Iranian-American Discusses Global Politics in Columbus
This is the second in a series of interviews in conjunction with “The Time and The Temperature,” an art project created for the Finding Time public art series in Columbus. “The Time and The Temperature” consists of a custom-made roadside sign (similar to ones you see in front of businesses, churches, and schools throughout America) that tells the live time and temperature in Tehran, Iran, a city that seems geographically distant, yet is in the news on a daily basis.
The project has been a catalyst for conversations throughout Columbus on the topic of U.S./Iranian relations and through this series of interviews we hope to dig deeper into a variety of personal perspectives on the issue from folks living in the city and beyond.
The interviews are being conducted in a pass-the-baton style progression. The first interview was conducted by Columbus Underground editor Walker Evans with me, I then conducted the second interview (below) with local Iranian-American Pirouz Shoar, Pirouz will then conduct the next interview, and so on. If you want to join the conversation please feel free to respectfully add your comments below.
Jon Rubin: Tell me about how you happened to leave Iran? What was college and professional life like in the U.S. after already finishing a degree in Iran?
Pirouz Shoar: My wife and I came to this country in the summer of 1977 on a scholarship from the Ministry of Higher Education. I also had the financial support of the newspaper I used to work for.
We landed in New York City, spent a couple of weeks in Long Island with my uncle, took a bus from Port Authority and headed to Syracuse University, where I was admitted to the graduate program in journalism. For seven years, Syracuse became home away from home as we learned and adapted to the American way of life.
I met my wife, Shahin, in college in Iran. I was a couple of years her senior; we married the year I graduated and a few months later, I started my two year military service. In the meantime, Shahin also finished school and entered the graduate program at Tehran University. By the time I started the military service; I was a pretty well-known sports writer and reporter and had covered many international sporting events. While in college, I worked for the Kayhan Group of Newspapers, one of the two major publishing companies in Iran, with its evening daily and a number of specialized magazines including a sports weekly, Kayhan Varzeshi, for which I worked. During the service, I became the manager of Khuzestan’s youth soccer team (Khuzestan is Iran’s oil province in southwest and soccer is the most popular sport there) which won a major international cup. This work and the title turned out to be my ticket to the West. Among many offers for employment, I chose the scholarship which was offered to me to get my doctorate in the U.S. and return to an editorial job at the paper and teaching at my alma mater.
We spent about two years in London, England before coming to the states. We studied English and took the necessary tests like GRE to get admission to a respectable journalism program in America. The acceptable list for the Ministry included Columbia, Missouri, St. Paul, Minnesota and Syracuse, New York. With no school from the West coast, East coast sounded better than Midwest!
I had finished my Masters in journalism in the summer of 1978 when the demonstrations against the Shah’s regime gathered momentum and things started to change faster than we could imagine. The Shah’s regime was toppled in February 1979 and by May the newspaper I worked for was taken over by the Islamist revolutionaries. With no work to go back to, I entered the graduate program in International Relations and after getting another master’s degree, I returned to Newhouse for Ph.D. in mass communications. By the time I finished my doctorate, Iran had entered a long and bloody war with Iraq and the revolutionary government had shut down the universities for filtering non-loyal elements and launching a cultural revolution. Going back to Iran proved difficult: with two children and no job prospects in Iran, we finally decided that America should be our adopted home.
Despite the difficulties, we both worked our way out of the school. Shahin worked for a bookstore, and I worked as graduate assistant, with some stipend and free tuition. America was very generous in supporting us; even during the ill-famed hostage crisis, we did not experience any hostility in the sheltered academic environment.
After a few odd jobs, I finally got a teaching position at SUNY-Plattsburgh. We visited Iran, 12 years after arriving in the US and a few days after Khomeini’s death.
Jon Rubin: What do you see as similarities and differences between Persian and American culture? Has that changed for you over the years? How do your children relate to Iran and their Persian heritage after growing up in America?
Pirouz Shoar: Of course it is difficult to generalize American or Iranian culture with all their diversities. Nonetheless, if I want to single out one feature of American culture, I would have to say it is “individualism,” the notion of personal accountability and personal responsibility, with the individual fighting against adversity and pulling himself up with his shoestrings. This pretty much defines American character and combined with similar traits like adventure, risk, entrepreneurship is probably behind America’s rise and greatness. This notion has been idealized in the 19th century literature and reinforced by the 20th century Hollywood movies and now with our economic decline is being challenged in our social and political arenas.
If we look for an equally important characteristic of Iranian culture, I would have to say it is Iranian spirituality. After all, Iran has been the birthplace for many religions and its influence on Judaism and Christianity is well documented.
But where our two cultures meet is in the context of history and the notion of independence. Perhaps one can also point to the value of generosity in both cultures, more specifically in receiving a guest or helping a stranger. This is easily manifested in the American tradition of Thanksgiving and many similar ceremonies in Iranian culture.
Iran is a unique and well-defined civilization, which has existed within her present borders for over 3000 years. It has been invaded many times but because of the strength of her culture, she has assimilated the invading force and has turned them into Iranians. There are many ethnic and religious groups in Iran; yet all of them consider themselves Iranians.
This is not unlike American melting pot, where people of different ethnic backgrounds are assimilated into the larger American culture.
Like America, Iran has had its own problems with the colonial powers of Russia and Great Britain and has always stood for the underdog. America has always been a source of inspiration for Iranians in their fight against tyranny. During the constitutional revolution, Howard Baskerville, a young American teacher in the city of Tabriz, fought and died for the cause of freedom and democracy.
Iran and America have many common interests. In fact, from the end of the First World War and American entry into the world scene until the hostage crisis of 1979-80, America was the major source of diplomatic, military and humanitarian aid to Iran. It was because of American support and persistence that the Red Army left Iranian territory in 1945 and then it was American oil companies’ deals in Saudi Arabia that inspired Iranian nationalists to seek a better deal from the British for Iranian oil in the early 1950s. Although the nationalist government of Dr. Mossadegh was eventually toppled in a joint British-American coup of 1953, Iran received a better deal from the oil consortium, which was formed and replaced the British monopoly over Iranian oil.
Today, the common interests are a safe and stable region and a trouble free Persian Gulf for the smooth shipping of oil; containing the conflict in Afghanistan from spilling to neighboring Pakistan and Iran while making American withdrawal easy; and as always, checking the Russian regional ambitions and reducing the increasing Europe’s dependence on Russian oil and gas. Despite these shared interests, there are serious conflicts that are not directly related to the nuclear issue. The fact is that Iran, because of her size, strategic location, young and highly educated population, wealth and power seeks a wider regional role and sphere of influence and hence challenges American dominance and interests in the region.
Jon Rubin: What sources do you use to follow life and politics in Iran?
Pirouz Shoar: There is a large and highly educated Iranian community in the states which follows the ups and downs of the US-Iran relationship closely and is served with many Iranian and international news channels. Let’s also don’t forget that Iran, despite its image in this country, is quite an open society where people easily travel in and out of the country and a good number of international media outlets are present. Besides the big media, there is internet and social media that despite government attempts to curtail, is widely used to exchange news.
As Iranian Americans, we are torn between two loyalties. We live, breathe and work here, we have raised a family here and our children are more American than Iranian. All our friends are here and yet Iran is where we grew up, where our personalities were shaped, where we have memories, connections and relatives. Our lives are enriched by both cultures and obviously in an unfortunate case of conflict it is humanly impossible to choose between a land which has raised you and land that feeds you. A recent poll (on April 18, commissioned by the Public Affairs Alliance of Iranian-Americans) showed that Iranian-Americans want the U.S. to put more effort into promoting democracy and human rights in Iran and they are almost unanimously opposed to regime change and military strikes against Iran’s nuclear facilities.
Jon Rubin: Have you experienced a shifting of attitudes towards Iranians and Iran over your years in the U.S.?
Pirouz Shoar: I feel Americans are really tired of military adventures overseas as the past two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have taken its toll on the weakened American economy and declining resources. Nonetheless, when it comes to foreign policy the media and along with it the public opinion are at the mercy of government initiatives. Public opinion on unobtrusive issues, like foreign policy, which most people don’t have first-hand experience with, can be easily shaped by government information, briefing, propaganda and leaks. Therefore, I don’t believe the American public has an informed and stable opinion of Iran. Obviously, years of negative coverage of Iran by the mainstream media has created a negative image, but if there need be this can change fast.
Jon Rubin: As someone who closely follows geopolitics, do you see a way out of the current impasse between the U.S. and Iran?
Pirouz Shoar: It is really difficult to see where this relationship is headed. The problem is the question of trust and intention. The Iranians feel that America’s intention is regime change in Tehran; they feel that enrichment is their right under international nuclear treaties and economic sanctions are a sign of America’s bullying tactics, and the more they give in the more aggressive U.S. demands will be. On the other hand, America doesn’t seem to buy Iran’s claim of peaceful and civilian nuclear program and does not like to breathe life to a regime with increasing unpopularity at home and isolation abroad. It seems certain that we will not see a breakthrough in the negotiations at least until after the Iranian presidential election this June. The extent of popular participation and the results of the elections may show how much will and mandate there is to find a way out of this impasse in the relationship.
Pirouz Shoar was a reporter for Kayhan, the largest daily newspaper in Iran, before the revolution and came to the States in 1977 on a scholarship from the Ministry of Higher Education. After graduation, he and his family were unable to return to their home country, for the newspapers were taken over by the revolutionaries and the universities were closed as a part of the so-called cultural revolution. Dr. Shoar has Masters degrees in Journalism and International Relations, and a Ph.D. in Mass Communications, all from Syracuse University. From 1985 to 1997 he was on the Faculty of SUNY-Plattsburgh and then Denison University, teaching courses in mass communication theory, journalism ethics, and media and foreign policy. Pirouz Shoar left academia in 1997 to start a business in Dublin, Ohio, where he and has family have lived since 1998.