January 28, 2009

History Class Builds Connection to Iran

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Rarely does the scope of a class extend beyond its required reading or the duration of a semester. For students in Prof. John Weiss’s, history, class, however, th curicullum serves as a springboard for more far-reaching global aims.
The goal of History 2161: Iran and the World is to foster relations between Cornell students and Iranians through dialogue at a time when relations between the U.S. and Iran are volatile and fears of a nuclear-armed Iran are growing.
Class periods often include speakerphone interviews with leading Middle East policy experts and students are assigned to establish contact with Iranians. Furthermore, many students who have taken the class remain committed to working on the project even after the semester has ended.
Students interviewed experts on international relations and Iran, such as Dennis Ross, the special Middle East coordinator under President Bill Clinton, and Trita Parsi, founder of the National Iranian American Council. The aim of these conversations is to think through various problems posed by U.S.-Iran relations.
“The more you look at these [problems], the more difficult it looks — there just aren’t good answers,” Weiss said.
The class encourages students to establish direct communication with Iranians through e-mail, blogs and media, encouraging students to affect the Americas’s relationship with Iran through a different dimension and join in a debate on U.S. foreign policy outside of the government by connecting directly with Iranians, Weiss said.
The impetus to create the course came in 2007, after Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad wrote two letters addressing “noble Americans” to President George W. Bush and U.S. citizens. Weiss saw Bush’s decision not to respond as a motive to take matters into his own hands, and one of the students’ assignments is to draft a letter to Ahmadinejad, which he hopes to publish.
Through correspondence with Iranians, students confronted misconceptions about the Iranian people.
“We found out some things that are really useful —we found out that in these demonstrations where [Iranian protesters] burned pictures of Obama in the past few weeks that many people were forced to go or paid to go,” Weiss said.
Students reported that their perspectives on Middle Eastern issues also changed.
“I learned what Iran really wants is respect and a seat at the proverbial table, and it is important that our government realize this, and use diplomacy as a means of solving our number of problems,” Ian Gillen ’11 stated in an e-mail.
Enough Fear, an organization that seeks to stop the U.S. and Iran from going to war, has set up events in Boston, Washington, D.C. and New York City that allow Americans to spontaneously speak with Iranians. The project will be coming to Cornell in the near future to allow students to speak with Iranians, according to Nick Jelhen, founder and lead organizer of Enough Fear.
Enough Fear sets up old-fashioned red phone lines with Iranian citizens on one end and American passersby on the other. Like Iran and the World, the purpose of the conversations is to promote better relations and create communication and to use “people-to-people diplomacy to prevent war,” according to the organization’s website.
“It is much harder to attack another country when people in those two countries are communicating,” Jelhen said.
Both the organization and the course have struggled to find Iranians to speak with.
“The hardest part of the project has been finding Iranians to speak on the end of the line. One of the reasons that we thought this project could work is because there’s a really high percentage of people in Iran who are on the Internet,” Jelhen said.
“What we need are more popular contacts. We’ve had to do this ourselves,” Weiss said.however, the idea behind the funding was to expand knowledge of certain areas in the world. Currently, the U.S. government funds academic centers for the same purpose, some of which study the Middle East. Professors and universities have also worked as advisors to presidential administrations and, in turn, influenced policy, according to Brann.
Higher education plays an even greater role when training the next generation of policy-makers, Brann said.
There are plans to publish the work — which includes hypothetical directions to an American diplomat and letters to Ahmadinejad — and correspondence between students who took Weiss’s course in Fall 2008 and Iranians in a book, and plans for a conference in Fall 2009. Approximately three-fourths of the class had correspondence with Iranians, according to Gabriel Dobbs ’10, who is also a Sun columnist.
“I did pretty well in terms of making contacts. I spoke with an Iranian blogger. I found [the blogger] through an article in The Herald Tribune. She was going to work at a newspaper at Harvard and she was stopped at the airport in Tehran and detained,” Michael McCormick ’09 said.
“Obviously one of the biggest threats or conflicts the U.S. faces in the next decade is normalizing our relations with the Arab world,” Dobbs said.
Ultimately, Iran and the World could affect policy in a small way, according to Kenneth Kowren ’11.
“I think that on an initially small scale, classes like this one do have an impact on international relations because they allow for people from different countries to gain a better understanding … through examining international relations from a series of differing perspectives,” Kowren stated in an e-mail.