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Understanding Iran—Princeton University Pursues a Long-Standing Relationship

By Donald Gilpin

The relationship between Princeton University and Iran goes back a long way—at least 110 years to 1907 when Howard Baskerville, Class of 1907, went to Iran to teach science and English. He died at age 24 fighting alongside his students for constitutional democracy, but his memory lives on for many Iranians, and his grave is preserved in the northwestern Iranian city of Tabriz.

After graduating from Princeton as a religion major, Baskerville wanted to learn about a foreign culture and language before continuing his studies for the ministry. In the fall of 1907 he arrived in Tabriz to teach at the American Memorial School, run by the Presbyterian mission.

In addition to teaching science, English, tennis, riding, and geometry, Baskerville directed his students in a production of Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, taught a class on international law (informed by his courses at Princeton on jurisprudence and constitutional government taught by Woodrow Wilson, who was Princeton’s president at that time), and became increasingly interested in his students and their culture and politics.

The Persian Constitutional Revolution (Iran was commonly known as Persia, at least in the West, until the 1930s.) had begun about two years before Baskerville’s arrival in the country and eventually led to the establishment of an elected parliament (the majlis) and the hope for a new social and political order. The royalists fought back, however, and Muhammad Ali Shah, newly installed on the throne after his father’s death, closed the parliament, abridged many of the new freedoms, suppressed democratic forces, and executed many supporters of the constitution.

Tabriz was a central region of opposition to Muhammad Ali Shah and the royalists, who laid siege to the city, cutting off supplies from the outside. Baskerville, influenced by his Persian students and friends, became increasingly involved in supporting the constitutionalist effort.

According to a 2007 Princeton Alumni Weekly article, Baskerville was ready to die for the cause of constitutional liberty and the protection of the city of Tabriz. In April 1909, after 10 months of siege, Tabriz was still surrounded by royalist forces and running out of food and medical supplies. On April 20, while leading a scouting force searching for breaks in the city walls, Baskerville was shot and killed by a sniper’s bullet.

Thousands of mourners lined the streets as his coffin, covered with 16 floral wreaths,was carried to the cemetery.

Shahyad Tower (later Azadi Tower), Tehran. Supporters of Ayatollah Khomeini hold a demonstration in Iran during the Islamic Revolution of 1979.

Baskerville Remembered

A telegram sent from Persian constitutionalist leaders to Baskerville’s parents in Minnesota read as follows: “Persia much regrets honorable loss of your dear son in the cause of liberty, and we give our parole that future Persia will always revere his name in her history like Lafayette and will respect his venerable tomb.”

A memorial tablet was later placed on Baskerville’s grave, containing a verse written by Aref Qazvini, the national poet of Iran in the early 20th century:

“Oh, thou, the revered defender of the freedom of men,

Brave leader and supporter of justice and equity,

Thou hast given thy life for the felicity of Iran,

O, may thy name be eternal, may thy soul be blessed.”

The memory of Baskerville lives on in Iran, with several schools in Tabriz and elsewhere in the country still named for him. His portrait and a large bronze bust are displayed at Constitution House in Tabriz, alongside a report on the story of the 1909 conflict.

Stephen Kinzer, writing in Politico two years ago on the eve of the nuclear accord between Iran and the U.S., along with five other countries and the European Union, noted, “History has largely forgotten the sacrifice of Howard Baskerville, but it has new resonance as our two countries move toward ending their long hostility.”

That resonance may be even greater today as the nuclear accord seems to be in jeopardy, after President Trump’s recent refusal to re-certify the agreement. Kinzer’s subsequent comments about Baskerville are perhaps even more timely and appropriate now than they were two years ago.

“Now is the ideal time to rediscover him,” Kinzer wrote. “His blood sealed a tie between Americans and Iranians who believe in freedom. Recalling Baskerville’s sacrifice thus should pull our two countries back toward the path of cooperation, pluralist democracy, and mutual respect.”

Research and Teaching about Iran 

In 2012, following in the spirit of Baskerville, two Princeton alumni made a $10 million gift to create the Sharmin and Bijan Mossavar-Rahmani Center for Iran and Persian Gulf Studies at Princeton University.

In commenting on the gift, Sharmin Mossavar-Rahmani, chief investment officer of the Private Wealth Management Group at Goldman Sachs and a 1980 Princeton graduate, said, “We hope that through its mission of scholarship and teaching, this Center will build on the legacy of Baskerville and that of so many other Princetonians in bringing people and places closer together.” Bijan Mossavar-Rahmani, her husband, an oil and gas executive and a 1974 Princeton graduate, added, “Baskerville is still revered by Iranians who remember also the Princeton connection—a connection that drew me to this University more than 40 years ago.”

The Mossavar-Rahmanis grew up and completed their high school education in Iran before moving to the United States. They are now living in New York City.

The Mossavar-Rahmani Center, seeking a comprehensive interdisciplinary approach to understanding Iran and the Persian Gulf, supports teaching and research on Iran and Persian Gulf studies, addressing the history, politics, society, economics, religion, literature, art, and culture of the region.

Challenges in the Current Political Climate

Fostering understanding and a positive relationship between the United States and Iran, however, raises significant challenges in the context of the contemporary political environment in which the United States may withdraw from the 2015 nuclear agreement; war in Syrian, battles against the Islamic State, and other conflicts in the Middle East make Iran an occasional ally but more often an adversary; and a Princeton University graduate student conducting research for his dissertation has recently been imprisoned in Iran with a 10-year sentence for espionage.

John Haldon, Princeton University history professor and director of the Mossavar-Rahmani Center, commented on the importance of “trying to understand the Iranian perspective from outside in the whole context of the nuclear question. One tries as an historian to see both sides of the picture. It’s very apparent that there’s a lot of misunderstanding, certainly at the senior levels in the U.S. government, about the nature of Middle East culture and politics.”

Pointing out the role of the Center in “explaining that different world to North Americans,” Haldon cited the need to to make the Middle East seem “less strange, less foreign, less scary. People automatically respond “purely from the perspective of what they see from the outside, and in at least 50 percent of the cases that’s a misinterpretation of what the original action was intended to achieve.”

He continued, “Currently in the U.S. a lot of what is said at the top is for home, domestic consumption. But it goes out to people from all over the world, where it has a completely different impact.”

Describing the difficulties involved in interpreting the words of politicians, particularly across cultures, Haldon spoke about the role of scholars and educators. “We have to try and illuminate the ways in which Iranian political and economic attitudes and public utterances operate at home in Iran and in other localities in the Middle East and how they resonate beyond that and what they actually signify. When an Iranian foreign minister makes a provocative statement about the enemies of the Islamic Republic, is this saber rattling? Or just to please the local Iranian audience, which like the United States is factionally divided along political lines? Politicians have to bear in mind what their constituency thinks about what they say.

“Iran is not a dictatorship. It’s a democratic society, with a very robust parliamentary system, but it doesn’t work like Britain or France or the U.S. It’s a different form of democratic structure with socio-cultural assumptions about democracy and how it works. We need to understand that, and we need to understand how Iranians see the world and respond to it.”

People jumping at Azadi Tower on the International Day of Peace, which is observed annually on September 21. Photo by Vahid Takro.

Comprehending the Complexity

Nura Hossainzadeh, a lecturer on one-year appointment in the Near East Studies Department teaching a course on modern Iran and a seminar entitled “Liberalism, Democracy, and Islamic Thought,” expressed the hope that her courses “will discourage students from seeing Iran as the ‘other,’ but instead enable them to comprehend the complexity of Iranian society and history and notice the ways in which intellectual ideas and even the emotions and sensitivities of Iranians are similar to our own.”

She went on to note, however, that “the aim is not to paper over our differences, but to learn to engage with alien ideas—whether it be theories of Islamic government or criticisms of Western interference in the domestic politics of Iran—in a more informed manner.”

Hossainzadeh, who grew up in this country with an Iranian father and American mother, graduated from Harvard as a government major in 2006, then moved to Qom, Iran, enrolling in an all-female Islamic seminary studying Islamic political thought before returning to the United States to earn her Ph.D. in political science at UC Berkeley. She is currently working on a book, a revision and expansion of her doctoral dissertation, that will explore the political works and theory of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.

Noting the widespread misunderstandings and the difficulties for Iranians and Americans to relate positively with each other, Hossainzadeh said, “What I hope to contribute through my scholarship and my teaching are discussions of Islamic thought that might help to contribute to a better understanding between the two countries. It’s hard for Iranians to come here, especially recently with Trump’s executive immigration order, and also it’s hard for Americans to go there. There’s just generally a fear of going there.”

With the students in her classes the goal, she said, “is to understand the diversity of political opinion and political theories in Iran as a way of better understanding Iran and how best to engage with Iranians.”

Hossainzadeh discussed the opportunities in Islamic studies at Princeton through the Near Eastern Studies Department, the Mossavar-Rahmani Center and elsewhere.  “It’s unique the extent to which at Princeton there seems to be an effort to promote awareness and understanding of Iran. There seem to be a lot of Iran-related events here, whether it’s on the history of Iran, pre-modern Iran, or contemporary Iran.”

She concluded, “In broader terms, wars are started at least partly on the basis of fear and misunderstanding. The more you know about other countries the less likely you are to fear them based on reasons that may or may not be accurate. It’s great that Princeton is promoting Iranian studies to make sure that we all have a more accurate picture of what Iran is and the ideas that are circulating in contemporary Iran.”

Haldon discussed the work of the Mossavar-Rahmani Center and its expanding presence at Princeton. “Our mission is to act as a hub within the United States to focus interest on Iranian matters, whether they’re historical, socio-economic, political, or diplomatic. We hope to support more Iranian faculty positions, more language teaching, more postdocs, more visiting scholars and other people who would contribute to studying Iran and helping people more broadly understand the situation there.”

Haldon suggested that the 2018-19 school year may see a series of short-term, high-profile appointments at Princeton, people with international diplomatic interests connected with Iran, perhaps from the State Department or the United Nations.

“Not just academics and intellectuals,” Haldon said. “We want to bring people to campus who have something to say about Iranian-U.S. relations, for example, or the role of Iran in the Middle East and the wider world.”

The Center is now looking towards a new senior appointment in Iranian studies, an Iranian expert to lead it into its second five years. “We already have an international reputation,” said Haldon, who plans to retire at the end of this academic year. “People know about us. We have a busy schedule of talks and seminars. We support a lot of campus activities and our own visiting researchers both in the U.S. and internationally when they go to conferences or do research abroad.”

Learning about Iran, developing that understanding aspired to through the teaching and scholarship of Haldon and Hossainzadeh; through the work of the Mossavar-Rahmani Center, the Near Eastern Studies Department, and other Iran studies initiatives at Princeton; may never be more important than it is right now, though one might still find initial inspiration in Howard Baskerville, who set out for Tabriz 110 years ago to learn about the culture of Iran.


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