I was brought up believing that Iran is a rich country, and by rich I meant it has all different sorts of economic resources. I cannot provide statistics but I think most of the Iranian youngsters still believe so.
In the second year of high school, maybe for the first time in my life, I learned about the Gross National Production (GNP), and the fact that what Iranian people production and consumption per capita is less than what people of more than 100 other countries produce and consume (In 2001 Iran's GNP per capita was $1,680, the 112th country in the world! Look at here).
Then I was obsessed with the idea of corruption and inefficiency in Iranian government for a while. If our government decides to manage Iran's economy efficiently, having enough resources and being a rich country, in a couple of years the average Iranian will produce and consume $35,000 per year like a Japanese; after all Japan does not even have oil. Nice dreams yeah! But I think most of Iranians are still obsessed with this dream. Some conspiracy theories sparked in my mind, just like lots of other Iranians: Maybe some foreign powers do not let us grow, or maybe they are exhausting our wealth while not letting us spend it! Thanks to my desire for trying to see the story in a causal way (which I believe is casual as well) rather than a Godfather-lover's way, I didn't fall in love with the conspiracy ideas, but still the question was there: Being a rich country, why does Iran produce so little?
During my undergraduate years, the picture became a little more clear: I learned that a tiny fraction of the value of what I consume comes from nature, and most of its value has been added by the labor and machine work (and by value I mean exactly the price I pay). More essentially, I learned that despite being %76 of Iranian export, Oil and Gas production (the major wealth of rich Iran) accounts for less than %15 of the GNP. (Figures are for 1998)
Coming to the US for my graduate study, on my flight over Europe, I saw a green continent full of cities. Having in mind an image of the vast, usually dried, area between the cities on most of my trips in Iran, I recalled that I cannot name any developed country which is not green! And finally in the US, I realized that capital, in both human and physical forms, is produced by acuumulation; I realized that it has taken so many years for developed countries to accumulate what they have today, and maybe because all of them have very fertile lands, they have managed to accumulate long before us: when the agriculture was the dominant production method.
I used to think the richness is what “the mother nature” has put “under the ground” of the countries, but I realized it is what “the ancestors” have accumulated “on the ground” for their successors. I used to think Iran is rich, but I realized it is poor. It may become rich some ime in the future, but it is a long way to go; of course, for Iranians not for Iran.
P.S. The importance of agriculture in the development of the West should not be underestimated. Going over Adam Smith and Ricardo's works (founders of Economics discipline) will be enough to show how much of their concern was about agriculture which was counted for more than half of the overall British GDP at their time. West Europe may import wheat now, but I'm absolutely sure it didn't in the 18th century. Obviously, no one can ignore the role of Colonization and Industrialization in the “Rise of the West”, but we shouldn't forget both of them need accumulated capital, which the West had and the East did not. Apparently, development is a sophisticated topic (at the end of the day, it's an active branch of Economics!) and discussions are still on the table. I'll try to write more about them.