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Iranian pundits reflect evolution of the revolution
Two U.S.-educated scholars view America, homeland in new ways

By Barbara Slavin
March 30, 2000

WASHINGTON -- He became an Islamic revolutionary in Pasadena, Texas.

A student in the late 1970s at San Jacinto College, Nasser Hadian was one of thousands of Iranians who availed themselves of U.S. political freedoms to organize and call for the overthrow of a despotic government back home.

Angry at the United States for backing the shah, Hadian returned to Iran to support its Islamic revolution. Now he is among the most sought-after Iranian pundits for a U.S. foreign policy elite struggling to keep up with dizzying political changes that are once again drawing Iran closer to the West.

Hadian and Hadi Semati, another U.S.-educated Iranian, appeared at the same conference earlier this month where Secretary of State Madeleine Albright announced an easing of 13-year-old sanctions on Iranian farm products and carpets and called for ''a new and better relationship'' with Iran. The two Tehran University political scientists had been shuttling from think tank to think tank on the heels of Iranian elections that gave reformers more than two-thirds of parliamentary seats and prompted the U.S. olive branch.

Hadian, 42, and Semati, 40, have an edge in interpreting Iran for a U.S. audience because they know so much about both countries. Both measure their own political development in part through their changing response to the United States.

Undergraduates in Texas before and during the 1979 Islamic revolution, they returned to the USA in the late 1980s to do graduate work at the University of Tennessee.

The first time, they were largely repelled by American ways. ''We were an isolated group, rather like Qom (a conservative Iranian city of Islamic seminaries),'' Hadian says. The product of what he called a ''normal middle-class family in Tehran,'' Hadian says he was not particularly religious until he arrived in Texas. ''There were 10,000 Iranian students in Texas,'' he says, and they became a center of protest against the shah.

Then came the Iranian hostage crisis, when students took over the U.S. Embassy in Tehran. Iran's revolutionary leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, exploiting the takeover to defeat his rivals, turned what was meant to be a brief protest against an American decision to admit the dying shah into a 444-day humiliation of the United States.

Hadian and Semati went home. ''We felt we had helped the revolution from outside Iran,'' says Semati, who did undergraduate work at the University of Houston. ''At the same time, the hostage crisis put us in a difficult position in this country.''

By the time they returned for graduate study, however, they had begun to see their own revolution and the United States in a new way. Thousands of Iranians, including Western-educated young people who had supported the revolution, had been executed because of their opposition to the theocratic autocracy that replaced the shah. Iran had also become bogged down in a meat-grinder war with Iraq, which killed or wounded 1 million Iranians.

''In Knoxville, (Tenn.),'' I began to have a more critical appreciation of the United States,'' Hadian says. ''I saw that it wasn't just alcohol, sex and homosexuality, but human rights and democracy.''

Semati says he was ''not particularly happy'' with U.S. foreign policy in the late 1980s, not just toward Iran but also toward Nicaragua, where the Reagan administration backed anti-Communist rebels in part with money from the clandestine sale of weapons to Iran. But Semati says he gained ''a deeper understanding of how democracy works. I read everything I could get my hands on and watched Nightline every night. I learned how U.S. policies are formed and that you cannot simplify the world into good and bad.''

Back in Tehran in the early 1990s, Semati and Hadian joined a growing group of former radicals who had been pushed from influence after Khomeini's death in 1989. In Iran's universities and seminaries, they began to synthesize a new philosophy, combining elements of Islam with respect for individual rights.

Since the upset victory in 1997 of President Mohammad Khatami, a moderate cleric, and last month's parliamentary elections, reformers have gained at the expense of supreme religious leader Ayatollah Ali Khameini and non-elected, clerical-dominated bodies. ''If we are talking about democratization, there remain real institutional barriers,'' Semati says. ''But what is important is that the process has begun.''

On their U.S. tour, the pundits did not go unchallenged. At an appearance at Columbia University in New York, Mansour Farhang, a secularist and Iran's first ambassador to the United Nations after the revolution, argued that many groups still face discrimination in Iran. He said the pundits' performance reminded him of those who once said political progress was possible under the shah.

Hadian strongly disagrees. ''Never under the shah could anybody have talked the way we talked,'' he says. ''I'm not an apologist for anyone.''

In appearance as well as politics, the Iranian professors meld Islamic and Western influences. They sport neatly trimmed beards and aviator glasses, suits and blazers but no ties, which are rejected by Iranian revolutionaries as a symbol of Western cultural imperialism.

Gaining visas has not been a problem, Hadian says, because they have been sponsored by U.S. organizations. U.S. oil and other business interests and some Iranian-Americans have lobbied for Washington to end a seven-year policy of ''dual containment,'' which put quasi-democratic Iran in the same pariah category as dictatorial Iraq.

On the other side, critics highlight Iran's continued human rights abuses, pursuit of nuclear weapons and support for Arab groups opposed to Israeli policies.

Gary Sick, a former White House official who dealt with the hostage crisis during the Carter administration and now heads Gulf/2000, a group focusing on the Persian Gulf, says Semati and Hadian are not ''spinmeisters'' for Iran but analysts who ''lift the Persian carpet and look underneath. They bring a firsthand perspective from people who are involved in the process, not just watching it.'' Both have good connections to the reformers; several former students were elected to parliament.

Like U.S. pundits, the Iranian ones are not infallible. They misjudged the margin of the reformists' victory and were surprised by the number of incumbents who lost. Despite continued violence by an extremist minority, they say the cause of reform is unstoppable, backed by Iran's increasingly educated youth.

''We live in an information technology age, with Iranian-Americans going to Iran and young people there plugging into the Internet,'' says Hooshang Amirahmadi, president of the American Iranian Council and a professor at Rutgers University.

''U.S. influence on Iran's revolution is tremendous.''


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