Iranian and U.S. players group picture before match.
Photo from IRIB webpage
Time to Move Forward?
By Tagi Sagafi-nejad
June 23, 1998
The line between sports and politics has never been more blurred. Today Iranian and American soccer teams compete in Lyon at the World Cup soccer championship games. This face off is reminiscent of the 1971 U.S.-China Ping-Pong diplomacy and the Iran-U.S. wrestling match earlier this year. Headline news such as Secretary of State Madeleine Albright's statement late last week in which she signaled U.S. readiness for normalization of relations with Iran, President Khatami's CNN interview last January in which he reached out to the American people, and more quiet exchanges such as a current tour or Iran by some former Peace Corps volunteers, portend a more promising future in U.S.-Iran relations, more positive and mutually beneficial than at any time since the 1978-9 Iranian revolution. That grass roots insurrection toppled America's friend, the Shah, ending half a century of Pahlavi dynasty and several thousand years of monarchic rule.
As an American, I remain suspicious of the fundamentalist extremists within Iran's theocracy, which is bent on maintaining a monopoly over the political and economic system at any cost. They refuse to share power, and have no tolerance for, or a clear understanding of, economic and political freedom, principles we in America hold sacred. I also sympathize with those embittered by the hostage crisis even though two decades have passed.
And as an Iranian, I understand the spectrum of feelings ranging from mistrust to rage felt by many in Iran today. During one of my visits several years ago, a friend asked innocently why America was such a cursed country. The U.S. had experienced floods and mudslides in California, ice storms on the Atlantic coast, and street riots in Los Angeles, all reported with great embellishment in Iran's media. Another friend half-jokingly speculated that it was the religious duty of every newspaper to report each day at least three negative items about America!
The catch phrase in a late night news program that was to become Nightline bombarded American audiences for 444 days with "America Held Hostage: Day ... " Media reporting such as these help shape public perceptions in both countries.
But, as a global citizen interested in a peaceful and prosperous world, I say, it is high time to realize that America is no more an omnipotent glutton or a satanic monster than Iran is a land of fanatics and fundamentalists. To get beyond the current stage, we need to look further than stereotypes formed by popular media and fueled by ignorance or indifference.
In 1992, when I was invited to return to Iran to give a series of lectures and seminars on international business environment and strategy, I was apprehensive, unsure of what I would encounter and worried that constraints might be imposed on how or what I taught. But I was pleasantly surprised to see that the faculty who taught in these seminars was not censored in any way. My colleagues and I, coming from America, and our Iranian counterparts (most with PhDs from American universities) taught the same material in Iran (including Harvard Business School cases and PBS videos) as we do in classes in the United States.
I was also surprised by some of my encounters with fellow Iranians - including urban and rural, educated and illiterate, theologians and businessmen. It astonished me that the most frequently asked questions had little to do with ideology or antagonism. Instead, there were questions about the World Trade Organization (WTO) and quality certification by the International Standards Organization (ISO). Surprisingly, over fifty Iranian manufacturing companies have already received ISO-9000 certification. In nemerous presentations over the past six years, my audiences of executives and MBA students want more information about global competitiveness, how to obtain ISO certification, and how to raise product quality and capture export markets.
Another surprise debunks the myth of the role of women in Iran and shows the complexity of the system: A division chief of an institution of higher education, in charge of its instructional activities including the executive MBA and strategic management programs, is a woman. A five-foot-four dynamo in charge of a male and female staff of more than a dozen and a faculty twice that large, she typifies the new Iranian professional woman. Still, she was blocked from entering a provincial government office a few years ago because her garb, in full compliance of the Islamic hijab, was nevertheless not sufficiently modest.
Indeed there is still some fanaticism, hatred and corruption. But the more promising aspects, the ones worthy of attention and respect, loom larger. The horizon is rife with opportunities for constructive and productive interchange. Iran and America have much to gain from an open relationship based on mutual respect, civility and the rule of international law. Each needs a dose of humility too.
America needs to understand the new -- but still complex -- Iran, acknowledge past mistakes, and show an openness to leaving behind the past and its current vestiges like the Helms-Burton Law and the yet to be released frozen assets; wounds need healing and closure.
Iran is not an insignificant member of the world community. With a rapidly growing population of 65 million, a well-educated and competitive labor force, a large and expanding urban middle class, its geographic location, combined with its natural resources (oil and massive reserves of natural gas) and a sizeable industrial base, Iran is poised to join soon the ranks of "emerging markets."
Iran, too, needs to overcome its "reality problem." America is not the cursed land or the land of the Great Satan. Nor is it the Promised Land. And Iran is not the center of the universe, as some fantasize, but a struggling developing country caught between modernization and tradition. (In a Madraseh -- school of theology -- this writer was collared for several hours and engaged not in a debate over the righteousness of Islamic government over Western democracy, but on how one could get a visa to join one's cousin in Seattle!)
Iranian leaders should understand the enormous reservoir of goodwill that exists in Iran toward America, its people, culture, and products. But Iranians must also understand that separating American people from American government is a false dichotomy and a naive notion.
And so, as an American and an Iranian, I believe today is a good day to turn over a new leaf.
About the author
An American resident since 1968 and a US citizen since 1976, Dr. Sagafi-nejad was born in Bainabaj, a small southern village in Iran's eastern province of Khorasan. A professor of International Business at the Sellinger School of Business & Management at Loyola College, he holds Masters and Ph.D. degrees from the University of Pennsylvania. (Back to top)