Exchanges with Iran: Promise & Perils
As a part of the Greater Cincinnati World Affairs Council and its membership you are able to have the opportunity to listen monthly to excellent authors and/or business leaders through Cover to Cover calls or webinars with the World Affairs Councils of America and Global Ties U.S.
In the month of October, we had the pleasure of getting to know more about Mr. Ramin Asgard and his work on the topic of Exchanges with Iran: Promise & Perils.
Mr. Ramin Asgard is a career Foreign Service Officer with the U.S. Department of State. He currently serves as a Political Advisor to General David Petraeus at U.S. Central Command in Tampa, Florida. His work at CENTCOM focuses on Iran, Afghanistan, Iraq, and the Arabian Peninsula. Prior to joining CENTCOM, Mr. Asgard served as Director of the Iran Regional Presence Office (IRPO) in Dubai, the US government’s primary field operation concerning Iran. As a leading foreign policy expert on Iran he offers his analysis of the benefits of cultural exchanges between the U.S. and Iran, specifically in the form of student and visitor exchanges.
In his discussion of Iranian-U.S. relations, Mr. Asgard notes that the U.S. and Iran have long established ties dating all the way back to 1856 when the two countries first exchanged ambassadors. Since then United States and Iran have had numerous cultural interactions:
- The U.S. founded the first modern co-ed university in Iran in 1873.
- The Franklin Book Program aided in the translation of American books into Persian and facilitated the development of reading and the establishment of indigenous publishing.
- And the Iran- American Society, founded in 1955, sponsored cultural exchanges
The United States even enjoyed close ties with Iran between 1944 and 1979 in the period following WWII and preceding the Islamic Revolution. American-Iranians have also made great contributions to the United States. For example Pierre Omidyar founded EBay, Gholam Peyma invented LASIK, and Lotfi A. Zadeh is the mathematician and inventor of fuzzy logic. These people are all just a few of the notable American-Iranians. However, with the Islamic Revolution and the tensions that followed after the severing of diplomatic relations in 1980 these cultural exchanges became almost entirely dormant.
Only in 1997 with moderate reformist President Mohammad Khatami coming to power in Iran did private and cultural exchanges begin to revive with most participants travelling from Iran to the U.S.
In 2006 official state sponsored exchanges resumed. From 2006 to 2008 over 300 Iranian and 60 U.S. exchange visitors participated in exchanges.
Although these exchanges were challenging to orchestrate without formal diplomatic contact. Cultural exchange activities ran into suspicion from both countries. Some participants faced questioning and intense scrutiny upon their return and in some cases it even damaged their careers. But as Ramin notes, these obstacles can be overcome and are worth the benefit.
These exchange programs have a long term payoff of fostering a positive image of the United States and they are low cost and low risk endeavors. This is why it is crucial to point out these benefits to groups who might view exchanges negatively or not understand the benefit of exchanges between countries with strained diplomatic relations. Exchanges like ones between Iran and the United States can actually be used to address national security concerns just like they were used in the Cold War to address national security issues with Russia and China.
To help facilitate these exchanges Ramin recommends a building a broad policy consensus that these cultural diplomacy programs are meant to build mutual understanding, be transparent, apolitical, and of clear mutual benefit. This could be done by creating a non-official U.S.-Iran exchange working group. This organization would help work through the mistrust issues as well as logistical issues of orchestrating these programs. The U.S. Iran Exchange Forum (USIEF) is just such a proposed bilateral entity. It would be a non-official NGO comprised of bilateral representatives from the United States and Iran from different types of exchanges to work in tandem to overcome logistical and in some cases trust issues. The proposed organization would have U.S. and Iranian co-chairs, and the U.S. and Iran would each have a co-chair for programs in the Arts, Academia, Athletics, Science and Technology, and Professions in each country.
While this organization is still in the conceptual stage Ramin is still looking for an organization to house this worthwhile project so as to facilitate this valuable exchanges between Iran and the United States.
If you have found this information valuable and are interested in getting an opportunity to listen into these calls, please join the Greater Cincinnati World Affairs Council membership. This is just one benefit of many for our members today.
Written by James McManus, GCWAC Programs Associate
James McManus is a graduate student at Northern Kentucky University’s Master of Public Administration program with a focus in community development.