Studying the Islamic Republic from the Inside

TEHRAN -- The heat of a summer noon blankets the Iranian capital, but inside the classroom of the Institute for North American and European Studies an Iranian professor energetically explains to his mixed-sex class the concept of preventive war and how it applies to the Bush administration.

"The Bush administration thinks that their opponents are not rational and so traditional methods of deterrence no longer hold," Dr. Reza Saeidabadi instructs the half-dozen students sitting around a conference table. The class is being held on the institute's brand-new campus in Tehran. "Preventive war is based on the concept that war is inevitable and that it is better to fight now while the costs are low rather than later when the costs are high. It is a deliberated decision to go to war."

Despite the veneer of theory, the students know that their teacher is talking about how Washington views the Islamic Republic of Iran. The men sit in T-shirts, while the women – swathed in regulation Islamic gowns without which they cannot go out in public -- ineffectually flap their headscarves, trying to circulate some trace of breeze into their black neck-high coverings.

Saeidabadi's explanation of how the United States views Iran would strike me as surreal and counterintuitive if I did not have first-hand experience of the Islamic Republic's often surprisingly enlightened educational workings. To its critics, Iran is the epitome of doctrinaire rigidity and the triumph of Islamic fundamentalism. But behind the fanaticism demonstrated by its political establishment when it chooses to indulge in public grandstanding, Iran possesses a strong state educational system that places an emphasis on well-funded research centers. Far from the cliché of medieval government-sponsored seminaries teaching the Quran by rote, special schools have been set up for gifted children to nurture Iran's sharpest minds as well as dish out the standard religious indoctrination. This system, and the cultural revolution that created it in the early 1980s, educated a class of revolutionaries that are proving far more adept at staffing government departments than their war-veteran or seminary-schooled predecessors.

"The second generation after the Revolution believe that management is a science," said Abbas Maleki, a former diplomat and professor at Sharif University. "They believe in Islam and Ayatollah Khomeini but also look to MIT and Jack Welsch for expertise and study for MBAs."

Maleki was one of my most inspiring professors during a surreal, cliché-busting year spent studying in Iran. I moved to Tehran in 2004 to participate in the second and last masters program ever offered by the School of International Relations (SIR). The SIR was a modern university established in the 1990s in a manicured, grassy complex in north Tehran. It was designed to train the Islamic Republic's next generation of diplomats and put an end to the post-revolutionary cronyism that dictated diplomatic appointments.

Inside the SIR's muffled corridors, the flirtatious secularizing reality of North Tehran's traffic-choked avenues stopped and another world began: an anachronistic throwback to the conservative, immediately post-revolutionary years. The male students we encountered in its hallways were thin, circumspect figures clad in charcoal suits, white shirts and no tie -- the signature garb of the Iranian diplomatic service. The female students wore the chador, an all-enveloping black Islamic gown that, when expertly deployed by older women, covers every inch of a woman's body and face, leaving just one squinting eye as her window to the world.

The institute was headed by a bearded scholar and former ambassador whose wedding Ayatollah Khomeini himself had conducted. The director of our course had been an anti-Shah activist who was imprisoned for his political activities before being released in time to ride in the convoy that greeted the founder of the Islamic Republic upon his 1979 return from France. Many of the students were the progeny of old clerical families that had spread across the Islamic Republic's power structures through several generations of strategic intermarriage.

Without any idea of how to properly advertise the course, the SIR sought recourse in the local English-language media and word of mouth. When our first term started, the motley collection of students was a reflection of the haphazard recruitment methods. Two junior diplomats from Turkey and South Africa were sent by their embassies after they got wind of the program. There was the U.S.–educated Saudi wife of an Iranian businessman, two Oxford graduates with an interest in the region, a Belgian-Iranian analyst, and an American Harvard graduate. A Japanese-Iranian former beauty queen, who grew up in North Dakota and was in Tehran as a journalist, joined a few months later to round off our strange little group.

Our course was named Contemporary Iranian Studies, and it was aimed at giving foreign students a grounding in the history, politics, economy, and foreign policy of contemporary Iran. The perspective was inevitably government dictated, but, as with so much in the Islamic Republic, there were plenty of windows for alternate opinions to be heard.

"The school is a sort of grazing pasture for out-of-favor politicians and diplomats, and our class was taught by reformists, hard-line conservatives, and former diplomats who had held office under the Shah," said Coco Ferguson, a 26-year-old Oxford graduate and fellow student.

Over eight months, we were taught classes covering regional geopolitics, Iran's political economy, international relations theory, and the foreign policy of the Islamic Republic. The quality of the teaching veered from the average to the inspired, but regular flasks of freshly-brewed tea relieved the tedium in between the flashes of insight.

"Our most surreal class was an hour-long discussion on the Revolutionary Guard in which the professor, a former member, opened the floor to questions and then refused to answer any of them on security grounds," added Ferguson. "But this was not the norm, and we enjoyed a level of frank openness that would have been impossible outside the classroom."

It was a unique example of cultural outreach in a region notorious for its paranoia of Westerners. When Clifford Kupchan, a former Clinton administration appointee to the State Department, came to Iran for a conference, he was invited to give us a seminar and outline his theory that a regional security regime should be set up as a means of resisting Iran's influence in the region. Later, he took thoughtful questions from the floor, prompting him at the end of the class to exclaim, "Where did you guys all come from?" as he eyed us disbelievingly. He was clearly having trouble believing that such a program could exist in Iran.

By the end of the class, Kupchan had failed to convince our professor -- an ideological right-winger who fought in the Iran-Iraq War and spent time in New York as a diplomat -- of his thesis. The chasm separating the two views was stark and amply indicative of the gap in the policies of the two men's respective governments. But the fact of him having the opportunity to put forth a policy suggestion diametrically opposing the Iranian point of view demonstrated the relative openness characterizing our year in the SIR's classrooms.

In a country where it is impossible to buy up-to-date English-language books on current affairs or politics outside the state-organized annual book fair, we had access to one of the best-stocked Middle East and international-relations libraries I have ever come across. While access to it was barred to the average Iranian, once inside a reader could enjoy a constantly replenished stock that included Western neoconservative offerings such as The Axis of Evil: Iran, Hizballah and Palestinian Terror and Eurabia: The Euro-Arab Axis. It was clear that knowing what their foes think of them was essential for the reformists. This trend is still reflected inside the Islamic Republic's educational system -- at least the centers of excellence dedicated to its foreign-policy elite.

It was a theme that I witnessed throughout my stay in Iran, from that afternoon lecture at the Institute of North American Studies to our lecturers' startling reading recommendations, such as former CIA analyst Graham Fuller's The Center of the Universe: The Geopolitics of Iran, an incisive examination of the Iranian personality. The end result of this openness -- in misleading contrast to the doctrinaire rigidity of the mullahs' public pronouncements -- is that the average Iranian diplomat ends up with a far more sophisticated understanding of the workings of the United States than American policymakers have of the Islamic Republic.

All that changed with the coming to power of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in August 2005. Representing the establishment's isolationist, ultra-nationalist trend, he effected massive personnel changes throughout Iran's diplomatic and technocratic sectors, turfing out able reformists who opposed his worldview and substituting them for inexperienced loyalists.

Over at the SIR, the masters program ground to a halt. In a typically Iranian way, no dramatic announcement marked its demise. Over a period of several months, it simply became obvious that the program had been terminated. First the study visa applications for the predominantly American students of the next year were rejected.. Then the faculty announced that "due to a lack of students the program would be postponed for [2005-2006]." The management printed glossy advertising leaflets for the following year, but by the time September 2007 came round the program was dead in the water and unlamented.

"Iran's ministries should fling open their doors to foreign students and delegations -- Americans and Israelis especially -- and offer them the sort of tea, hospitality, and nuanced perspectives on the Iran-Iraq War, regime change, and the mysterious conundrum of an Islamic Republic that we enjoyed in this closed, obstinate, yet highly sophisticated country," concludes Ferguson. "They might find their enemies more reluctant to pull the trigger."

While the closure of the masters program went unnoticed, the purging of the adjoining Institute of Political and International Studies (IPIS) caused a worldwide media shockwave. IPIS had been a well-regarded institute whose annual international conference gathered American, European, Arab, and Southeast Asian scholars and diplomats in Tehran for two days of discussions and back-channel messaging. After its reformist teachers were purged, a galaxy of neoconservative thinkers that shared and formed the Ahmadinejad's thinking were brought in.

In addition, since April, several Iranian-Americans and an Iranian-French independent filmmaker have been detained in Tehran or banned from leaving the country on charges of spying for Washington. The detentions seem to be Iran’s attempt to hit back at the Bush administration for its sponsorship of regime-change efforts inside the country and for the 2006 arrest of five Iranian government workers in the northern Iraqi town of Irbil.

This summer, another outreach attempt was sacrificed to the tensions between Tehran and Washington when a research visit organized by the Institute of North American Studies for 23 of its students was cancelled. A right-wing Iranian Web site accused the United States of "intending to use university students as its political tools." Iran's conservative regime encourages its young people to study in the West but fears that foreign intelligence services might try to recruit the students once they are Stateside.

All this makes the seemingly carefree days of our masters program in 2004–2005 seem a world away. They were the twilight months of eight years of reformist rule, when Iran opened up to the world more than at any other time during three decades of Islamic Republic and xenophobic isolation. With the current diplomatic impasse between Tehran and Washington over the former's nuclear program, largely due to a lack of trust and cultural comprehension between the two sides, it is clear that more programs such as the one I attended are sorely needed.