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.
Barry Rosen became involved with Iran by an unlikely route: his interest in Pakistan’s Islamic politics. Growing up in Brooklyn, New York, Rosen had led what he calls a parochial existence. He had studied political science at Brooklyn College and then moved to Syracuse, New York to pursue a master’s degree at the Maxwell School of Public Affairs. It was in Syracuse that he became fascinated—for reasons he can no longer remember—with the life of the Lahore-based Islamist cleric Abul A’la Maududi, known for advocating the establishment of an Islamic State in Pakistan. Rosen wrote his master’s paper about Maududi.
Once he graduated, Rosen wanted to get himself to Pakistan, and perhaps even meet his research subject. Kennedy’s speeches about the Peace Corps had resonated with him as a child and joining the organization seemed like a practical way to achieve his goal. But, owing to the uncertainties of Pakistani politics under General Ayub Khan, the Peace Corps offered him Iran instead.
“I had, to be honest, no idea about Iran at all,” Rosen says. But his early research on the country led him to an interest in Iran’s pre-Islamic civilizations, especially those of the Achaemenid and Sasanian eras. “Maybe it was related to the propaganda of the Shah’s regime, which talked about that period of time rather than the Islamic period. But it was something that I had not given any consideration whatsoever. I was a history buff, and Iran just caught my imagination. It seemed like a super attractive place to go.”
From Mehrabad to Mehmaan-Navazi
Rosen was 24 when he left for Iran to teach English in 1967. His flight from John F. Kennedy International Airport to Tehran was only his second trip by plane. The first had been from Syracuse to New York City. He saw the trip as a rite of passage. “I think I was a young 24,” Rosen says. “This was a way for me to learn something about the world and get some maturity going on in my life.”
When he arrived at Mehrabad Airport that May, Rosen had already learned some Farsi, thanks to Peace Corps language training. And he soon met local people ready to help him adjust. “I remember I ended up in a hotel for the first few weeks of my Peace Corps existence, and the owner of the hotel, a retired colonel, was very warm and kind. He took me to the bazaar, and he helped me look for an apartment. I started to learn about mehmaan-navazi, the warm hospitality that makes Iranians very cool about being with you as a human being. Since my Farsi was not that good, I was really enthralled that people were that helpful. I never saw that type of situation in the States.”
Rosen also found welcome among Tehran’s Jewish community. “I met an Iranian Jewish family who lived near the hotel and they started to adopt me,” he says. “There was a father and mother and a son and two daughters. They were absolutely astounded to meet an American Jew and from that time on, I became their second son.” The family did its best to make sure Rosen was getting on well throughout his stay in Iran. “I would try to be independent, but it was very hard. Iranians stick to you like glue. So I had that relationship throughout my two years in Iran, and it was very comforting in the sense that I could always go there and talk to them.”
Don’t Criticize the Shah and Don’t Touch the Equipment
While most Peace Corps English teachers were sent to regional capitals and surrounding villages, Rosen was asked to stay in Tehran to teach members of the police officer corps. “I thought it was one of the weirdest things in the world to be assigned to, but I really enjoyed it,” he says. “There was something about Iranian students that was very touching. They had a tremendous amount of respect for you as an individual and they really wanted to learn English. I just had very close relationships with them.”
But he also noticed their academic norms were markedly different from those of American students. “For them, learning was a communal situation, so that no one should be left behind. Whenever I gave exams, I'd walk out of the room telling them that honesty was the most important issue, but I'd hear all the rumblings going on in the room with people trying to assist each other so that they would get better grades. I was serious about what I was doing, but I knew that this was a situation that they needed to support each other.”
Although Rosen was close to his students, someone in the class once reported some critical remarks he had made comparing the monarchy’s lavish imperial coronation ceremony of October 1967 to the poverty of the rural villages he had visited. “I made some remarks about the royal government that I thought were not totally off the wall, but I was reprimanded,” he says. “I was asked to see the general of the police academy, and the colonel who I reported to, who was much more strict with me than the general. He read me the riot act on that one.”
And there was also the ticklish question of a USAID-provided language laboratory with tape recorders and other teaching tools that Rosen was supposed to be able to use. “I was always warned not to use the language lab often because, ‘We don't want to break anything, and if we break anything, we can't show off the language laboratory to visitors who come to the university.’ That was the big tension I had with my direct line of command there, the colonel who headed the language laboratory. I think they liked the idea of having someone teaching, but they didn't want anyone touching anything.”
Anger and Prejudice
The Iran Rosen knew in the late 1960s was calm, and far from revolutionary, but he noticed a strong undercurrent of anti-American feeling. He had heard of Ayatollah Khomeini’s attacks on the Shah in 1964 over the legal immunity he had granted to American military forces in the country. He also noticed how Iranians were reacting to the Vietnam War, and the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert F. Kennedy, in April and June 1968, respectively. Many Iranians, he says, simply say America as racist and violent. “Iranians were very angry at the United States. You could feel it in the university, and in every conversation that I would have about the Vietnam War,” he says. “I was preached to, with Iranians posing as if they were the arbiters of civil society.”
But as America went through bitter political struggles over civil rights, Rosen saw those struggles mirrored in Iranian society. “Iranians are highly prejudiced against darker skinned Iranians or Turkmen, or any Iranians who didn't have a certain look that made them more of a 'valid Iranian,'” he says. “There was so much going on in terms of discrimination against Iran's various ethnic groups that I could even see it in the university. My best friend happened to be Qashqai [a member of a Turkic minority living mostly in Fars Province], and he was discriminated against. So when people would try to teach me about human rights and discrimination, and talk about how violent Americans were, I had read enough Iranian history to tell them that Iranians are just as violent and tribal.”
Anti-Semitism occasionally came up as well. “The Jewish life was quiet in Iran,” he says. “You didn't say much about being Jewish to others at all in Iran. The synagogue that I went to with the Jewish family was hidden. I had done some reading about how strains of anti-Semitism had seemed to move from Europe to Iran, so the notion of Jews looking a certain way, or Jews being khasis, or cheap, existed. I remember a situation where I was sitting with some Iranians who were making anti-Semitic jokes and I took umbrage. I stood up and said, I'm Jewish and I'm offended by it all. Everybody shut up of course, and in a very Iranian way, they tried to make amends. But that was quite unusual and that's why it still sticks in my mind.”
None of this stopped Rosen from feeling at home in Iran. After he left for a short trip to Afghanistan and Pakistan and returned via Zahedan, he noticed how happy he was to be back. “A lot of it had to do with the fact I could speak the language, I could feel the culture, I liked the food. It just made me feel that Iran was my second home. I felt very secure there. That is one of the things that got me in trouble when I was in the Foreign Service in Iran. I had a certain feeling that I knew this place and that Iranians would never harm me.”
From Volunteer to Hostage
With much regret, Rosen said his goodbyes and left Iran in 1969 and moved to Washington, D.C. In the mid 70s he worked as chief of Voice of America’s Central Asian Service. But in late 1978, as revolutionary feeling in Iran was escalating, the US Embassy there sought to hire more Farsi speakers, and Rosen was offered a job there as the embassy’s press attaché.
In February 1979, shortly after Ayatollah Khomeini’s return to Iran from France, an Islamist group unconnected with Khomeini’s movement, the People’s Mujahedeen Organization, attacked the embassy. Rosen received a Medal of Valor for actions he took to protect his colleagues. Recalled to Washington for discussions about security, Rosen suggested closing the embassy until Iran invited the Americans back. But the State Department sent him and his colleagues back to Tehran.
“The big error in my life was going back to Iran in March of that year,” Rosen says. “I should have thought more about my family and my wife and young children, but I somehow thought this would be important and exciting.” In November 1979, student supporters of Ayatollah Khomeini stormed the embassy and took Rosen and 51 of his colleagues hostage for 444 days.
“The living conditions were horrible,” he says. “In some places, the cells were in total darkness. I thought that it was pure torture. Sometimes in the middle of the night, they would open up the cells and point automatic weapons at our heads. Those were moments of great terror. I'm terribly angry about how they treated us.”
And as a hostage, Rosen says, his knowledge of Iran, including his Peace Corps experience, counted against him. “I feel that even though I had a greater knowledge of what was going on and understood what was going on, it ill served me. I think the less you knew, the better off you were.” Rosen’s captors, he says, looked with greater suspicion on those embassy staff that spoke Farsi. “There was always this idea that I was a member of the CIA or whatever. They accused me of plotting against the regime. They were going to put me on trial.”
Reflecting on his time with the Peace Corps, Rosen finds its legacy in Iran doubtful. “We thought our influence was pretty deep when we were in Iran,” he says. “But by the time I came back to Iran, I think the bad feelings toward the US were such that there was no notion of the Peace Corps. The way the Iranian youth felt about the United States negated any good we did as volunteers. The notion that an American would go over to Iran and get paid 100 dollars a month to work with Iranians seemed like a fabrication to them. It seemed as if we were all CIA agents.”
Some of his happiest experiences took place in the same country as some of his most traumatic. “It’s very hard for me to take the Peace Corps period of my life together with the other period and see which had more influence over me,” he says.
Rosen was released, along with his colleagues, on January 20, 1981.
Postscript: Of Trump and Iran
After Donald Trump was elected president on November 8, 2016, IranWire asked Rosen how the Trump presidency would affect US-Iran relations.
“I think Trump will want to renegotiate the nuclear agreement and will do it because the spirit of the agreement hasn't held,” Rosen says. “He might even go as far as abrogating the nuclear agreement.”
Iran, he says, continues its human rights violations at home and terrorism abroad. He cites the example of Syria. He also points out that he and the 51 other embassy staff held hostage in 1979 have yet to receive compensation for their ordeal. “I'd rather have the money go to us for pain and suffering than go to Iran as sanctions relief,” he says.
Barry Rosen is a member of the advisory board of United Against Nuclear Iran. He retired as executive director of external affairs at Borough of Manhattan Community College in 2015. In 2014, he became a leading voice in urging the Obama administration not to permit Hamid Abutalebi, one of the US Embassy hostage takers, from being sent to New York as Iran’s Ambassador the United Nations. Shortly after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, Rosen persuaded the Teachers’ College of Columbia University, where he headed the press office, to participate in a project to revive Afghanistan’s education system.
Also in this series: