Confounding Iran-watchers everywhere, a dark horse candidate named Mohammad Khatami defeated the hard-line, virulently anti-American speaker of parliament, `Ali Akbar Nateq-Nouri, in Iran's presidential election of May 1997, and with no less than 70 percent of the vote. As a symbol of his outlook, President Khatami declared himself ready to improve relations with the West, and the United States in particular. Speaking to the parliament at his swearing-in on August 4, 1997, he declared, "We are in favor of a dialogue between civilizations and a détente in our relations with the outside world."1
To this, President Clinton, the Congress, and State Department officials all reacted positively. Just as anticipation of greater freedom swept through the streets of Tehran, some optimism permeated some U.S. policy circles that the U.S.-Iranian relationship had finally stopped its decline and, after eighteen years, was making a fresh start. When Khatami called for a "thoughtful dialogue" with America, President Clinton responded that he would "like nothing better," and praised Iran's rich Persian heritage.2 Both leaders notably refrained from using such terms as "Great Satan" and "rogue state." When State Department spokesman James Foley reiterated in December 1997 that the United States would "welcome and support the idea of an open dialogue between different cultures and civilizations," Khatami responded with praise for the American people.3
Almost three years later, how fares this "dialogue of civilizations" between Iran and the United States? Are private citizens getting to know each other and having a chance to explore their common humanity? Are students building bridges and scholars exchanging views? Having made two extended trips to Iran, in 1996 and 1999, before and after the Khatami election, I have some first-hand experience with this matter.
A Return Trip to Iran
During the first trip, I spent four months in Iran, sharpening my Persian language skills as I worked on my dissertation in the historical archives. I also lectured about Iranian-U.S. relations in the 1920s at the foreign ministry's academic think-tank, the Institute for Political and International Studies (IPIS). All this was possible even though the times were baleful in Iran, which was in the midst of a pervasive crisis. Crime was on the rise, discontent was palpable at all levels of society, and economic stagnation reigned.4 Moreover, when I left Iran in September 1996, almost everyone expected Nateq-Nouri to become Iran's next president, which meant there was not anything good to expect on the political front, either. And yet I have to say that I enjoyed the summer of 1996 and found warm friends among the many people I met. I was eager for another opportunity to visit Iran - and especially after Khatami's electoral victory.
My chance to get a first-hand impression of the "dialogue of civilizations" came in the summer of 1999, when the American Institute of Iranian Studies (AIIrS) organized a Persian-language study trip for American graduate students studying Iranian culture, society, or history. Although the American public is not much aware of it, academic exchanges have formed a key forum for Khatami's sought-for "dialogue of civilizations." Iranian academics frequently deliver papers at conferences sponsored by American organizations like the Society for Iranian Studies. U.S. academics have spoken at conferences sponsored by Iran's Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which controls the Institute of Iranian Contemporary Historical Studies in Tehran. This August in Tehran and Tabriz, U.S. academics even hobnobbed with mullahs from Qum's religious seminaries. In late September, Americans, Russians, and Iranians gathered at the IPIS in Tehran to look back on Iran's experiences during World War II.
All this activity requires some linguistic competence, which was a major reason for my group's trip to Iran. The AIIrS obtained visas for we American graduate students to spend the summer studying at the Dehkhoda Institute, a language and literary center affiliated with the University of Tehran. The thirteen of us in 1999 came from graduate programs across the United States and all of us specialized in some aspect of Iranian studies. My own topic is nineteenth-century history; others worked on medieval history, literature, architecture, sociology, and the contemporary economy. The AIIrS receives U.S. government money, it bears noting, from the United States Information Agency5 among others. Funds for our travel come from a variety of U.S. government sources, as well as a settlement for the illegal confiscation of the American library in Tehran during the Islamic Revolution.
We went with high expectations of being able to immerse ourselves in language study and Iranian culture through class work and independent travel. Meeting with officials at the Iranian mission in at the Sofitel Hotel in Manhattan prior to our departure, we were informed that classes would run for four days each week, with three consecutive days then set aside for travel and cultural immersion.
Our arrival in Tehran on July 11, 1999, could not have come at a more embarrassing time for the Iranian government, for just then a power struggle between hard-liners and moderates, one brewing since Khatami's election, came to a head. The hard-liners who opposed Khatami's reforms never missed an opportunity to undermine him and those who backed his reformist policies. For example, Gholamhossein Karbaschi, former mayor of Tehran and one of Khatami's chief financial backers during the election campaign, was arrested in April 1998, and convicted three months later of corruption. Most Iranians assume that the judiciary, which is a hard-line bastion, singled out Karbaschi as revenge for his support of Khatami. Then, in June 1998, the hard-line parliament impeached Minister of the Interior 'Abdullah Nouri who had vigorously worked to implement Khatami's reforms. Khatami immediately appointed Nouri as deputy president. However, the hard-liners could not accept this. On November 27, 1999, the Special Clerical Cou
rt sentenced Nouri to five years in prison for political and religious dissent.
The power struggle then took a more violent turn. Khatami's spokesman, Ayatollah Mohajerani, was set upon and beaten up in a mosque after Friday prayers. In November, 1998, a vocal critic of Khamene'i and leader of the small opposition Iran Nation Party, Dariush Forouhar, was stabbed to death with his wife. Writers started to disappear: Majid Sharif, Mohammed Mokhtari, and Mohammed Ja`far Pouyandeh were all found murdered. Employees of the Ministry of Information and Security allegedly confessed to the murders, but their ring leader mysteriously died in prison after allegedly drinking hair-removal cream.6 Through all this, the anti--U.S. rhetoric was kept up, to the point that jailed cleric Nouri condemned it as "insulting."7
In the previous year, the focus of struggle had shifted to the newspapers: The pro-Khatami Interior Ministry issued publication permits and the hard-line judiciary promptly banned them. The result was a revolving door of new reformist publications hitting the streets, becoming the focus of hard-line ire, being prohibited by the court, and finally reappearing under a new name and new license, often with the same staff.
In July 1999, the press court banned a moderate daily named Salam and students protested. Iran's hard-line factions reacted swiftly. On the evening of July 9, their forces attacked a dormitory of Tehran University and, according both to students present and to an Iranian government official speaking on condition of anonymity, nine students were and killed, either by defenestration or gunshots. The following days saw the worst riots in Tehran and other cities in nearly two decades, as outraged students vented their rage, calling the atrocities worse than anything that had happened in the shah's time. Buses were burned in Tehran and broken glass littered the streets. President Khatami condemned the violence and unseen enemies, while hard-line newspapers and government officials blamed dark forces such as Zionists and the Central Intelligence Agency. As we followed the alarming news, our man Khorramshahri refused to discuss what was going on and forbade us to leave the hotel.
Bad Timing and Shadowy Handlers
Arriving at Mehrabad International Airport during the riots, we were met by a trio of individuals. A gentleman from Iran Touring and Tourism Organization (ITTO) offered his services.8 Hatif Khorramshahri, our Iranian control officer, greeted us. Mohammed Hissami, a shadowy figure formally attached to our language school, sat in the background whispering into a cell phone, but did not introduce himself.
We Americans had many discussions over the next few weeks trying to identify Khorramshahri and Hissami. Khorramshahri showed his true stripes when he told us, "If you ever tell anyone you are American, you will be expelled." The Iranian U.N. mission had described him as a member of the Council for the Promotion of the Persian Language and Literature. The professors leading our group thought him on the payroll of the ITTO (although if this were true he probably would not have been so apt to overrule the ITTO's president). He once said he was working for the Foreign Ministry. Another time, when asked for whom he worked, Khorramshahri responded that just as the name of the head of the FBI is secret, so is that of his boss.
As for Hissami, he was ostensibly an employee of the Dehkhoda Institute, but some Iranians identified him as really working for the Ministry of Security and Information. That he repeatedly threatened us with expulsion, and declared that under no circumstances would we be allowed to travel independently with ordinary Iranians tended to confirm this affiliation. Iran's authorities seem to want to gain propaganda points for the dialogue of civilizations, but are not yet ready to allow true dialogue among real people.9 Other visitors since this summer have indicated constant escorts with no time for casual exchanges.
Trips to Kerman and Isfahan
As a scholar of the nineteenth century, I had planned to visit Tabriz, Qazvin, or Bushehr -- cities important to that time and open to tourism today; other students had comparable plans. Yet we were all unpleasantly threatened with expulsion if we so much as made a move to travel on our own. Iranian authorities simply refused to allow the same level of freedom to travel as U.S. citizens had enjoyed three years previously, before Khatami's so-called opening to the West.
On July 14, a day of pro-regime, anti-student rallies, Khorramshahri announced we would all go to Kashan, a provincial town south of Tehran, which we did for two days. There he had us placed in an isolated hotel far outside the center of town. Hissami, meanwhile, tried to make the hotel restriction a permanent arrangement whenever we were not in school or on an escorted bus trip. Quite apart from the control this placed on any contacts we might want to make independently (cameras recorded all entries to the hotel) there was the matter of our security. Tour buses were not anyone's idea of a safe form of transportation.
In November 1998, Islamic extremists had attacked a busload of thirteen U.S. tourists after hard-line newspapers accused the Americans of being spies. Those Americans immediately returned to the airport and fled Iran. While Iranian officials apologized for the attack, the next month Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati told worshippers in a sermon broadcast on Iranian radio that U.S. tourist groups might harbor spies. Remembering this incident, some of us felt we would be less conspicuous using taxis or even public transportation. No dice: Khorramshahri repeatedly telephoned Reza Afshar, a diplomat at the Iranian Mission to the United Nations whose background is in the security services, and reported that he forbade us to travel unescorted.10
The restrictions on movement created special problems for me. The Institute of Iranian Contemporary Historical Studies (IICHS)11 had invited me, before I even left the United States, to present a paper at a conference in Tehran it was having to commemorate Iran's 1905-09 Constitutional Revolution. I presented my paper to an audience of about 500 academics, students, theologians, and government officials. The organizers then invited all the speakers to a day trip to Tabriz. It seemed ridiculous that a government institute on one hand should invite me to travel and then Hissami and Khorramshahri would threaten me if I went. I took my chances and went. Hissami and Khorramshahri were furious but could do little as I was the IICHS' guest. It was a Catch-22: insult IICHS if I did not go, antagonize Hissami if I did. I was caught in a security rigmarole.
As for the other two cities I'd hoped to visit, Qazvin and Bushehr, I never did get to either city. I had wanted to take slides of the old British graveyard in Bushehr for my historical research, but Khorramshahri vetoed that idea, on the grounds that Hissami considers Americans to be spies, and he suspected that I wanted to go to Bushehr to photograph the nuclear reactor there. It bears noting that in 1996, no such travel ban on U.S. citizens existed.
But Khorramshahri did take us to Isfahan, a city famed for its beautiful mosques, palaces, gardens, and bazaar. Hissami declared that the group excursion would be mandatory and even those under the weather would have to go. At times like these, our "civilizational dialogue" was, if nothing else, free of the usual Persian ambiguities. Khorramshahri made an inaccurate remark about restrictions placed on Iranian diplomats at their U.N. mission in New York (as if foreign ministry delegates to an international organization and students invited specifically to engage in dialogue can be compared). More relevant is the fact, according to one State Department official with whom I spoke, that the U.S. government issues twenty thousand visas for Iranians per year and Iranian students are allowed to travel freely in the United States. To add insult to injury, we saw that students of other nationalities at the language school had no restrictions on their travel.
Khorramshahri told the hotel manager when our group arrived in Isfahan later in July that we were Finns. Perhaps he was concerned for our safety, but, passing us off as Finnish, it hardly needs stressing, did little to promote Iranian-American exchanges. In Kerman, Hissami again put us in a hotel far from the center of town. Rather than maintaining our security, this location endangered the group. On the morning of August 12, a shoot-out between "bandits" and police on a street outside the hotel killed seven people. Stray bullets entered the hotel and one wounded the manager. Most of my group had left on an early bus for Yazd, but two students had stayed behind in the hotel.
Was the American group the intended target of the attack? I doubt that it was anything other than ordinary criminality, but, by herding us together so conspicuously Hissami surely endangered our safety. After all, the next day, other "bandits" kidnapped a group of Spanish and Italian tourists from their hotel in Kerman. One or two Americans, staying in a guest house or going in cars do not attract the sort of attention that groups of foreigners in a hotel or traveling in a minibus do. Iran's security apparatus did not reassure us that our safety was its main concern. Instead, when we did pair off to look around in some cities, Hissami followed up with questions about whom we might have talked to. Keeping us from contact with ordinary Iranians, especially outside Tehran, seemed to be the real priority.
And why should that be? Because the atmosphere in the Iran of "moderate" President Khatami is troubled. Three years earlier, well before he had reached office, I had met freely with scholars and officials in the Foreign Ministry's academic wing. This time they sent word it was not a good time to meet, or else suggested we meet in the street rather than in their offices or homes. Tehran's Jewish community, previously so welcoming,12 was cowed by the espionage charges against their coreligionists in Shiraz and Isfahan. Some students rounded up during the riots were tortured and executed.
There is no let-up of the hard-line pressure, no matter what image President Khatami projects: Hard-liners succeeded in closing more newspapers after our departure; on another level, reports point to the Iranian authorities harboring those individuals suspected of bombing the Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia, killing nineteen U.S. servicemen and wounding more than 500 people in June 1996.13 Khatami may be sincere, but he and his allies do not control much of the government. Indeed, on December 26, Interior Minister Abdulvahid Musavi-Lari, admitted he did not control the police.14
A Hurried Departure
At the end of August, word came through the Swiss ambassador (who represents U.S. interests in Iran) that our group had better depart quietly and quickly. Presumably, U.S. intelligence had learned of a threat to us by an extremist group, many of which serve as proxy forces for hard-liners in the government.
Instead of getting us out on the double, though, Iranian officials caused the "dialogue" to break down completely. Hissami, who held our passports, had let our visas expire, so we were hauled off to court to explain our delinquency. Although Hissami's only ostensible job for the school was to renew our visas, he offered us neither an apology nor an explanation. We ended up with a symbolic $1 fine, but with several days wasted and enhanced surveillance and bureaucratic harassment. It is hard to believe that our hosts wanted to encourage other Americans to visit. We did eventually get out of Tehran on in the middle of the night on August 26. The Swiss embassy asked our pending evacuation to remain secret for security's sake, but Khorramshahri ignored this request and called government officials as well as friends and relatives. Hissami and several others showed up for our "secret" departure and tailed us to the airport. One Iranian newspaper later published rumors linking our departure to Zionist pressure in t
he United States and Israel.15 At a press conference on September 7, Iran Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamidreza Asefi simply declared that we had left at the U.S. government's request.
Looking back on our seven weeks in Iran, the group did gain some Persian-language skills and it did see what happens to a country under the control of an authoritarian regime on a revolutionary course. As a scholar of Iran, however, I would think it more valuable in the future to attend Persian language programs outside Iran - for example, in Uzbekistan, where students can practice Persian on the streets of Samarkand or in a Bukhara tea house, and not face the tight controls and daily harassment of types like Hissami and Khorramshahri . After all, most learning takes place not in the classroom but through assimilation. Maybe in a year or two Iran will be ready for dialogue, but my experience in the summer of 1999 showed it is not yet.
I can't help but wonder why should U.S. government money support a program which claims to promote civilizational dialogue but in which participants are told to deny their U.S. nationality? Or which seeks to keep participants from any kind of dialogue except for the irritable sort with their security handlers? Iran's actions last summer were all the more troubling given the fact that the United States, which grants 23,000 visas to Iranians - more than twenty times the number Iran grants Americans - does not subject Iranians to escorting but allows them freedom of movement. Iranian diplomats are limited to an area twenty-five miles outside of New York, but Iran refuses even to allow a single American consular officer in Iran. Relations will not advance properly unless they are based on reciprocity. Maybe Americans have been taken in by Khatami's smiling face and slogans.
The leaders of our group asked the student participants to keep quiet about it, so as not to jeopardize the program. But a bureaucratic impulse to paper over real problems will not improve U.S.-Iranian relations. I have chosen to disregard their request on the grounds that true improvement will only happen when based on truth.
Michael Rubin, a Soref fellow at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, is a lecturer in history at Yale University.1 The Daily Telegraph, Aug. 6, 1997.
2 "The News Hour with Jim Lehrer," Dec. 15, 1997.
3 The Los Angeles Times, Dec. 15, 1997.
4 My account was published in the Middle East Quarterly under a pseudonym, Fred S. Eldin, "On the Road: Coping in Islamic Iran," June 1997, pp. 53-58.
5 Lee Hamilton, October 9, 1998, in a statement read into the record at the U.S. House of Representatives, mentioned a $30,000 United States Information Agency (USIA) grant.
6 Tehran Times, Dec. 21, 1999.
7 In a December 17, 1999 letter published in the Iranian press, cited in The New York Times, Dec. 21, 1999.
8 The ITTO maintains a website at: http://iran-tourism.com/about/index.htm.
9 For example, a Dec. 5, 1999 Resalat commentary complained bitterly of U.S. security checks at Kennedy airport, and claimed that all U.S. citizens coming to Tehran are welcomed warmly.
10 The Iranian U.N. mission maintains a website at: http://www.un.int/iran.
11 The IICHS website can be found at: http://www.neda.net/iichs.
12 "Letter from Tehran," The Forward, Sept. 10, 1999.
13 The Washington Post, Oct. 7, 1999.
14 Reuters, Dec. 26, 1996.
15 Sobh-i Emruz, Sept. 5 and Sept. 6, 1999.