June 5, 2023
Steve Gottlieb (Iran 1965-67)
My wife and I met years ago when we both served in the United States Peace Corps in Iran. There have been no American Peace Corps Volunteers in Iran since 1976. Peace Corps Volunteers got to know a wide segment of the Iranian population, as we do everywhere, realized trouble was brewing and Peace Corps officials pulled them out. Here in Albany we’ve been part of a group of former Peace Corps Volunteers who’ve served in all parts of the world. We meet monthly, share a pot luck dinner, provide a forum for newly returned Volunteers, and listen intently to news about goings on in the many countries where we used to serve and the many organizations who work with people there and with immigrants from those countries here.
A few years ago my wife was asked to become president of the Peace Corps Iran Association (PCIA). It’s been a very interesting and active organization. They’ve identified the vast majority of former volunteers, developed a history of the Peace Corps in Iran, published an anthology of stories by former Volunteers about their Peace Corps service, have a book group that discusses literature about Iran, a current events group that meets to discuss developments involving Iran, and they have newsletters about relevant current events and activities of former Volunteers. Even while constantly studying and discussing current events, PCIA avoids taking positions about policy choices other than pointing out to all who will listen that most of the Iranian people, as opposed to its clerical leadership, have long had very warm feelings toward the U.S., alongside considerable national pride.
PCIA just held a national meeting. At all our meetings we’ve shared memories and stories about our experiences. But the depth of the relationships between Volunteers and our Persian hosts was a theme of this meeting. Some of the Persians who trained us to serve in Iran spoke at the meeting and we talked about the effects we had on the Persians and they on us. I discovered that another Volunteer who worked in the same city held weekly discussions with an Iranian cleric; they’d agreed to teach each other Eastern and Western philosophy. I wished I’d been a fly on their wall.
Discussions at their meetings have been consistently level-headed and enlightening. One of the speakers was John Limbert, a former Peace Corps Volunteer in Iran and American diplomat who eventually headed the Iran desk for the Obama Administration. Unfortunately, he was in the embassy when it was seized during the Revolution and spent 444 days as a hostage, but yet manages to focus on the future, not the past, on how we might have a more productive relationship going forward, and has written a marvelous and very perceptive study of the Iran nuclear deal that I highly recommend. So I feel very grateful for the ability to keep up my interest in and concern for the people of Iran and follow the international politics through the Peace Corps Iran Association.
I know no society where everybody’s an angel or devil. Too many in this country have been immersed in a bath of prejudice – Iranians are this, immigrants are that, rich people are worthy, poor people are not. Level-headed people in the Iranian diaspora have been attacked from various sources with threats and false information to prevent their opposing war, supporting negotiations or the women’s life and freedom campaign. Violence and intimidation make progress and reasonable discussion difficult if not impossible. We can all do better. I know there are better ways.
Steve Gottlieb’s (Iran 1965-67) latest book is Unfit for Democracy: The Roberts Count and the Breakdown of American Politics. He is the Jay and Ruth Caplan Distinguished Professor at Albany Law School, served on the New York Civil Liberties Union board, and on the New York Advisory Committee to the U.S. Civil Rights Commission.