Knowing Iran

Photo by Griff Dye

Over the past two years, my husband, Griff Dye, and I have had two remarkable opportunities to visit Iran. In the spring of 2004, I was invited to join a small delegation of American educators organized by Search for Common Ground—a conflict resolution NGO based in Washington, DC. Our eight-member team met with faculty, students, and university and government officials in Tehran, Isfahan, and Shiraz to discuss ways to reestablish a strong relationship between Iranian and American colleges and universities.

Early in our stay, we spent a morning at the University of Tehran’s College of Art, where we visited the school of music. Everybody there knew of Oberlin’s Conservatory! I realized then that Oberlin would be the perfect American college to initiate an educational exchange program: our student ensembles and composers could travel to Iranian conservatories for brief residencies and performances, and young Iranian musicians and composers could be brought to Oberlin. Eventually, our program might develop into a full-fledged academic exchange, with Oberlin students studying Persian music in Iran, and Iranians studying at Oberlin. Already, this proposal has the support of many friends. Search for Common Ground, the Iranian Ambassador to the United Nations, several foundations, and individual supporters in New York, Washington, and Tehran are working with Oberlin to make this musical exchange a reality.

Musicians can be exceptional citizen-diplomats. Music is an international language, and musicians are always eager to meet and perform together. It was not accidental that many of the first American-Soviet exchanges during the Cold War involved musicians; music often talks when governments cannot.

An Oberlin-Iran exchange would enable young Iranians and Americans to talk with one another in ways that have been largely impossible since the hostage crisis 25 years ago. Such cross-cultural conversation and interaction could go a long way in dispelling the stereotypes that Americans and Iranians hold of each other.

Needless to say, there are formidable challenges. The governments of the United States and Iran have not talked together since the United States severed diplomatic relations in 1980. Iranians must travel to Dubai or Turkey to apply for an American visa, a document rarely granted to young Iranians since September 11.

When Griff and I returned to Iran in March of this year, we discovered some new challenges. In 2004, the ministerial government in Iran had been largely populated with reformists, a significant number of whom were educated in the United States. But to date the government of President Ahmadinejad has shown no enthusiasm for the “dialogue of civilizations” pioneered by his predecessor, Mohammad Khatami. The current nuclear crisis has created what some Iranians say is the worst relationship between Iran and the United States since Iran’s Islamic Revolution. And the terrible situation next door in Iraq has further fueled the Iranian fear of Americans and a belief that all Americans hate Muslims. Iranians are deeply anxious about American intentions concerning invasion and regime change. Many are convinced that American bombs will fall.

As one of the very few Americans who has spent time in Iran, I can attest to the fact that this nation bears little resemblance to the crowds of grim-faced women draped in black chadors chanting “Death to America” we have seen in images over and over again during the past 25 years. To be sure, Iran is not an open society. It tolerates little dissent. Literature, film, and art are censored and the press controlled. Violations of human rights are frequent. The Iranian constitution permits the government to intrude deeply into the private life of its citizens. But it is also true that the professors, students, university and government officials, leaders of NGOs, actors, artists, scientists, economists, and clerics whom we’ve met in Iran are wonderfully diverse and hospitable people. They hold a wide range of views on politics, religion, and the future of their country. They are curious about America and want to get to know us. 

It’s time to talk.

Nancy S. Dye is the president of Oberlin College.