An academic we met told us that with the Iranian government recognizing that the United States seeks to infiltrate Iranian civil society in order to forward a cause of regime change, “it is essential for Americans to have no connection to the U.S. government whatsoever and for them to be known and respected among Iranians before collaboration is possible.” An NGO worker told us that Iranian civil society organizations that had sought U.S. funding as recently as two years ago now avoid such contacts. “Meetings with Americans have created resentment among Iranian NGOs and mixed feelings about receiving support from outside,” she said, adding that some organizations in civil society in Iran have temporarily gone underground and that U.S. overtures to them would only increase the insecurity of their relations with the state.
Before the U.S. invasion of Iraq, Iran had the most staunchly and energetically pro-American population in the Middle East, a matter of no small importance given conditions in the rest of the region. But the images of devastation in Iraq and media reports of U.S. aggression that Iranians view daily have led to a dramatic change in these sentiments. A young wife and mother told us, “In the past three years, the botched invasion has resulted in a serious loss of political capital for the United States, and the sort of sympathies that brought Iranians out in protest to the September 11 attacks do not exist today.”
Nevertheless, the American and international members of Network 20/20’s delegations were warmly greeted throughout Iran. Three young Zoroastrian computer engineers we met poignantly described their reaction to the attacks on New York City and Washington, D.C. on September 11, 2001. One of them recalled:
“When 9/11 happened, many Iranians felt profound sadness and unity with the American people. Like everyone else in the world, we viewed that day as a horrible tragedy that affected the whole world. Young people all over Iran—in Tehran, Esfahan, Yazd—shed tears and even expressed themselves in public by holding candlelight vigils in public squares. They condemned the senseless acts of the terrorists and demanded justice. Many chanted, “Death to the terrorists!” Of course, our public display of solidarity did not go unnoticed by the regime or their local thugs, the Basij. Young boys (around 12 to 15 years old) who had volunteered for the Basij were ordered to disperse the crowds, which they accomplished by brutally clubbing people with batons and storming in on motorcycles. I was hit in the back of the head and had to be taken to the hospital.”
While such a heart-warming story does little to resolve the state-to-state disputes between the United States and Iran, it does serve to remind us that some individual sympathies persist. We found communication and in some cases collaboration to be thriving in a number of technical arenas. International researchers in fields as varied as archeology and medical research have maintained institutional collaborations throughout the years of Iran’s isolation. Members of the 20/20 delegation are now developing associations in their various fields with friends they made on their visit. While it will take time to build these initiatives, several promising starts have been made in the areas of women’s rights, the environment, and filmmaking.