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