Go to Columbia Web

Where to Find It

The Gulf 2000 Web is available on the Schools & Departments and Index pages of ColumbiaWeb.

Record Banner
 VOL. 23, NO. 20APRIL 10, 1998 

Contacts between Scholars Brings Hope for U.S.–Iran Reconciliation

Gary Sick


Five years ago when the Iran specialist Gary Sick established a research project at Columbia to study political and security issues in the Persian Gulf, he hoped to build a network of scholars in the United States and the Gulf region who would talk to one another about important developments—even while their governments remain in conflict.

  “There is no gulf-wide forum to engage regional specialists and research institutions in a systematic and prolonged dialogue,” said Sick, who was the chief White House aide for Iran during the 1979 Iranian Revolution and the American hostage crisis in Teheran. He is now senior research scholar and executive director of Gulf 2000, the research project sponsored by the School of International and Public Affairs and supported by the W. Alton Jones, Rockefeller and MacArthur Foundations.

  Much like the well-known Dartmouth conferences between Americans and Soviets during the Cold War, a Gulf-wide network of scholars could be expected over time to bridge the chasm of distrust between the United States and Iran, which have had no diplomatic relations for nearly 20 years, Sick said.

  Suddenly, within the last six months, there have been signs that Sick’s goal of an academic network between the Gulf region and the United States may be closer to reality and that U.S.–Iranian estrangement may be at an end.

   “When we started, nobody was considering anything like this,” said Sick. “We had the territory completely to ourselves. Now, there’s a real blossoming of this kind of activity.”

  A clear breakthrough came in January when President Mohammed Khatemi called for renewed exchanges of scholars, writers, artists and journalists between the United States and Iran.

  In response, Sick invited 100 key representatives of universities, foundations, non-governmental organizations, health and relief agencies, cultural, religious and business organizations, and others with interests in Iran to Columbia last Wednesday for a day-long discussion of how private groups can resume activities in Iran, even though Iran continues to refuse to hold talks with the U.S. government. Most of these groups either abandoned altogether or severely curtailed their activities in Iran following the severing of U.S.–Iranian relations in 1979.

  Sick emphasized that the conference was intended to build and expand unofficial contacts between the United States and Iran and was not a forum for discussing the politics of U.S.–Iranian relations. Still, he was encouraged that both the Iranian Mission to the United Nations (Iran has no embassy in the United States) and the State Department sent representatives to the conference—signs that the two countries are moving, however cautiously, toward a more positive framework for future relations.

  Participants represented the Ford Foundation, the Center for Contemporary Arab Studies and the Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown, Harvard Medical School, Princeton, Internews, Human Rights Watch, the Carnegie Corp., PEN American Center, the Mennonite Central Committee, the United States Information Agency, the United Nations Association and Morgan Stanley.

  At the opening session, Sick said: “The question today is: Is it safe to go back in the water? Can we imagine that a new start can be made with Iran? I think the answer is yes.”

  Professor Mahmood Sariolghalam of Teheran, who this year is a visiting professor at Ohio State University, said studying in the United States is “the number one priority” for Iranian students seeking master’s degrees and Ph.D’s. But because of the difficulties involved in gaining permission to study in the United States, Iranian students have opted instead to study in Great Britain primarily and in Canada and Australia.

  Ambassador Roscoe Suddarth, president of the Middle East Institute in Washington, D.C., said “the Khatemi phenomenon” has piqued interest in Iran in both official Washington and among private policy analysts. He said while there is no official contact between Tehran and Washington, “the Iranians are certainly talking frankly to people” at conferences and other occasions.

  Sick believes rapprochement between the United States and Iran will naturally flow from the kinds of exchanges that Khatemi has endorsed. Educational and cultural groups have had a number of recent successes. A Mennonite group has established a working relationship with the Iranian Red Crescent, the equivalent of the Red Cross, and Search for Common Ground, which helped organize a U.S. wrestling team to compete in an international event in Teheran in February, the first U.S. sporting or cultural exchange in Iran since the hostage crisis, is planning a second event, an Iranian-American film festival.

  Chris Stevens, a State Department official, said there has already been an increase in requests for visas for Iranian visitors sponsored by American organizations. “It is United States policy to encourage people-to-people exchanges between the two countries,” Stevens said. “We believe this is valuable.”

   The State Department issued a new but softer warning on travel to Iran last week. Instead of warning categorically against it, the document urges Americans to defer travel.