We just returned from a trip to the Middle East, which included stops in Lebanon, Syria, and the Islamic Republic of Iran. We will be writing about our meetings, discussions, and observations on this trip in future posts. First, though, we want to express our gratitude to the Faculty of World Studies at the University of Tehran for inviting us to come and meet with their students and faculty.
We particularly want to say how impressed we were with the graduate students in American studies with whom we had the opportunity to spend some time. University admissions in Iran are done on the basis of competitive national examinations. Those Iranian students who end up at the University of Tehran are among the brightest young people in the country. But, beyond their obvious intelligence and talent, the graduate students in American studies impressed us with their seriousness and determination to explore their subject as deeply as possible.
One of our favorite moments came when two female graduate students (most of the graduate students we met are women) asked us for advice. The two were preparing for an exercise in one of their classes, in which students would — in English — hold a mock U.S. congressional debate about health care reform legislation. These two students were tasked to represent the Republican side of the debate. They had already done extensive research; they were, for example, aware of editorial differences among CNN, MSNBC, and Fox in these networks’ coverage of the health care debate in the United States. But, while these two students had the opportunity to talk with a couple of American political analysts, they wanted to deepen their understanding of the nuances of conservative argument about health care reform in the United States. So, we did our best to channel our inner David Frum and tell them what we could about conservative perspectives on health care issues. We hope those students got something useful out of the conversation. (They were nice enough to say that they did.) We also wish that more Americans could encounter young Iranians like those we met.
Shortly before we arrived in Tehran, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said that the Islamic Republic is turning into a “military dictatorship.” As we drove around Tehran, we looked hard to see a soldier anywhere on the street but did not see a single one — except for a couple at the entrance to the Behesht-e Zahra cemetery just south of Tehran, where many of the Iranian soldiers killed in the Iran-Iraq War are buried. Over the years, we have spent a lot of time in a lot of Middle Eastern capitals. We have never been in one — including in Egypt and Israel — that has fewer guys in uniform on the streets than in Tehran right now.
Flynt Leverett directs the Iran Project at the New America Foundation, where he is also a Senior Research Fellow. Additionally, he teaches at Pennsylvania State University’s School of International Affairs. Hillary Mann Leverett is CEO of Strategic Energy and Global Analysis (STRATEGA), a political risk consultancy. In September 2010, she will also take up an appointment as Senior Lecturer and Senior Research Fellow at Yale University’s Jackson Institute for Global Affairs. This article was first published in The Race for Iran on 25 February 2010 under a Creative Commons license.