America and Iran: Wrestling with Ghosts

May 20, 2013

One of the very few feel-good stories in the recent history of U.S.-Iranian relations came to an unexpectedly abrupt end last week, when Iranian authorities cut short a series of wrestling exhibition matches in the United States. The first round, held in New York last Wednesday, drew large, boisterous crowds and buoyant media coverage, helping to animate a three-nation campaign (with Russia) to sustain wrestling as an Olympic sport and raise funds for youth wrestling programs. No sooner had the applause in New York died down, however, than Tehran opted to ditch a planned Los Angeles stop on the tour, and the Iranian wrestlers quickly returned to Tehran on Saturday.

So far, the rationale for the decision seems vague, and there are discrepancies between the statement of the exhibition’s American sponsor, USA Wrestling, and the official Iranian press agency’s rendition. News reports referenced Iranian concerns about security provisions, and rumors circulated of anticipated protests by members of the large Iranian diaspora living in Southern California. Whatever the explanation, the hasty truncation of the American-Iranian wrestling tour is unfortunate but not entirely unexpected. For all sunny sentiments associated with cultural diplomacy, managing the political and logistical complexities of people-to-people exchanges between such longstanding adversaries can be fraught with potential minefields.

I should know; as a graduate student in the late 1990s, I participated in several of the first academic exchange programs between the United States and the Islamic Republic of Iran. And I experienced first-hand the excitement as well as the issues that go along with such efforts. Thanks to funding from both governments and the coordination and contacts of the American Institute for Iranian Studies, I was able to study Persian at the Dehkhoda Institute in Tehran, travel widely throughout the country, and conduct research for my doctoral dissertation on Iran’s Foundation for the Oppressed and other parastatal organizations. Fumbling my way around a country that I had studied extensively but never visited was an amazing experience. Iranians treated me and my fellow American interlopers with the hospitality for which the country rightly used to be legendary and the curiosity that inevitably accompanies three decades of official estrangement.

However, I also came to appreciate how precarious these enterprises can be. The problem with people-to-people diplomacy is, well, the people. Amateur ambassadors can be mighty difficult to manage, particularly with the limited oversight of what are ultimately low-priority programs. Inserting a gaggle of grad students, or wrestlers or any of the other professional groups that have sought to overcome official estrangement through bilateral exchanges, creates endless opportunities for normal human interactions to explode into diplomatic incidents. I’ll never forget the combination of exhaustion and anxiety on the face of the one of the many Iranian handlers when a few Americans unexpectedly found ourselves in the midst of a gun battle between police and drug runners in the southeastern city of Kerman. We had arrived in Iran just as the regime unleashed its repression of the July 1999 student protests, and now this real-time brush with the country’s low-intensity drug war was just the kind of mess that could cost our minder his job and his future. “I am having a nervous breakdown,” he confessed as he alternated between tea and chain smoking.

I suspect that there are a number of program officers within the State Department who can sympathize. During the Bush Administration’s second term, then-Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs R. Nicholas Burns spurred a good-faith effort to expand educational and cultural exchanges with Iran. Artists, doctors, athletes and scientists from Iran crisscrossed America, sharing expertise and experience in subjects as diverse as earthquake science and engineering and AIDS treatment and education. Publicly, the programs often appeared to be blazingly successful in their stated goal of enhancing mutual understanding between Americans and Iranians. Behind the scenes, however, the story was often more complicated, thanks to Tehran’s paranoid conviction that these innocuous opportunities were the leading edge of a Washington-sponsored ‘soft revolution.’ A number of Iranians who participated in these exchanges found their passports seized or their professional advancement threatened; some feared returning home, and several were ultimately imprisoned after permitting their stories to be featured prominently in a major American newspaper.

I believe deeply in the mission and purpose of people-to-people exchanges. What little I understand about contemporary Iranian politics is grounded in the months I spent there over the course of 1998 and 1999, as well as the skills, contacts, and subsequent opportunities to visit Iran that I acquired as a direct result of that early immersion. Surely, the benefits for my fellow American participants— as well as the hundreds of Iranians who have been able to interact with their professional counterparts in the United States— have been at least as meaningful.

Still, people-to-people diplomacy is no substitute for official diplomacy, and it frequently offers as much complication as illumination. Back in 1999, my fretful Iranian minder won an early reprieve when our exchange program was unexpectedly curtailed upon the order of the State Department. A call from the Swiss ambassador, whose embassy serves as the protecting power of Americans in the absence of official relations, initiated a flurry of bureaucratic maneuvers to hasten our departure, and a few days later we were gone. I subsequently heard a range of rumors explaining the episode, including one focused around the efforts of the Clinton administration to establish back-channel cooperation with then-President Mohammad Khatami on counterterrorism efforts. Whatever the truth, nothing ever came of that initiative, and fourteen years later, the wrestlers’ unfortunately early exit underscores the steep obstacles that remain in bridging the American-Iranian divide.