Long before Iran called America “the Great Satan,” US President John F. Kennedy worried about the image of the so-called “the Ugly American” abroad – the phenomenon of arrogant and culturally ignorant US representatives harming America’s international standing at the height of the Cold War. During his 1960 presidential campaign against Richard Nixon, Kennedy sought to inspire a new generation of civic-spirited young Americans, whom he challenged to serve their country and the world.
Part of Kennedy’s plan was to establish “a Peace Corps of talented men and women” who would dedicate themselves to “the progress and peace of developing countries.” Although the Peace Corps was not Kennedy’s idea – Democratic Senator Hubert Humphrey had tried to launch the project in 1957 – it was Kennedy who established the organization in the early months of his presidency as a permanent federal agency within the US State Department.
Starting in 1962, the Corps sent volunteers, who were usually recent university graduates, to live and work for two years in countries willing to invite them. Their goals were to help host countries meet requirements for trained people and to promote mutual cultural understanding. While abroad, volunteers spoke local languages and worked with local professionals in education, agriculture, industry and development. Volunteers served in South America, Asia, Africa, and the Middle East.
Between 1962 and 1976, more than 1500 volunteers served in Iran. Many of them forged lifelong friendships with Iranian colleagues and returned to America with a cultural understanding of Iran that would prove rare and valuable when relations deteriorated following Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution.
In this series of articles, former Peace Corps volunteers recall their memorable years in Iran.
David Devine knew nothing about Iran when he joined the Peace Corps in 1971. While he was studying landscape architecture at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, his department – the school of agriculture – was involved in agricultural projects in Brazil and Kenya. When the school asked all students to attend a meeting offering an overview of the program, Devine wanted to get involved, but had no interest in farming. Instead, he applied through an urban planning program, which sent him to Iran. “When I got the postcard saying you are invited to go to Iran with the Peace Corps, I had to go look it up in the encyclopedia,” he says.
Devine hadn’t travelled much before – just to parts of the US and Canada – but he started to read up on his destination. His main conclusion was that, while Iran had an oil-based economy, many of its people remained poor. When he flew into Tehran in June 1971, he immediately witnessed that poverty up close “When, we landed at around 1 o’clock in the morning, the passports had to be processed. In the room where we were waiting, we could see people outside who were banging on the glass and holding out their hands begging. Some of them had children in their arms. That was an interesting introduction for somebody who comes from middle class America.”
At first, Devine didn’t know which part of Iran he would go to. The idea behind the Peace Corps’ urban planning program was to place its staff within provincial or municipal engineering offices. The choices on offer were the southern cultural center of Shiraz, Bushehr on the shores of the Persian Gulf, and Zahedan, a remote desert city near the Pakistan border. Devine travelled to all three, and chose the latter. While officials in Shiraz, he says, were not particularly keen to collaborate, and the heat and humidity put him off Bushehr, officials in distant Zahedan proved most enthusiastic about the Peace Corps.
A Bachelor Lifestyle
Zahedan, though perhaps not the most obvious destination, proved a happy choice. Living in a large house with one other Peace Corps volunteer, a teacher of mechanics, afforded several advantages. “We did what any fine young American entrepreneur would do,” he says. “We rented out the two extra bedrooms to Iranians and kept the proceeds, because The Peace Corps was paying the rent for the house.” And having Iranian roommates was just what he needed to get into the flow of Iranian provincial life. “I got to see, up close and personal, the Iran bachelor lifestyle.”
In a sense, Devine’s Farsi-speaking roommates were outsiders, too, since Zahedan, as the capital of Sistan-Baluchistan province, is home to ethnic Baluchis with their own language. “My relationship with my roommates was quite close, because we were all young bachelors with college educations. We really were the upper class. We even had a maid, and she was a great cook.”
As Devine improved his Farsi and got to know Iranians, he also noticed a difference between friendships in Iran and in the US. “In America, we look at ourselves as individuals, and we kind of say, ‘You have to make do on your own.’ But the social interactions of Iranians, both with family and with friends, were extremely important to them. Those guys and I were closer friends than I would have had in the United States.”
Life with Iranian bachelors also afforded Devine insights into the relations between men, their families, and women in Iran. “The people I was working with, while they were educated, and they had fairly high-paying jobs, they were sending a lot of money to their families in other parts of the country, and they were saving money in hopes of one day getting married.”
And there was another, subterranean factor. “Something I wrote about in my book, and which other people don't bring up, is that the role of prostitutes in Iranian society is very large.” In his 2001 memoir, A Persian Mosaic, Devine writes,
Iranian men, as I quickly learned…used the services of prostitutes frequently. Many men that I knew were very juvenile in their approach toward sex. Their views of women and the role of fidelity in marriage just weren’t like those professed publicly in the western world.
Women were classified into two groups by Iranian men. Mothers, sisters, wives and daughters were held to a high standard of behavior and mostly hidden away from society to insure they met that standard. Other women, however, such as prostitutes, foreigners and Iranian women trying to succeed in the business world, were “girlfriends.” They were considered fair game for any type of behavior by a man.
One of the less attractive features of life in Zahedan was the constant street harassment women endured. While Iran has been known since the Islamic Revolution of 1979 for “morality police” who enforce an Islamic dress code for women, in the Shah’s day similar behavior the was a hobby for young vigilantes. “They just thought that they were the enforcers of what they perceived to be Islamic tradition,” Devine says. “They would hassle women relentlessly. Some women covered up simply because they didn't want to get hassled. There would be young guys who would grab women, and they didn't care if they were wearing chadors or not.”
Scenes Before a Revolution
The provincial poverty Devine had read about before he left for Iran was in evidence throughout much of Sistan-Baluchistan. While the Peace Corps was in Iran in part to assist with development work, urban planning projects had little to do with some of the region’s most pressing needs. “
The situation in Zahedan and other places I traveled to was that the government was not doing very much for the poor, whether it was in south Tehran or whether it was in Baluchistan,” he says. “There was just no social safety net. You were on your own. As a result, some of the Baluch people in Zahedan were starving to death. They had no recourse.”
That lack of government support for the poor, he says, became especially apparent in December 1972, when a cold wave hit Eastern Iran. “It snowed in Zahedan for the first time in anyone's memory. It snowed a lot, and it was very cold for about a week. There were literally people freezing to death throughout the province because they were living in huts. There was nothing they could do. We did what we could, because we literally had people living in cardboard boxes within 100 feet or our front door. We were taking them food.”
For Devine, such scenes reflected poorly on the Shah, and on his relations with the US. “I thought US relations with Iran were disgusting,” he says. “It was clear that President Richard Nixon and his national security adviser Henry Kissinger wanted to use Iran as the policeman for the Middle East, at least in the Persian Gulf area, and that we were selling a lot of military equipment to that country, far more than they needed to protect themselves. I think about a third of the budget was going to military expenditures, and as a result, some people were starving.”
Devine says when he returned to the US in 1973, he told a friend that a revolution was likely in Iran.
Decades Later, A Return
Devine returned to Zahedan in 2001. Some things had changed, while others had stayed the same. “I found that the political atmosphere wasn't that different,” he says. “It was repressive when I was there and it was repressive when I went back.” But the poverty he had witnessed appeared to have lifted somewhat. “I certainly thought that the government had spent its money on poor people much more than the Shah's regime had.”
Historical events such as a post-revolution baby boom and the wars in Afghanistan had also left their mark. “The population explosion was very evident,” he says. “Zahedan had gone from a city of about 25, 000 when I lived there to over 400,000 people. Many of them were Afghan refugees, but the difference was just enormous.”
Happily, he also caught glimpses of the Peace Corps’ urban planning legacy across the country. “A good friend of mine had stayed in Tehran and helped to design a park in the south part of Tehran. One of our members had designed a building in Yazd that was built, which was really good.”
He also saw evidence of his own work. “I did some master plans for the communities of Baluchistan. They were just colored lines on a piece of paper, but in fact, Zahedan developed somewhat along the lines of the master plan I did. In one of the traffic circles in Zahedan, there is a giant copy of the town's master plan. I compared it to the one I had done. It was different, but mine was basically the framework for what was in that traffic circle.”
Another legacy of the Peace Corps, he says, has been his and other volunteers’ nuanced perspectives on US-Iran relations. “Those of us who take what I would call a balanced view towards the Iranian regime today understand that there are a lot of problems in Iran, but that they have also been cast as the bogeyman since the revolution. Americans in general are very naive about foreign relations. If we make our decisions based on the fact that they took 52 hostages in 1979 and held them for 444 days, and they held up signs saying death to America and death to Israel, then we are making a big mistake.”
Postscript: Of Trump and Iran
When Donald Trump was elected president on November 8, 2016, IranWire asked Devine how the Trump presidency would affect US-Iran relations.
He is alarmed by what a Trump presidency could mean for US-Iran relations.
“The Electoral College will select someone who is unconventional politically, unpredictable in behavior, and unreliable in diplomacy,” Devine says. “Nothing he says can be trusted. But assuming his statements about the Iranian nuclear deal are sincere and he wants to ‘cancel’ the agreement, this will lead to cheering by European, Chinese, and Russian business interests as well as the hardliners in Tehran. They, in my view, would like nothing better than to recast the U.S. in the role of an ongoing threat to the regime. If those threats, in fact, lead to a bombing campaign, it will again demonstrate how truly sick American society is when it comes to warfare.”
Also in this series: