It’s Past Time for Americans to Take a Peek Behind the Iran Curtain

News Abroad
tags: Iranian Revolution. Iran

Larry E. Tise, PhD, is a historian who lives in Philadelphia where he was also the founder and current President of the International Congress of Distinguished Awards (1994), a not-for-profit consortium of awards in the arts, humanities, science, technology, environment, peace, religion, and humanitarian concerns.


Resurgence Party pro-Shah demonstration in Tabriz

That’s right—not the dreaded “Iron Curtain” that separated Communist and Free World nations after the Second World War until 1989. But rather an oddly similar “Iran Curtain”—an artificial barrier that has divided the Islamic and Quasi-Christian worlds ever since the 1979 Iranian (or Islamic) Revolution. Just as the Iron Curtain of the Cold War era outgrew its relevance and needed to be torn down, so also should the trumped up obstruction that has separated Islamic and Christian societies for nearly four decades. Not even the tragedy of 9/11 is sufficient to put off a proper healing between Muslim and Christian peoples across the globe.

This became abundantly clear to me in early December when I crossed the Iran Curtain to observe the presentation of the 2017 Mustafa Prizes of the Tehran-based Mustafa Science and Technology Foundation. As one of the few individuals on earth who makes it a habit to study the world of international prizes and awards (now for almost three decades), I was honored to be invited to both the lofty prize ceremonies on 3 December 2017 in Tehran’s elegant Vahdat Hall and to a week of discussions on the status of applied science and technology especially among Islamic nations.

What makes the Mustafa Prizes different from all of the other hundred or so distinguished international awards I have examined is that these prizes (five at $500,000 in each cycle) are intended to recognize eminent Islamic scientists wherever they live and work. This is a worthy goal since three-fourths of the existing awards and prizes today are located in the United States and Europe and they could not possibly be more Eurocentric. Unless an Islamic scientist happens to be located at universities and research institutes in the Euro-American world, there is not much chance that person would come to the attention of the existing world prizes.

The other equally lofty goal of the Mustafa Foundation is to engender new science and technology in Iran and across the Islamic world that will spur economic development. This was one of the Foundation’s primary purposes of gathering science and technology leaders from the world’s fifty or so predominantly Islamic nations. It hopes to foster technology incubation centers at strategic locations many of these nations. Frequent mention was made in these gatherings of American models for this enterprise including California’s Silicon Valley and North Carolina’s Research Triangle Park. A budding example of this is already evident at the Pardas Park research and development center in Tehran. Pardas is wholly sponsored and endowed by private sector companies that are seeking to combine science and technology for economic development in the realms of IT systems, nanotechnology, biotechnology, and private sector financial investments. On this campus may be found as well greater than life-size busts of Mustafa Prize laureates.

These expanding ventures replicating American successes confirm the ambitions of the diverse economic enterprises. There could hardly be a heartier compliment and praise for American ingenuity in a culture that is often imagined by Americans to be at war with the United States. Indeed, as evidently the sole American in this gathering of enterprising souls from many Muslim nations, I felt just as at home as I would on a university campus in the United States or in a multidisciplinary gathering of scientists, engineers, economists, and historians on American soil. The focus was entirely on sharing ideas, networking, hearing papers presented, and squishing together learned debates and commentary. I could have been sitting in a conclave at one of my usual Philadelphia haunts at the University of Pennsylvania, the American Philosophical Society, or the National Constitution Center. I heard no ideological debates, no sectarian religious doctrine, and no reference to politics national or international in any of the formal sessions I attended.

The closest anyone came to mentioning matters international occurred when Iranian economists and business leaders mentioned the word “sanctions.” As odd as it may seem to American ears, there was no anger or animosity attached to these references. Indeed, from an Iranian perspective the sanctions placed by the international community on Iran seem to have had the same effect on that nation as the isolation of the United States between the warring powers of France and Britain between our American Revolution and the War of 1812. That period of time in American history is viewed by economic historians as the moment when the economic engine that drives the United States “took off.” Deprived of unencumbered international trade for almost three decades, the United States on its own developed a robust economy that has operated magnificently with only a few pauses for the last two centuries. That is precisely what is happening in Iran today. There is an energy, a feeling of confidence, and a sense of undoubted success that radiates from these proud Iranians. “Necessity is the mother of invention,” Poor Richard might have told Americans. There is probably a similar proverb or saying in Persian wisdom that teaches the same lesson.

I met a hundred or more scientists, engineers, and entrepreneurs and twice that number of Iranian citizens and students on this weeklong sojourn behind the Iran Curtain. Despite all the complications that have arisen over the last forty years between and among heads of state in Iran and the United States, there is little room for that squabble among enterprising citizens in either nation. Their primary interests are to get on with the business of making money, creating homes and families, educating children, and building safe, well-ordered, and productive societies.

I engaged in countless dialogues with professors, citizens, students, restaurateurs, cab drivers, and shop owners in the bazaars of Tehran and Kashan. I heard nothing but curiosity about Americans, the English language, American literature, and our system of governance. Iranians are addicted to American movies and to CNN and BBC’s coverage of American politics. In their own history they have seen domestically just about everything they hear about the United States.

There are some things they find hard to understand about our society. Guns are outlawed in Iran. Alcohol and drugs are minor problems. Violent crimes are perceived as minimal. Terrorist attacks and mass shootings are virtually unknown. There are religious controls on the dress and rights of women and a ban on men touching women who are not relatives. There is a perception (especially now) that the sexual harassment of women in America is out of control and that the reproductive rights of women are under unrelenting religious attack. Recriminatory attacks on women through social media—at least for now—are unknown in Iran. Despite a fascination with nearly all things American, Iranians seem to be generally relieved not to have many of the self-imposed destructive habits that seem to pervade American society.

One other feature of life behind the Iran Curtain leaped out at me. The Iranian Revolution is about forty years in the past. But the impact of the Revolution and what the Revolution was all about is unconsciously present in much Iranian talk. As primarily an American historian, this caused me to reflect where the United States was about forty years after our own Revolution. That would have been in 1816 following British desecration of Washington, DC, and burning of the United States Capitol Building and our White House in the War of 1812. We were chagrined by the violation of our national integrity. But the United States was ready to take off to create an international economic colossus, to race across the American continent with the new technologies of canals and railroads, to supply world markets with cotton and lumber, and to launch an American navy that would soon be second to none. Our Revolution gave us the right to exercise our muscle across the world in the manner and style of our choosing.

That’s precisely what is going on behind the Iran Curtain. Bright and energetic people—with centuries of heritage and culture—setting their own bearings to retake their proud place in the world. We in the United States are but teenyboppers when it comes to measuring up against Persian literature, music, and learning going back thousands of years. The United States is but an upstart nation in the long history of Iran dating from the reign of Cyrus the Great (fl. 549 BC). Iranians, living at a great crossroads between China and India in the east and the European dominated west, have seen many empires come and go—Macedonians, Romans, Moguls, Arabs, and Brits. Americans are but the most recent of ambitious “world powers” to roll across the plains, mountains, deserts and lush gardens of Iran. In this latest rush, Iranians are adapting to the realities of this moment—iPhones in every hand, flashy automobiles amidst snarling freeway traffic, and language skills to negotiate deals in English, Persian, or Arabic around the world.

These current Iranians are so much like Americans when our nation was ready to take off forty years after our Revolution that one feels in Tehran and Kashan the same kind of exuberance and boundless optimism of Americans when our true independence as a nation came in 1815. We need to get to know these ambitious and goal-directed people. But first we should boldly eradicate this Iran Curtain as we did the similarly worn out Iron Curtain thirty years ago.

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