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In lieu of everything... An interview with an American scholar

By Fariba Amini, Havertown, PA (June 20, 2005)


I have known Tom Ricks for years, not only as a colleague and collaborator, but also as a friend.  Throughout the years, our paths have crossed at different conferences where he has been on panels about Iran and the Middle East; with these brief meetings so few and far-between, we have made the effort to keep in touch.


In the 1960s, Tom Ricks went to Iran as a young Peace Corps volunteer. Both he and his wife taught at the American community school (Iranzamin). His generous and truly caring nature shone through when he and Janice adopted two girls,  from the orphanage in Iran named them Leila and Cynthia and whom they nurtured into young women.  He speaks fluent Farsi and is known in academic circles as a learned and conscientious scholar.   Tom taught history of the Middle East at Georgetown, Villanova, at Birzeit University in Palestine, and is currently at university of Pennsylvania. 


Recently, he took part in a conference at Tehran University celebrating the 100th anniversary of the Iranian Constitutional movement.  According to Tom, the concept of democracy and democratic institutions is not just an American notion and became apparent in Iran as early as 1905 when it was introduced by Iranian revolutionaries. 


Despite the declarations of free and fair democratic process, the recent elections in Iran have proven to be inherently undemocratic as only a few individuals were allowed to run, with everyone assuming that Hashemi Rafsanjani would be the winner.  Still, the fact that people even have the right to go to the polls and vote is itself a step forward.


Democracy and the process of democratization was hindered at several intervals during the modern history of Iran-- first after the collapse of 1905 movement, and then after the 1953 coup d'etat.  Handpicked or paid candidates were always given the chance to run making it impossible for true representation of the Iranian people.  However, parliamentarianism, even the flawed Iranian version, has at least existed throughout the history of Iran.   This process was halted when the Shah called for the single Rastakhiz party which every Iranian had to belong to, when his Majlis was known to be made up of Baleh Ghorbans,  and  in the early days of the 1979 revolution when people were given one and only choice: to say yes or no to an Islamic Republic. Today Iran is at a cross road where Iranians will have to find their way out of a deadlock, to have genuine representation and be able to choose candidates who are indeed the people's candidates.


Tom has just returned from his 3rd trip to Iran.  He is close to the Persian culture and yet is able to view Iran from an objective viewpoint.  I had the chance to chat with him on some issues pertaining to the current changes taking place in Iran.   


I asked Tom what was the most memorable event of his trip and he said, giving my paper on May10th on the Mashruteh and its impact on Americans in Iran and in the United States to a very appreciative audience of students and faculty at the University of Tabriz's main auditorium.


Following is Professor Tom Ricks on Iran.


Fariba Amini: What was the reason for your recent trip to Iran?


Thomas M. Ricks: I was invited to present a paper at the University of Tehran/Tabriz University joint Centennial Conference on the Iranian Constitution in mid-May of this year; my paper focused on how the Mashruteh influenced Americans missionaries and diplomats in Iran (in addition to Howard Baskerville and Morgan Shuster), and the many Presbyterian parishes in the small towns of the U.S. and some key diplomats in Washington, DC. I then spent another six days beginning an archival and oral history project on the two former Presbyterian colleges in Tehran; i.e., Alborz and Sage colleges taking photographs of the schools and visiting the National Library and the Majlis Library holdings; that is, a history of Alborz College and Sage College graduates, teachers and administrators.


FA: How did you see things differently from your last trip in 1999?


TMR: In several respects, Iran remains quite vibrant, overly crowded with traffic, and functioning efficiently on a day-to-day basis as before. Both Tehran and Tabriz appeared cleaner than before, the only troops or pasdars around were surrounding Friday Prayer at Tehran University, and people still scramble to get work to make "ends meet" as in 1999. I noticed fewer newspaper and progressive magazines/journals on the newsstands, fewer people buying newspapers, shopping in stores, and fewer in the cinemas. My overall impression for such a short stay was that the public's dissatisfaction with the economy from wages to affordable home items, with the dullness of public broadcasting and book publishing, and the daily humdrum of religious slogans and admonitions left many weary and discouraged. At the same time, I found as in 1999 that people did not hesitate to comment on their discontents and unhappiness.


I spent a day at the International Book Fair and was really impressed with the enormous numbers of people particularly young people visiting the various pavilions, enjoying the chance to see (rarely buying) what's published in the world, and a day's outing in north Tehran with friends. The electronic publishing and children's book exhibits were packed; the first with high school and university-aged youth and the second with mothers with children in tow. The "Latin Publishers" pavilion was less attended than might be expected, but a closer look at the offerings gave a hint why the foreign exhibitions were less attractive to the 20,000+ crowds; practically every major US publisher exhibited books only on philosophy, theology, religious studies, science and technology. The absence of books on the humanities and social sciences was obvious.


I also went to Niavaran Palace on a slightly rainy day to find few people walking among the lovely gardens and tree-lined streets within the former monarch's living quarters. Groups of people were being shown through a selection of buildings accompanied by a guide who lectured briefly in Persian about the various paintings, rooms, and artifacts within the buildings. An obvious interest in European painters both lesser and greater ones dominated the walls. The curious items included the dentist office for the shah and a room for foreign visitors with tables filled with portraits of a number of the more famous guests at Niavaran including Nixon, Dwight D. Eisenhower, Jimmy Carter and Pope Pius XII.


In contrast to Niavaran, my colleagues and I then visited Park-e Sangi or Jamsheedian Park where hundreds of Tehranis on a weekday afternoon were picnicking, singing songs, and hiking up the stone paths and through the woods. The setting is ideal for "outings" and clearly is used heavily on a daily basis. Iranian society is not only consistent but also certainly resilient and stable in contrast to the obviously inflated economy, empty stores, and political discontent.


I was impressed by the eagerness of the students to learn more about the US and what Americans were thinking about Iran and the world; they were the "backbenchers" who attended both conferences in Tehran and Tabriz. The same eagerness existed in 1999 though I felt that there was less interest in talking openly about politics in a critical tone.


FA:  Do you think Americans should be afraid of traveling to Iran these days?


TMR: No, Americans have far less reason to be fearful than traveling to any other country of the world where there are obvious dangers such in war zones. Iran is relatively quiet these days and while there are murals on major Tehran buildings devoted to Khomeini, the Iraq-Iran war and fallen soldiers, and Islam that may appear foreboding, anti-US or anti-European, Iranians remain hospitable, warm and engaging people. I don't mean to downplay the nearly universal concern even angry atmosphere that exists in Tehran, more so now that ever before following 911, over a long list of grievances against the US government, Iranians continue to make a distinction between American people and the US government with more inclined to object to American indifference to world affairs, particularly towards Palestinians, Muslims in world trouble spots, and to the mounting civilian Iraqi casualties. I believe that Americans, in fact, need to go to Iran to see its past treasures and present living standards. If there is increased poverty in Iran compared to 1999, it was less obvious and perhaps carefully hidden. Overall, I think Americans would be very impressed by Iran and the Iranian "reception."


AF: what do you see as the process of change now that elections have taken place?


TMR: Well, the runoff this coming week will tell us something about the political climate of Iran and Iranians. Everyone I talked to five weeks ago said that Ayatollah Hashemi Rafsanjani would be elected 100% since the reformist candidates had all been removed from the election lists except for Moin,  and a few others. I wouldn't be surprised if Rafsanjani and other pro-Khameini representatives sweep the reformists out of office entirely. The preliminary results were a little surprising though; Rafsanjani it seems squeaked by and his rival, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad did well particularly as a dark horse.


Of course it does not necessarily mean that the challenges to the conservatives now in power will not be forthcoming or that Rafsanjani might not effect long-term changes within Iran along some of the reformists' lines, such as relations with the US. I think the present elections will signify that the 1997 Khatami "surprise" is now over and a "get-tough" aggressive foreign policy on Israel/Palestine matters, the Iraq invasion and resistance, Egypt and Mubarak's "dynastic aspirations", and the war in Afghanistan will result from the elections.


AF: Do you think Iran and America will finally have a dialogue?


TMR: Yes, I think that the US, particularly the Bush administration, is looking for something positive to come out of the past four years since 911 of 2001. The domestic politics within the US is very contentious and brittle now than every before regarding the Bush government's past actions. The recent "Downing Street Memo" has rekindled the issues of presidential lying about the war in Iraq and its justifications. While the Iraq occupation continues to kill US soldiers and Iraqi civilians in greater numbers, more Americans want to know "why" and "when will the troops come home.". If Iran was looking for a time to become "the peacemaker" and "nuclear friendly power" that some in the US government are looking for in the region, then that time is right now. As the Iraq fighting is producing more suicides among US troops, more anger in American homes and streets, and renewed Vietnam-style "fragging" incidents (US privates killing US officers), the Bush administration actually needs Iran more than Iran needs the US.


Actually, the US and Iran have really never stopped talking to each other at a number of levels, including the academic one. I'm sure you are referring to the governmental/diplomatic level in which case dialogues have occurred between the two nations, albeit brief and sometimes caustic. Some may disagree, but I don't think that the serious "nuclear" issue is in fact as much a long-term problem for the US as it is for Israel or the European Union. Weapons, oil and drugs remain the principal global issues, and Iran certainly can play an important role in all three areas if it is clear to Iranians and their leaders what benefits will accrue to them for cooperation with the "Great Satan." Washington and the Bush government is presently not interested in cooperation in the heady global atmosphere following 911, so dialogue may be possible later rather than sooner, I'm afraid.


AF: As a scholar what is the best way the two peoples can come together despite these long-term antagonisms between the two governments?


TMR: Khatami's government has tried the "dialogue of civilizations" which bore little fruit though I believe many Iranians had thought or at least hope that it would have improved relations. The Khatami approach was on the right track but needed to be grounded more clearly in basic global and domestic economic, social and political realities - such as long-term occupations and wars, global poverty, energy and environmental issues, international crimes against women, children and minorities, use of torture, nuclear weapons, and world health and hunger problems. These are a range of practical domestic and international problems that both governments and countries can address together with immense benefits to each other and others.

It's clear that neither government trusts or wishes to rely on their own academics in addressing major domestic or international problems. The US government has kept Middle East specialists in American universities are arms length while Iran has thrown them into prison, or silenced them in other ways. Academics, it seems, are too progressive, too liberal and too political for either government.

Overall, it will take specialists in a range of fields to begin cooperating on solving the problems listed above. By working out "the practical problems", the two governments will by necessity have to put aside the past and its many mistakes including the CIA-assisted coup against Mossadeq in 1953 and all that followed as well as the Iranian student occupation of the US embassy in 1979 and again all that followed from that event. In short, when both governments will be willing to "bury the hatchet" and see the benefits of partnerships, then the long-term antagonisms will be put to rest.

Having said all that, I don't see how such cooperation or partnerships can be made in the present atmosphere of global greed for oil, proliferation of arms, and the imbalance as well as inequities in US-alliance building particularly its over-dependence and unquestioned reliance on Israel, Turkey, Egypt and Saudi Arabia. The greed, proliferation and imbalances are just too much for many countries including Iran to bear without a major gesture demonstrating new multilateral policies.


... Payvand News - 7/7/05 ... --

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