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U.S.-Iran: Both Sides Must Work Hard for Relations

03/04/09

Interview by Fariba Amini, Rooz


David Nalle

David Nalle is one of the many Americans who were in Iran in the 1950's and 60's. He ‎was a Vice Consul in the city of Mashhad and later became head of the Iran-America ‎Society in Tehran. That was nearly five decades ago. Today still interested and active, ‎he tries to follow Iranian politics and culture.‎

Here is the text of the interview with Rooz: ‎


Rooz (R:) Tell us about yourself? How did you become acquainted with Iran?‎

David Nalle (DN): I joined the U.S. Foreign Service in the early 1950s. I was assigned ‎in 1954 as Vice Consul and Public Affairs officer to the American Consulate in Mashhad ‎‎- known then as the American diplomatic post closest to the so-called Iron Curtain.


R: What was your assignment in Iran? Who were some of the Iranian officials you were ‎involved with and how did you find them?‎

DN: My assignment, as I understood it, was to further understanding of America among ‎the people of the Mashhad area, while providing them particularly with information on ‎American foreign policy, culture and world view. ‎
‎ ‎
What I actually spent much of my time doing was generating coverage of the impressive ‎development projects being carried out, with the support of America's "Point Four" [Asl-‎e- Chahar] program, by provincial ministries in the Khorasan province. My occasional ‎articles and photos were provided to the Mashhad press, and were used by one of the two ‎dailies in the city, but, significantly, never by the other. The articles did reach an ‎audience in the Persian-language periodical published and distributed by the U.S. ‎Information Agency office in Tehran. ‎

I also studied Persian, taught English at the newly expanded university, wrote and voiced ‎a weekly English-conversation class on Radio Mashhad, and visited nearby cultural sites, ‎such the Shrine of Khoja Rabi, by bicycle on the weekend.‎

The Iranians I met and dealt with most often at this time were those involved in Point ‎Four development programs. Looking back, I recall most of them as remarkably bright, ‎hard-working young professionals. I learned things about Iranian life and culture from ‎them but, by mutual restraint, politics were rarely touched upon. I did learn other things, ‎as when we visited the nearby farming town of Fariman and I was exposed, for the first ‎time (since I had been a city boy), to the form and function of a trench silo. Point Four ‎also supported a remarkable demonstration farm on the outskirts of Mashhad. ‎

Impressive senior officials whom I came to know a bit at this time included Dr. Shadman, ‎head of the Shrine of Imam Reza, whose wife was a published translator of ‎Shakespeare's plays, and Dr. Samirad, who was head of the university and its hospital, ‎and a prodigious bridge player.‎


R: How did you find the atmosphere during the Shah's time?‎

DN: This question requires a two-part answer, because I returned to Iran in 1960 for a ‎second tour after a hiatus of five years, during which I had served as head of the Persian ‎service of the Voice of America and later spent two years as Cultural Affairs Officer in ‎our Embassy in Damascus.‎

During my first tour, in 1954, the political atmosphere in Mashhad, if a foreign visitor ‎paused to evaluate it, seemed mostly benign, even hopeful. Stalin had died in 1953, ‎reducing, perhaps, malign influences from that direction. Economic projects were being ‎launched, land distribution was said to be underway in western Khorasan, and one ‎assumed that progress and development would follow in an orderly way. There were, to ‎be sure, reverberations from the 1953 coup that unseated Dr. Mossadeq but they were, for ‎a non-Iranian, muted and their import unclear. The Anglo-American hubris that underlay ‎that coup must surely have begun to wither in the light of Iranian realities. It was also ‎true that, superficially, Dr. Mossadeq had not projected an image of the modernity and ‎stability one hoped for in Iran. Maybe, one thought, a reinstalled and presumably ‎chastened Shah would do better.‎

In 1960, six years later, I undertook my second Iranian assignment, this time to Tehran. ‎The political atmosphere had turned cloudy -- more ambiguous. My new job was as ‎Director of the Iran-America Society (IAS) in Tehran. A distinguished physician, Dr. ‎Jehanshah Saleh, was chairman of the Society's bi-national board. ‎

The IAS had enjoyed a positive reputation in Tehran for a number of years, with ‎prominent Iranians volunteering to serve on its board. At this time we had an enrollment ‎of 5000 paying students in our English classes, held in a rented building near the ‎University of Tehran. Income from tuition went toward teachers' salaries and to support ‎cultural programs in the main IAS building, but it had to be supplemented by annual ‎grants we sought from the U.S. Information Agency (USIA) in Washington. In fact, ‎some of the hostage-takers of 1979 later acknowledged that the Society was where they ‎had acquired English competence! ‎

The IAS also ran a small library and Student Center across from the University, where ‎‎"Conversation Teas" were an attraction staffed mostly by Embassy wives. On one visit to ‎the Center, I learned that the Iranian director had arranged a weekly sightseeing bus to ‎acquaint the increasing number of American dependents with Tehran life and culture; ‎more sensitive to the darkening political atmosphere than I, she politely but firmly ‎rebuffed my suggestion that an IAS banner on the side of the bus might be good publicity ‎for the Society.‎

The IAS headquarters on Khiaban-e-Shah housed our administrative offices, a modest ‎auditorium and restaurant, and boasted an attractive walled garden. The Embassy chose ‎our garden as the site for a public address by Vice President Lyndon Johnson, who visited ‎Tehran en route to meetings in Turkey; security arrangements were oppressive. His talk, ‎delivered from a lectern we had to raise to accommodate his height, was politely received ‎by the vetted audience.‎

It must have been at about this time that the acronym SAVAK quietly became familiar to ‎Americans in Iran. It invaded the political atmosphere, inevitably affecting the scope and ‎content of interpersonal relations. Remember, one thought involuntarily, this is a police ‎state.‎


R: Did you leave Iran before the 1979 Revolution? As an American diplomat, did you ‎foresee any signs of the coming storm?‎

DN: I finished my assignment and left Tehran in 1963, well before Iran's 1979 ‎revolution. In the Washington headquarters of USIA I became involved in the cultural ‎and educational exchange programs we supported in countries of the Middle East and ‎South Asia. I managed to schedule periodic visits to Iran. By the 1970s, the Iran ‎America Society had become comfortable in its striking new building up the hill in ‎Ahmadabad, somewhat removed from the heart of the city. The IAS building, with an ‎auditorium that could be converted from indoor to outdoor use, had become a regular ‎stop on the Mideast tours of American scholars, performers and other cultural figures. ‎

However, dark clouds of political unrest were dramatically gathering by the time I paid ‎my last visit to Iran in the early summer of 1978. ‎

Did I foresee that an unforgiving storm was coming? There had been riots and other ‎disturbances earlier that year but I wonder how many of us realized what a major ‎transformation was underway in Iran. It seems in retrospect that there must have been a ‎mindset, among foreigners at least, that with established countries 'things just tend to go ‎on', if perhaps with some political adjustments. Not so with Iran, as we saw when the ‎dust settled in1980 and a government with entirely new attributes began to take form.‎


R: What do you do now? You teach on the Middle East? How do your students react ‎towards Iran? Are they concerned about the nuclear issue? Are they interested in other ‎subjects related to Iran?‎

DN: I retired from the foreign service in 1980. At home, I soon got involved in various ‎private programs based in Washington that were trying to help Americans understand the ‎Middle East and Islam. I produced audio-visual programs for schools, gave talks at ‎libraries, and eventually directed a privately endowed program that annually ‎
brought ten young journalists, mostly from the Middle East, South Asia and Africa , to ‎the U.S. to work for six months on an American newspaper. Only very rarely has an ‎Iranian journalist dared to apply for the program. ‎

While working on such projects I signed up to teach a formal course on the Middle East ‎for the "learning in retirement" school at American University in Washington, which I ‎have now been doing for some twenty years. Most recently I have been giving a ten-‎week course on "Historic Cities of the Middle East". Iran of course figures in a number ‎of the sessions, beginning way back with the visit of Alexander the Great. One week's ‎session focuses entirely - with pictures, of course -- on Isfahan. ‎

The students, mostly retired professionals, show an intelligent but sometimes rather ‎bemused interest in Iran. Iranian history and its culture - the poetry, miniature painting, ‎Isfahan's buildings and the society and culture they reveal - are the focus of the session ‎and evoke a lively curiosity. The international relations of today do not normally come ‎up. However, "What is wrong with Iran?" is a question sometimes heard when the ‎discussion period turns toward the contemporary: Why does Iran want nuclear weapons, ‎when most of the world is turning away from them? Why does Iran's president choose to ‎project such an erratic and hostile image? Why does he make such extreme statements ?‎


R: Iranians in general are skeptical about the real intentions of the US government? Do ‎you think there is a justification for this frame of mind?‎

DN: It would be surprising if the traumatic history of American-Iranian relations had not ‎given rise to healthy skepticism on both sides. I see no compelling reason, however, why ‎that skepticism cannot eventually be replaced by political and cultural diplomacy in the ‎service of enlightened self-interest. ‎


R: What is your opinion on US-Iran relations in an Obama administration? What do you ‎hope to see?‎

DN: My hope is that, with the new American president, and with hard work on both ‎sides, we can in time reach a plateau of good and constructive relations between Iran and ‎the United States. The benefits for both sides could be enormous. ‎


R: Have you ever been invited in recent years to go to Iran? Would you consider going? ‎

DN: I have never been invited to pay a return visit to Iran. I would, of course, consider ‎going.


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