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


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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