Excerpts from Johanna Sterbin interview with Professor David N. Rahni:
Johanna Sterbin: I thank you for sitting with me for this forum. The Iran-U.S. impasse seems to be entering a critical stage. The current situation places a heavy burden on the shoulders of the influential patriotic Iranian-Americans by advocating for what is the interest of the American people in the context of our constitution, while helping to safeguard the historical integrity and sovereignty of their mother country, Iran. It is in that spirit that I ask you to first provide a synopsis of your personal life and then share your perspectives about the U.S. attitude towards Iran?
David Rahni: First I wanted to thank you for providing the opportunity to share my perspectives, on Iran, the U.S. and the Iranian-Americans, with your readers. Although aspiring to remain an independent global scholar with broad science and education acumen, I should hasten to emphasize that I am neither a political scientist nor am I politically inclined toward any ulterior motives, except to yearn for a more just and peaceful world. What I share herein is, therefore, perspectives as a humble world citizen. In particular, I envisage the long-term aspirations American and Iranian peoples as complementary and not contradictory.
Born in Dezashib Shemiran north of Tehran in the late 50’s, I grew up in Evin. My parents, who still live there, are of Natanzi heritage, the same township in central Iran that has recently been the epicenter of much heated discussions and political rhetoric about its alleged nuclear enrichment infrastructure. Sleepy Natanz, stretching from the foothills of its 4200 meter high Karkas Mountain to the Great Desert with moving sand dunes, its most unique large sumptuous mouth watering pears called Shah-miveh aka Tohfeh Natanz, and other fruit orchards of pomegranates, figs, grapes, quince, apricots, almonds and walnuts, its many natural Kaisers, springs and Qanats, its still standing Zoroastrian temples alongside Islamic mosques such as the one in Abyaneh, and its multiple Middle Pahlavi Persian dialects, is regarded as one of the oldest cradles of the Iranian civilization. How could such a unique place with authentic original pre-Islamic names of its seventy historical villages and hamlets, like Oushteh, afoushteh, sereshk, rahan, jazan, arjeh, telepaal, saraban, dar-hole’, bagheba’, tameh, kandes, oureh, bidhand, barz, khafr, badyoun, moughar, veshveshad, tar, targh, yarand, badroud, abyazan, zavareh, delavan, kashk-khaneh, kesheh and henjen and its many Zoroastrian temple mounds such as Gonbez-e Baz, go so wrong to become vulnerable for annihilation as an irrational prelude to an apocalyptic Armageddon?! It concerns me gravely to witness its current terms of endearments by all sides where only the local inhabitants and its most unique oasis ecosystem are to be the major victims in the aftermath. Anyhow, I am pleased to inform you of my forthcoming memoir titled, “FROM NATANZ TO NEW YORK: The Odyssey of an Ordinary Persian Wanderer!” This life story, a life reflection of many Iranians my age who emigrated to the West, is narrated in the cultural and socio-political contexts of the past half-century in Iran and the Middle East, then in Europe and the Americas.
After emigrating to the U.S. a few months after the 1979 Iranian revolution to complete my (post-) doctoral studies in chemistry at the University of New Orleans, I have served as a chemistry professor in New York since the mid 80’s. Like most immigrants, especially the Iranian-Americans who have found themselves between a rock and a hard place, tangled with the dichotomy of political web between the two governments of Iran and the U.S., I have striven to have a humble positive impact toward our and the broader American communities in the past nearly thirty years (hundreds of writing essays and prose are among the outcomes), while serving in additional professional affiliations. Although not a lawyer, dermatologist or neuro-psycho-pharmacologist, I have, nonetheless, served in adjunct professorships in all, yielding a recent book on Bioimaging in Neurodegeneration anchored on over a rather prolific publication list. Both my spouse and I are therefore educators for life with three children, two sons in college majoring in medicine and psychology-management, and a daughter in middle school. Although our families are by and large in Iran, we now have relatives scattered in every continent. My portfolio can be reviewed at www.DrRahni.com
I love the U.S. with its many opportunities and the can-do, pioneering and optimistic attitude to life and remain a staunch advocate for the integration of many of the good aspects of western culture with selective reformed aspects of Eastern, particularly the Iranian culture. American culture nurtures individual rights and freedoms of choice, aspiration to excellence and industry, and predictability in one’s life. In comparison, Iranian culture is family-centered, enhances one’s state of mind and spirit with its long history, esthetic literature, and a sense of belonging to one of the oldest and richest civilizations. My own life is anchored on these two complementary pillars, since I don’t see any conflict between the two. In fact, I envisage the tranquil lives of Iranian-Americans as a convergence of the two cultures. At this juncture in my life and perhaps like many of the other 75 million Iranians, 3+ million of whom are in the western Diaspora, with one million living in the U.S. alone, we envisage a homegrown independent democracy in our homeland that is anchored on educational, civil society, grassroots, cultural and religious reforms, as well as socio-economic justice and equity. In fact, one could argue for the same utopian model for the entire region, which is now viewed convolutedly as the “Middle East.” Paradoxically, the increasing interventions by the west and the U.S. in the region, viewed as an expansionist Roman Empire revisited, has only impeded such indigenous movements of reforms in the region by justifying the more radical elements to be the only melancholic force in the scene. As to our lives in the U.S., we very much anticipate fully-empowered integration into the Western way of life for the family. It is quite disheartening to note that while the most important topics of concerns for the us the Americans are domestic, namely, the economy, high taxes and jobs, education and healthcare, environment and energy, crime and corporate and community welfare, and lobbying and political reform, most of our resources, currently close to a trillion dollars are spent on military adventurism, and unilateral pre-emptive wars of no ends.
We also expect that the U.S. retains the admiration and respect in the international community, as so many of us extended respect toward the U.S. as we grew up elsewhere. The present situation of the so called, pre-emptive unilateral military intervention and economic bottlenecking of the region is alarming and disconcerting since we know of the many American ideals and noble intentions of the American people. By the time a certain foreign policy, increasingly preceded by the military might is carried out with our taxes, and under our American name and lives, the whole outcome deviates detrimentally against us, and away from our original good intent. Deja Vu it is as if where the European colonialist powers, circa 15th through 19th century, failed, the U.S. has now picked up after it. This has repeatedly occurred since the Second World War, but has intensified after September 11, 2001 when 3000 innocent civilians were killed. In retrospect, this has been become the justification for an ill-conceived policy. All in all, habeas corpus and due process under American civil law and justice for our citizens is on the back burner, while our image and credibility worldwide has steadily been tarnished to our long-term detriment and has diminished the Nation’ opportunities in the international scene. The immigrant communities from the Middle East and South Asia, especially those descended from Iran, feel particularly under scrutiny and surveillance; they are systematically denied employment and business equal opportunities due to their national origin. Ironically, there has never been even one allegation of a terrorist act by an Iranian national in Europe, in the U.S. or anywhere against Americans. The American political rhetoric will also lead to repression of the basic human rights in Iran as evidenced, for instance by the current arrest of five Iranian-Americans there with no due process whatsoever.
JS: You cited Iran as your country of birth. Could you please tell us a bit more about your personal life and Iran?
DN: My father is a retired school staff and my mother has been a 24/7 life-long loving mom for six, caring grandmother for fifteen, and affectionate great grand mom for four! After I completed my undergraduate studies in chemistry at the National University of Iran and married a classmate, we emigrated to the U.S. first to complete our doctoral studies and then ended up permanently staying in the U.S. after the 1979 revolution. Iran or Persia as it was called for millennia by outsiders and westerners until 1935 when Reza Shah Pahlavi who had earlier been installed by the British on the Peacock throne, changed the name to read exactly as it was referred to in the native Persian language, Iran. It is an historical country with twenty-five hundred years of governance, and ten thousand years in the making. Persians/Iranians are distant Aryan relatives of all the other Aryan tribes that went west from central Asia as far back as 10,000-20,000 years ago. In fact, the word IRAN means the land of the Aryans; in Middle Pahlavi, the old word is ??r, the precursor to Aryan, the Indo-European Paleo-language (The same is also true for Ireland, which also means the land of the Aryans). Today’s Iran, has at most, over 50% Persian Aryans. It also has Azaris and Kurds (of Mede Iranian stock), Balucchis, and even an Arab minority, although almost all Iranians broadly speaking, consider themselves Iranians/Persians and not Arabs. Nonetheless, this by no means should be construed as being racially motivated, since they regard the Arabs and Jews (both of whom consider Abraham their patriarch) as distinct from them, alongside their western neighbors with their own heritage and noble cultural traditions. Persian, as a distinct Indo-European language, is still spoken or understood by nearly two hundred million people in Iran, Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, the Kurds (in Iran, Iraq, and Turkey), Azerbaijan, and most of the central Asian republics.
The first monotheistic Gnosticism, based on Mithraism was actually founded in Iran. However, after the advent of Islam in Iran, there was a synthesization of the two Arab and Persian cultures through the medium of religion. And yet, both cultures remained distinct, as well. Iranians, who later adopted Shiism, believe in the succession of Prophet Mohammad through his daughter Fatima his daughter’s lineage and that of her husband Ali, and twelve Imams that followed; Mohammad had no son and Ali was his cousin. On the other hand, the Sunnis believed in a council to decide who the next successor to the Prophet was, which led to Abu-bakr, Omer, Osman and finally Ali. Islam was very appealing to the Iranian masses who were by and large the serfs. It was the first sovereign country to be overrun by the second caliph, Omer who said, “Throw away the cast system, as we are all equal and thus the same before God.” It is said Omer was later assassinated by an Iranian nationalist Firuzan aka Abu Lulu, presumably of Zoroastrian faith turned under pressure Moslem slave, who is buried in Kashan, Iran. Iran, despite repeated invasions, occupations, and meddling by the Greeks, the Arabs, the Mongols, the British, The Russians, and the Americans, has been miraculously able to preserve its cultural heritage and identity.
JS: Could you provide us with a perspective about modern Iran and how that ties to her past?
DR: Modern Iran has struggled for true independence and democracy for almost 200 years now. The struggle has been exacerbated with the discovery of oil and natural resources in Iran, which has, in turn, enticed the western powers to intervene in the affairs of the country. On the other hand, the internal political powers in the region have exploited this as an excuse to repress any realistic and sustainable level of socio-political reform. So, improvements in women’s rights, children’s rights, minority rights, worker’s rights, etc. are still lagging. Compared to other newer nations (Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and the U.A.E.) of the region, however, Iran is much more advanced as whole society.
The Iranian people are generally tolerant as that has been noted in their way of life since Cyrus the Great of the Achaemenids (circa 2500 years ago) wrote it in the first Declaration of Human Rights (on display at the UN in N.Y.C.) thirteen hundred years earlier than Magna Carta. Perspolis, the first Iranian capital, manifest such glory. The Iranians have never had massacres as others had in their history despite racial and ethnic tensions at times. In Tehran, while I was growing up, we lived in peace alongside Jews, Moslems, Zoroastrians, Armenians and Assyrian Christians, Baha’is, and Azeris, Kurds, Lurs, Guilanis, etc.; we all knew one another simply as “Irani”. We were never conscious of our ethnic and/or religious diversities as so many people in the west.
On the Iranian plateau, there is historical evidence as well as archaeological artifacts excavated from as far back as ten thousand years ago. For instance, a chess set in Share sookhteh, Zabol east of Iran, and pottery for brewing and many more in northwestern Iran of 9500 years ago (now in the Smithsonian Museum) have been found. And yet, the Aryan tribes (the Medes, the Persians and the Parthians) are said to have only arrived from Central Asia, east of the Caspian Sea, as recently as 3500 years ago!
JS: The relationship between Iran and the U.S. changed in 1953 when the C.I.A. organized a coup against Dr. Mossadegh. How and why?
DR: Two Americans, Howard Baskerville and Morgan Shuster in the mid-to-late nineteenth century, who were actively participating in the reform and struggle for modernization and democracy in Iran, just typifies the long healthy relationship between the two peoples. They are revered by the Iranians as “Iranian” vanguards of freedoms and humanitarianism. Later, there were Americans such as Harvard’s Arthur Pope, the Iranologist buried alongside Zayandeh Rood in Isfahan as per his will and his living legendary protégé Richard Nelson Fry aka Irandoost of Harvard, a grand old man with a wry wit and an affable disposition. They carefully and sensibly portrayed the Iranian culture and history and the role Iranians have played in civilization as a whole. The constitutional monarchy of 1906 and its modern Constitution, was a combination of Belgian and French legal provisions, and Iranian national and Islamic values. The first article specified that Kingship was a symbolic position (similar to today’s UK), and, as such, would never interfere in politics. And yet the Pahlavi Kings (the Mohammad Reza Shah and his father, Reza) trampled this noble constitution and ran the country as their own God-bestowed property and the citizens as their serfs! It is true that as Iran quasi-modernized, a middle class and technocrats emerged, and the general education of the people was enhanced. However, violations of human and ethnic rights, lack of transparency in administration of the country, nepotism and cronyism, the increasing meddling of Americans in the running of the country, etc. never ended, and, in fact, increased, with internal puppets.
When Dr. Massadegh, a learned aristocratic descendent of the Qajar dynasty was elected as the Prime Minister by an overwhelming direct electoral vote and formed his cabinet, the Shah became quite apprehensive of losing power. After he fled the country to Italy via Iraq and Turkey, he was forced back against his will onto the Persian Peacock Throne allegedly by the American agents. and with American finances and the British blessing leading to the house arrest of Mossadegh for life, and the execution of his cabinet members. Although Madeline Albright, the former Secretary of States during President Clinton’s administration finally acknowledged the U.S. sponsored coup against the democratically elected government of Massadegh, and after the C.I.A. documents had been declassified and even appeared in four full pages in the New York Times, no one knows as to whether her apology was personal in scope or genuinely on behalf of the U.S. administration. After all, it is reported that 72 countries have been meddled with by the US policy since 1945. Steven Colbert draws comic tragedy parallels between the two governments.
JS: Are the feelings of the Iranian people today still influenced by the anger and the bitter memories of the coup of 1953? Or is it rather more a propaganda tool of the current Iranian government?
DR: The C.I.A. declassified 1953 Coup documents are available now. As alluded to earlier, the N.Y. Times, several years ago, ran the story of the entire American government tightly held documentation on C.I.A. Operation Ajax. The west, then led by U.S. post- World War II expansionism, had now replaced British hegemony in the region, and was, in essence, representing the multinational oil conglomerates, and not happy about Mossadegh’s nationalizing the Iranian oil and gas. When taken to the International Court in the Hague, Iran, defended by Mossadegh himself triumphed in such nationalization efforts. That led to a domino effect of oil nationalization in the entire region by other nations. Upon the Shah’s return to power, the C.I.A. helped him set up SAVAK, the Iranian secret police, nutritious for the torture and interrogation techniques and execution and assassination of political prisoners of conscience. Upon Americans directives, the Shah also implemented the “white revolution” in which land reform and other reform measures such as women’s voting rights were pursued.
Despite all this, however, the Iranians, as a whole, still feel a massive affinity with respect for the American people. This was evident by their spontaneous candlelight vigil ceremony sympathizing with the Americans in Tehran and other Iranian cities, after the September 11 attacks against civilians in US cities. The people of Iran as a whole have aspired to a homegrown and independent democracy and freedom that has its roots in the tolerant aspect of Iranian culture, whereby with educational, cultural and religious reforms and through transparent and objective processes and policies, justice and peace are served through equity. Most if not all people are against external intervention and meddling, such as seen in Afghanistan and Iraq. They aspire to “clean out the bath but not throw out the baby.”