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Unlikely Ties Connect Iran and Portland, Oregon

Iranian-American community encourages friendship

Portland, Oregon -- At first the connection between Shiraz, Iran, and Portland, Oregon, appears negligible.  Yes, Shiraz is the City of Roses and Nightingales, and so is Portland -- except for the nightingales.  One of Portland’s few noted authors, the late Terrence O’Donnell, wrote a classic volume of reminiscences set on a farm in the Iranian countryside not far from Shiraz.  And a number of vineyards in Portland’s home state of Oregon grow Shiraz grapes.

Yet the unlikeliest ties can prove unexpectedly strong, and a recent flurry of events in Portland shows that a surprisingly multifaceted relationship exists between Iran -- Shiraz in particular -- and this medium-size city in the green and mountainous northwest corner of the United States.

Among the city’s recent actions: Portland Mayor Tom Potter declared the first day of “Nowruz” (Persian New Year) as “Persian Culture Appreciation Day”; Portland’s City Council passed a resolution that, among other things, declared friendship between the city and the people of Iran; and the city declared its intent to become a sister city with Shiraz.  Portland State University, the city’s largest institution of higher education, recently re-established a professorship in Persian language and studies after a break of several decades.

Such a multidimensional list of connections cannot be attributed to one person or even to one group, but much of the impetus behind the relationship comes from a group called the American Iranian Friendship Committee (AIFC).  AIFC, an informal gathering of local Iranian Americans, former Peace Corps volunteers and others who have traveled, lived or studied in Iran, was formed in 2006 to strengthen ties between Portland and Iran.

The unofficial leader of the group is Goudarz Eghtedari, a stocky, soft-spoken Iranian-American with a serious manner and a ready smile.  The host of a radio talk show devoted to Middle East issues, Eghtedari moved to Portland during the 1990s.  In a recent interview with USINFO, he explained that his aim in helping form the AIFC was to strengthen friendship between Iran and Portland.

“The group,” he said, “came from a few of us talking together and thinking, ‘Let’s gather some people who have had this experience [with Iran] and provide a facility for exchange.’”

Within a few months, the group had organized a panel discussion to help Portlanders better understand Iranian culture and society.  As part of the two-day event, AIFC also produced a “Jamming for Peace” concert, featuring an Iraqi “oud” player extemporizing with an Iranian musician on a “ney.” Eghtedari smiled as he recalled, “We also invited some Jewish American [musicians], to exemplify harmonious relations between people.”

Making the event fully ecumenical, the concert was held in a downtown Christian church. It drew a diverse crowd of several hundred listeners. “All we are trying to do,” Eghtedari says of the group’s many activities, “is to provide a mechanism to promote friendship.”

Among the other members of AIFC is Gretchen Kafoury, a Peace Corps volunteer in Iran during the 1960s.  She recalled her two years in Iran with great fondness and calls her work there “life-changing.”  Of the group’s formation, she says it was part of an effort to put a human face on Iran and to emphasize its 5,000-year history.  “It’s a rich, wonderful country that should be viewed in a much broader context than [President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad,” she said.

For many years an elected official in the Portland area, and at one time a member of the Portland City Council, Kafoury spearheaded AIFC’s efforts to win City Council approval of the resolution expressing friendship with Iran and pledging to undertake a sister city relationship with Shiraz.

Many of the same people who formed the AIFC were also members of a group that worked with Portland State University to re-establish a tenured professor’s position in Farsi within the university’s highly regarded Middle East Studies Center.  Speaking of the justification for the position, Eghtedari told USINFO: “It’s obvious to anybody that Iran plays an important role in the region.  Being able to have some folks who can speak the language, read the newspapers … is necessary.”

Eghtedari and Kafoury share with other members of the group a strong belief that Iranian-American friendship has much to offer the people of both countries. Eghtedari estimates that there are 1.5 million to 2 million Iranian-Americans in the United States, of whom about 10,000-15,000 live in the Portland area.  “One of the things [Iranians] bring is family values,” he says, adding that like Americans, Iranians are open about adapting to other cultural influences.

Of the United States, Eghtedari said, “It’s a global culture and influences many people beyond its borders.”  He added that the United States is a champion of the classic liberal political model of open expression and representative government, a model that continues to exert a powerful interest, even in Iran.

For all the differences between Iran and the United States, it is clear that Eghtedari and Kafoury believe the peoples of both countries have much to learn from each other. When seen in this way, the unlikely connection between Portland and Shiraz does not seem so unlikely after all.

(USINFO is produced by the Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State. Web site:

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