Why Iran? Reflections On An Academic Passion

On December 23, I defended my Master’s Thesis. The document itself, though it took six months to write, was six years in the making. For six years, I had planned on writing my at-one-point-distant thesis on Iranian domestic politics, and the sense of accomplishment I enjoyed after completing my defense was unlike anything I’ve experience before. I ended my time in academia by putting forth and defending my own perspective on a country that has become very near and dear to me, despite my never having visited. My entire academic career centered around the Islamic Republic of Iran, and I’d like to tell you why.

“Why Iran?” is a question I’ve been asked numerous times since I was 19 and first delivered a speech on then-President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Particularly during my tenure as one of the local tattooed baristas in my small hometown, many were surprised to learn my bookshelves were lined with Iranian political histories. I get that a smiley young woman who grew up in the middle of a cornfield is not what comes to mind when someone says, “Iranian politics.” Although it occasionally makes the hair stand on the back of my neck, I can appreciate the question given my usually goofy way of presenting myself.

Nonetheless, at age 19 I started devouring anything I could get my hands on related to Iranian affairs. Ahmadinejad’s 2007 visit to Columbia University sparked my interest and inspired me to buy anything on Iran at the local Walden’s Books. I haven’t stopped reading since, working my way through the timeline of major Iranian political events. Although I’ve never taken a formal class on Iran, I worked diligently to use every opportunity to write papers on Iranian politics and international relations as a means to have some feedback on my growing understanding. I gave speeches and wrote long papers, becoming known as an Iran aficionado around the PoliSci department at my alma mater.

But why? Well, my instinctive answer is, “Why aren’t you interested in Iran?” There has never been a moment when Iran isn’t in the news since I started reading up on the country, and there likely never will be in my lifetime. For that reason, beginning intensive study of Iran seemed like a smart bet when it came to future career prospects.

It’s more than that, though. When I started reading about Iran, my understanding was embarrassingly basic. I knew nothing, to put it simply. But what I found was engrossing. A complex political system, a history of empire and revolution, and internal debate swirling as factions seek influence were just a few of the things that caught my imagination. Iran is a country that never bores and often surprises, and the meager understanding I’ve been able to cultivate over the years gives me a great deal of pride.

When I chose my thesis topic, Iran was gearing up for the first presidential election since the 2009 protests, which had many heralding the end of the theocratic regime. It was a stressful time, watching and waiting to see what happened. But when I chose my thesis topic, I decided to write one final document that summed up what had been the central theme through everything I had argued, wrote and explained in the past six years. I chose to argue that Iran is more complex than many give credit for, and that the political system has been on a road towards democracy since 1900, albeit with numerous internal and external hurdles.

Although now many are saying the same thing, it felt brave to put that idea forth before the election took place. In the end, the election of moderate cleric Hassan Rouhani strengthened my hypothesis rather than torpedo it, and as my defense came closer I was relieved to see that my entire thesis was in line with a great deal of the dominant scholarship on Iran. The experience really hammered home why I poured hours upon hours into understanding a distant country I have never seen firsthand: Iran is not a monolith, nor is Islam, and being able to make that case has a part to play in building a more peaceful future.

That is why I spent six years reading about, explaining the nuance of, and writing papers on Iranian politics. In my opinion, there are few things better for humanity and easier to accomplish than truly dedicating yourself to understanding another culture or country, building a foundation of knowledge and sharing it with anyone around you to bring down longstanding walls on a person-to-person basis. As much as I love writing in depth analysis of Iranian events, I love even more being able to explain something that’s little understood to someone in my life and see the, “Huh? I wouldn’t have expected that,” moment when Iran becomes a little less scary and a little more relatable. There was a time, though hopefully behind us, when those moments felt key to preventing war. Now, I get to enjoy using my years of study to make a very complex situation a little more accessible, and that alone makes all the hours well worth the work that went into them.

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Bridey
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  • I love this. I work as a barista at a coffee shop owned by Iranians who left during the Iranian Revolution in the early 80s. I read Persepolis in college, but that’s all I knew about the history of the country. Now I’m pretty obsessed, as well. Do you have any suggestions for introductory books, articles, or papers on the subject that would give me a good overview?

    • Hi there! I think my comment got eaten by the internet, so let me try to repost! I would recommend Hooman Majd’s books. His father was a diplomat under the Shah and he’s related by marriage to a number of Reformist politicians in country, including former President Khatami. His book “The Ayatollah Begs To Differ” is a great introduction to the politics and culture of Iran today, and his latest book is about the year he and his American wife (and one year old son) spent living in Tehran. His books are highly enjoyable and have a great deal of information, particularly as he is able to get access to high ranking officials on a regular basis.

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