I’m in Washington DC right now on the Off-Campus Studies Political Science Seminar. Three days of the week students in the seminar intern at various organizations–– the other two days of the week we go talks with folks who work in and around government. Internship days are usually pretty dull. For me, it’s eight hours on the computer writing abstracts. This can get pretty tedious pretty quickly. But the days we go hear speakers are usually pretty exciting. We’ve spoken with a Congressman on the floor of the House and argued quite voraciously with a former Assistant Secretary of State. One speaker in particular stands out though–– simply for the sheer novelty of the visit.
About two weeks ago we visited the Iranian Interests Section for lunch to speak with its Director, Dr. Mostafa Rahmani. (Note: Because the US has no official diplomatic relations with Iran, Iran has an Interests Section in the US and not an embassy to provide consular services to Iranian citizens. Likewise, the US has an Interests Section in Tehran.) I had pretty high expectations. For some reason, I was sure that the Director was going to neatly dispel my previously-made assumptions about Iran. Half an hour in, I realized that the Director was only going to reinforce my assumptions. Whenever he was asked a challenging question, he’d pull the escape hatch and blame the Zionist media for planting some fabricated cover story. Why were the protests in Tehran after the presidential elections in 2009 violently squashed? Why did the Iranians attempt to assassinate the Saudi Ambassador to the United States? Each question we asked was parried neatly with a reference to the conniving, nefarious, and evil Zionist media. I felt like I’d gone through a wormhole, left my world and entered one where the Zionist media served as some sort of all too powerful, existential enemy. I kept wondering if the Director actually believed what he was saying or if he was simply doing his best to hold the Ayatollah’s party line.
More than anything, I felt that our visit to the Iranian Interests Section showcased the power of ideas. Just as my American worldview is shaped by a certain a set of ideas, the Director’s worldview is shaped by a conflicting set of ideas. Because I believe one thing and he believes another, we are adversaries on the world stage.
Sometimes it’s hard to see this conflict borne out in our day to day interactions. I think about this at Carleton when I’m hanging out with a Chinese friend. Here we are eating quesadillas at Sayles talking about frisbee or girls or homework. And at the same time you’ve got government officials in Beijing and Washington DC drawing up all sorts of contingency plans in the case of a new cold war. Why, I wonder, couldn’t those government officials just have a few quesadillas and figure it all out? But then again my Chinese friend and I have never talked about Taiwan or the South China Sea or Tibet. Maybe we’d have a tough time figuring it out too.
Now, let’s go back to our visit to the Iranian Interests Section. Some folks may tell you that all conflict in the world can be chalked up to power-hungry and corrupt leaders. And as evidence they might offer up that they had quite a nice lunch with the Director of the Iranian Interests Section. There was no conflict there. I’m not sure I buy that. Every time the Director shoved a question aside and fell back on the Zionist media, the conflict between our two countries was born out on some miniature scale. But the lunch was still very enjoyable. So maybe that’s the lesson then. You really can have a nice lunch with anybody. Especially when they’re paying and the food is good and there’s a lot of it.