the think tank itself had a basis of trust and respect, it was time to approach some funders and show them that this wasn’t just an idea but a real institution. We showed some interesting impact. For example, we had been involved in the process of amending an act in parliament. Once the act was amended and passed, some committees within the parliament wrote a letter thanking the university and the GPTT because the GPTT had played an active, important role. We published the letter on our website, and it was very interesting to show something concrete, that we could have an impact.

In another stage of fundraising, we built up on the recognition that GPTT itself had. At the moment, some of our funds, as I said, come from the university, directly or indirectly. Some come from policy projects and some come from funders and donors that are willing to fund.

Projects are usually from the public sector to work on policy issues. The government, the parliament, some research institutions have funded us for several projects. And the grants come from some private foundations. So, mostly it’s the university, the government and the donors. But we still have never received international funding.

AB: Can you tell me more about your roles and functions as executive director?

SE: Content wise, it was very important for us to focus on policy issues for which we have the right expertise in terms of staff. We strategically selected some policy issues to focus on. I started, for example, to work on regulation because I had enough experience on regulation as I had been part of the Regulatory Policy Institute in the UK. I found that there was a lack of expertise in the field of regulation here in Iran, so I deliberately extended my very scarce resources on specific policy issues that were strategically important for the country, and regulation was one of them. It was one of the most successful stories we had in GPTT because we established a group that provided basic materials and academic courses. Then we moved to establishing an epistemic community of policy researchers interested in regulation, and then we approached public departments within the government, and we amended the Regulatory Act of Iran. Then we established the International Policy and Governance Conference. The main theme for the first conference was regulation, and as a result, we have become the main institution with enough expertise for revising the regulatory landscape of Iran.  Several regulatory authorities have approached us to use our analysis and recommendations, and that was one of the main functions that I played: to deliberately and strategically select our policy issues.

The other function, not just as a director, but also as a founder, was to provide enough institutional basis for the think tank. For example, we started the machinery of publications and the establishment of our landmark events. We have regular events that we call ‘governance in practice’. The second event is an annual conference, as I mentioned, on policy and governance. That’s an international conference with the participation of more than 2000 policy researchers and policy makers, NGOs and thinktankers.

The other thing I would like to add is the importance of our perspective as a think tank. We need to be impact oriented. It’s something that was very important for us to institutionalise at the beginning. It’s expected of all policy researchers that they bring about some specific and concrete impact on the ground. It’s not acceptable that they only discuss issues or provide research. What comes next? Is there any impact on the ground? Have we changed anything? It is very important for us to keep our institution as pragmatic and impact oriented as possible, rather than just an institution that does academic work, conducts research, and provides publications.