Journal reflects chancellor’s views of Iran

(Editor’s note: Today, Chancellor Larry Vanderhoef shares with Dateline readers excerpts from the journal he kept during his recent trip to Iran with a small UC Davis delegation.)

April 25: We’re On Our Way

Well, we’re off, setting out for the San Francisco Airport on the first leg of our 24-hour journey to Tehran. We carry the concerns of our families and colleagues who fear for our safety and the disapproval of some who worry about any possible political fall-out of visiting what has been deemed by President Bush an “Axis of Evil” country.

We’ve talked at length among ourselves and with others about the wisdom of our trip, about whether our goals outweigh any risk we may be assuming in traveling to the Middle East right now. We remain convinced we should go, that our desire to reestablish academic ties, to reopen the free exchange of students and scholars and to further cultural understanding overrides our concerns. Our conversations with our Iranian hosts and with the U.S. state department provide us with sufficient reassurance of a safe trip.

Our journey actually began nearly five years ago, when fellow traveler Moe Mohanna (a Sacramento businessman and current member of the UC Davis Foundation Board) hosted an event to raise scholarship funds for Iranian-American students. That gathering eventually led to an invitation to the president of the University of Tehran to visit UC Davis; but when he attempted that trip in 2002, he was denied a visa. So we decided then that we would take UC Davis to Iran.

So here we are, all six of us (Moe Mohanna; Neal Van Alfen, dean of the College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences; Enrique Lavernia, dean of the College of Engineering; Bill Lacy, vice provost for university outreach and international programs; Bob Kerr, director of international alumni and visitors; and me), unsure what we’ll experience this next week but eager to begin a dialogue. We’re not going to Iran to make a political statement, nor are we seeking publicity. We’re simply one university wanting to talk to another university about ways in which we can work together. And, perhaps in the process, one small step can be taken toward a return to normalcy in the Middle East.

… Once we arrive at the Lufthansa departure gate area, our concern about journeying to Iran dissipates. In fact, our fears seem to be left behind in the U.S.

Enrique wonders if the only time there might be a problem with trips to the Middle East is if one asks about the laws and rules, as we did. Neal mentions that some of our faculty are planning to attend an international conference in Iran next year — organized from another country, with individuals coming from all over the world.

Neal also mentions that our California crops are much the same as Iran’s, and that many of our 250 specialty crops originated in Iran and other parts of the Middle East thousands of years ago. Pistachios, for example, came to California some 80 years ago by way of Iran. With similar climates and irrigation and sustainability challenges, we’ve much to learn from each other.

As we taxi down the runway, the plane suddenly screeches to a halt. We hear another plane land or take off nearby. Our plane resumes its taxiing, but more slowly this time. I immediately think of some of the troubling e-mails we’d received since pre-trip stories appeared in our local newspapers. But then off we fly. …

April 26: Midway there

We land in Frankfurt without incident and make our way to the hotel for about four hours sleep before returning to the airport for the next leg of the trip to Tehran. I end up sitting next to an Iranian-American woman who’s from Davis, used to work for UC Davis and has a daughter working at UC Irvine — the proverbial small world. She’s returning to Iran for the one-year anniversary of her mother’s death. …

April 27: At last, we arrive

We touch down in Tehran and are greeted at the end of the jetway by the director general of the University of Tehran’s Office of International Relations and by the university’s chief of protocol, who is also with the Ministry of Science, Research and Technology. While we wait for our luggage, we chat a bit with our two hosts. Mohammad wears a black shirt under his suit coat — a sign his father has recently died. He will wear this shirt for 40 days without shaving. Both when his father died, and at the 40-day mourning mark, he will host a lunch for friends of his father. He served 900 lunches that first day and expects to do the same 40 days hence. And, on the one-year anniversary, there’ll be another recognition of his father’s death.

We see occasional armed soldiers, but certainly no more than we have seen in other countries — especially, for example, Taiwan but also South Korea.

We arrive at our hotel at 4 a.m. but find our rooms aren’t ready. After phone calls home, we’re soon to bed, anticipating our visits later today with the president of the University of Tehran and its engineering faculty.

After four hours sleep and a breakfast buffet featuring sausage and olives, we head to the Central Library and Document Center at the University of Tehran. We primarily spend our time in the section of the library dedicated to saving old books for future readers (“old” here means up to 1,400 years old).

We then meet the president of the university, Faraji-Dana, for lunch. He’s a very impressive 45-year-old, much interested in any relationships we might build. He notes his university is pursuing a “2 and 2” exchange program with Indiana University/Purdue University in Indianapolis and also a one-person plant taxonomy exchange with UC Berkeley. We have to find out more about both.

The afternoon is devoted to meetings with the engineering faculty. It’s very clear the trade embargo has made it difficult for them to buy new equipment or to obtain replacement parts. Effects show up on the streets, too, where cars are mostly pre-1979. Occasionally, though, their laboratory equipment is state-of-the-art, likely purchased through other countries.

President Faraji and I talk again that evening. He’s very much wanting to establish collaborative ties and hopes those ties will expand to other universities.

The relationship between our two countries is certainly complicated and challenging, from the 1979 revolution and overthrow of the shah, the hostage-taking at our embassy and our support of Iraq and Saddam Hussein during the eight-year Iran-Iraq War — a war that stopped, as Moe Mohanna says, because the people of both countries just got tired of war.

We talk as well about how Iran’s left-leaning potential candidates for parliament have been eased out of the opportunity to run by the Supreme Council — the country’s 12 highest-ranking ayatollahs, who are responsible for keeping the government’s actions within the constraints of Islam. So the government will ease back toward the right after the next election and the country’s president will finish his second term and be unable to run again. It’s interesting that the people here are not expecting any of these changes to be huge or unusual, but simply the result of a government that will shift, as all governments do, but in this case toward the right by selection and support of right-leaning candidates.

We end the day at a dinner gathering of some 80 people with connections to UC Davis, including the deputy minister of agriculture, who is an alum. The dinner features traditional chicken/lamb kabobs and a superb mushroom soup that I could make a whole meal of. We exchange gifts and listen to traditional Iranian music drawn from ancient mystic writings — it’s beautiful, quite unique to the Middle East. …

April 28: Off to more visits

We’re off to visit the University of Tehran’s agriculture faculty this morning. The dean (a very funny, interesting guy) wants us to visit every department, but that just isn’t possible — though we manage to cover a lot of ground before lunch.

We split up in the afternoon, with Neal, Bill and Bob staying to talk further with the ag faculty, while Moe, Enrique and I visit a brand-new hospital built by the Rahimian family, which has roots in Iran, associations in Sacramento and has sent two sons to UC Davis. The hospital was built in an area of relatively poor people without easy access to medical care. A while back, the Rahimian family also built a high school for girls, with about 1,000 now enrolled.

On the way to the hospital, it feels as if one of the wheels of our car suddenly goes badly, badly out of balance. As luck would have it, a tow truck just happens by and we are quickly fetched by Laudan Rahimian, sister of Majid Rahimian. Before we leave, we take an outdoor picture with most of the nurses on duty. For the second time, I make the cultural mistake of attempting to shake the hand of one of them to whom we have given a UC Davis pen. When I first met Laudan, she put her hand out to make it clear that, in her case, she would recognize our custom.

Laudan’s husband drives us back to our hotel at breakneck speeds — up to 165 kilometers an hour (I haven’t done the conversion, but it’s close to 100 miles per hour) on a freeway where most people are going 65 miles per hour. The lane markers are not much more than suggestions, with often four lanes of traffic squeezed into three. It’s just the normal way of things, but if you’re not used to it, it’s very worrisome. More than a couple of times, Enrique and I simultaneously yell something like “watch out” (or an internationally understood equivalent).

At 8:30 p.m. we depart for the parliament and dinner with the brother of President Khatami. Our conversation has many pregnant pauses; the three individuals with Khatami don’t speak at all. But after dinner, we go outside to have tea. Khatami and I talk lots about his predictions for the future of universities, why he thinks Iran is viewed so negatively by the U.S., why any kind of “revolution” by students now would be completely different from the one in 1979 (they’re more educated now, he says, and have a better realization of what can and can’t be accomplished by the overthrow of any government). He recognizes that, in this stage of Iran’s evolution, theocracy is most likely to work but that it might not be the form of government that would necessarily serve well in the future. He feels very strongly there are not many ways to break down the stereotype that people in the world have of Iran, but believes the “university track” is a way that could be successful. …

April 29: On to the ‘Cal Tech of Iran’

After a breakfast of eggs, cold meats, cheeses, coffee, juices, milk and cold cereals, we set out for Sharif University of Technology – the Cal Tech of Iran. While women are as prevalent in Iranian universities as men (in fact, women slightly outnumber men), only about 30 percent of the students at technology universities are female (just as in the U.S.).

The university’s president expresses frustration that Iran has been singled out as part of the “Axis of Evil.” He points to the culture, traditions and history of Persia (primarily Iran, he says, but also Armenia and Turkey) as different from Arab countries. Those countries do not share the ancient history and culture of Iran, the birthplace of most history and culture in the world, he says. Neither do Iranians support Al-Queda or the Taliban, he says, noting mostly it’s peace that’s desired and a fair understanding of each other.

After lunch, we depart for Isfahan and visits to two other universities. From the air, we see essentially a salt plain; as we near the city, we see irrigated crops and mud adobe-type construction. The towns outside Isfahan look very poor; the city itself seems an oasis of trees, grass and flowers. The hotel is very nice (much nicer than the buildings around it), with televisions with perhaps 12 channels — most in Farsi, with soccer matches, an occasional NBA basketball game, “tame” American movies, one or two German-language channels, and BBC and CNN. We see pictures of the bombing of Fallujah on Iranian channels and on BBC and CNN. The U.S. is not getting a good review.

Dinner is with several alumni — including one who has an interest in the travel industry and has moved to Iran to be ready when it once again becomes an important destination. Another has gone into the business of university-related research parks here.

Our evening ends with a stroll at the ancient “lighted bridges” (one is 280 years old, another 480 years old). Groups of young people stop and sing under their arches, to the applause of others nearby. …

April 30: A marathon day

Today will be a very, very long day. We will not go to bed again until we are home.

Ahead are visits to the University of Isfahan (its president is a UC Riverside grad) and Isfahan University of Technology (its president is a UC Berkeley grad), as well as some sightseeing, and then a flight back to Tehran for an alumni/going-away gathering.

As we walk the city streets, unaccompanied by our hosts, we are treated warmly and graciously by adults and with curiosity and respect by children. We are struck with how young the population is — 50 percent under the age of 20 and 70 percent under 30. The teenagers are fun and engaging but sometimes very solemnly forthright. I will never forget, to the day I die, a young girl asking me, “Do you think we are all terrorists?” Other young people ask how they can come to America and eagerly accept our business cards.

We visit mosques, bazaars, palaces and a Christian church and enjoy our conversations. We see that men and women rarely mix, at least publicly — and that women are covered except for their faces, with some younger women wearing blue jeans as slacks and also makeup.

At an alumni gathering that evening at the Rahimians’ home, we meet with about 40 people with UC ties. All of the alums we’ve met this trip are proud of their alma maters and treasure their memories of their time in the U.S. They want their children to have the same opportunities they had, and are excellent ambassadors for American universities and for America, generally. They want, as well, for other Iranians to see America as they saw it and not as we’ve also been negatively represented in the media around the world.

We depart the party well after midnight and head to the airport for a 3:05 a.m. flight. …

May 1: Heading home/Next steps

We use our Frankfurt layover time to try to assess what we’ve experienced and to see possible next steps in forging a relationship with the Iranian universities we’ve visited.

We’re all struck with the high quality of the faculty and students – their admissions standards, in fact, are tougher than UC’s. Graduate study there is all done in English, and passing an English exam is part of the admissions process.

While this trip is a fruitful first step, we recognize the considerable challenges that lie ahead. Perhaps the biggest is the current severe visa restrictions that make it virtually impossible for Iranians to travel to this country.

But one potential exchange possibility is the “2 and 2” program, where Iranian students would spend the first two years at their home university taking courses approved by UC and then come to America, to UC Davis, for the remaining two years of their program – giving us a bit more time to resolve the visa problem.

Another possibility is sending our students there, perhaps for summer study.

A third possibility would involve exchange of scholars based on real needs they have and we have — truly a two-way street. And perhaps, as well, we can establish a formal alumni chapter in Iran to help us recruit outstanding students, host visiting students and scholars and provide internship opportunities.

After nearly 22 hours in the air and another two hours on I-80, we arrive home tired but energized. In this initial visit, we didn’t sign agreements or contracts with our Iranian colleagues, but we sat together, we ate together, we discussed our separate countries and cultures together, and we came to better understand our universities, our similarities and differences, and our shared interest in a community of scholars without borders. I hope our trip moves us a step closer together and, in the words of Sen. J. William Fulbright, in some small way helps “turn nations into people.” •

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