Last month, we at the American Middle East Institute, headquartered in Pittsburgh, hosted at our seventh annual conference several distinguished visitors and government officials from the Middle East to explore business, educational and cultural connections with their American counterparts. Speakers hailed from the Sultanate of Oman, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and, for the first time, Iran.
The Iranian deputy minister of culture and Islamic guidance for art affairs, Ali Moradkhani, accepted our invitation to come to Pittsburgh with three of his colleagues to explore avenues of cultural exchange, in this case musical groups originating from Carnegie Mellon University’s new Center for Iranian Music.
Due to the 35-year diplomatic estrangement between the United States and Iran, government officials from Iran are generally not allowed to travel outside a 25-mile radius of New York, where Iranian officials are permitted to attend meetings of the U.N. General Assembly.
We had originally hoped to work with Mr. Moradkhani to take the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra to Iran in a breakthrough concert this fall. The idea was that the PSO and an Iranian orchestra, either the Iran National Orchestra or Tehran Symphony, would appear together onstage in Iran in a people-to-people expression of the universal language of music. The PSO last performed in Tehran in late 1964, 50 years ago, and this kind of joint performance would be inspirational and path-breaking. Although this particular project may be on hold indefinitely, we are undeterred in our quest to see an American orchestra perform in Iran.
When I traveled to Iran earlier this year to explore the orchestra project, I found representatives of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s new centrist cabinet keen to develop cultural partnerships and collaboration with the West. They struck me as open-minded people with whom the United States can find much in common.
Our recent visitor to Pittsburgh, Minister Moradkhani, has pioneered numerous cultural activities, including mounting Iran’s first Pop Music Festival in 1998, when he served under then-President Mohammad Khatami, a reformist. Mr. Moradkhani is also a co-founder of the Fajr International Film Festival, a huge annual event that draws filmmakers from all over the world to Tehran, and a founding director of the Iran Music Museum.
Why is cultural exchange with Iran important? The U.S. State Department has for years encouraged connections between the people of Iran and America, especially when there is no formal diplomatic relationship, as a way for the peoples of these countries to develop an understanding about each other and to build personal friendships. The Iranian National Volleyball Team was just welcomed most warmly at competitions in California this past August and, prior to that, the Iranian Wrestling Team competed in New York and then hosted the U.S. team in Iran.
Despite 35 years of poor U.S. relations with Iran, I believe a thaw is coming. A younger generation is coming of age and people of both countries want to know one another.
When I visited Iran in February to attend the International Fajr Music Festival, and when my son — a senior at Davidson College — studied Farsi in Tehran over the summer, everyone we met welcomed us with overwhelming hospitality —because we were Americans.
I would also like to add that building positive, people-to-people relations with Iran should not be a political or religious issue. Among our institute’s biggest supporters of cultural exchange with Iran have been Jewish-Americans, several of whom visited Iran in recent years and were delighted by the warm reception they received.
“What did they make of the fact that you’re Jewish?” I asked one participant in these trips. “It never even came up,” he replied.
Simin Yazdgerdi Curtis is president of the American Middle East Institute, a nonprofit organization dedicated to building ties between the United States and countries of the Middle East (email@example.com).