May 5, 2017
On May 5, Barbara Slavin, acting director of The Future of Iran Initiative at the Atlantic Council, moderated a panel on “Nurturing People-to-People Ties with Iran.” Slavin quoted a Mennonite professor, Harry Huebner, who has visited Iran at least 10 times as saying that “dialogue is its own justification.”

This is particularly the case when it comes to countries with which the US lacks normal relations, Slavin said. Speakers on the panel noted the mutual benefits of US-Iran ties from the academic and economic contribution Iranian scholars make to US universities to the goodwill generated by exchanges of athletic teams, clergy, artists and doctors.

“America is great because it has great universities,” said Stan L. Albrecht, the just-retired president of Utah State University, in recounting ties between the university and Iranians that go back to the 1940s. Albrecht also described a more recent joint project involving Iran’s Lake Urmia, which has been threatened with desertification and is similar in structure to Utah’s Great Salt Lake.

Bahman Baktiari, executive director of the International Foundation for Civil Society, which facilitates athletic exchanges, spoke of the pressure the Iranian wrestling team placed on the Iranian government to allow the American team to compete in Iran this year despite President Trump’s executive order banning travel to the United States from Iran and a half dozen other Muslim majority nations. Athletes from US and Iran have competed in each other’s countries more than 30 times since 1998, forging strong institutional and human bonds, Baktiari said.

Kamiar Alaei, the associate dean for Global and Interdisciplinary Research at the State University of New York at Albany, described his work in Iran on HIV-Aids treatment and prevention. “HIV doesn’t need a visa to cross borders,” he said. Alaei, who was jailed in Iran for 3 years under the Ahmadinejad administration, said that despite his ordeal, “we have to keep the door open” to US-Iran ties which are welcomed by the vast majority of the Iranian population.

Finally, Shahrzad Rezvani, an attorney and member of the board of the Iranian-American Bar Association’s DC Chapter, spoke of the group’s efforts to overturn the Trump travel bans and the plight of many Iranian visa seekers whose applications have been stuck in “administrative processing” while the fate of the bans is decided by US courts. Slavin noted that no Iranian visitor to the US has been implicated in a terrorist act against an American in memory. She expressed the hope that the Trump administration would insulate people-to-people ties with Iran from future State Department budget cuts or policy decisions.