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Society & Culture

Insights for Iran from Harlem, Russia and Texas

May 7, 2024
Saleem Vaillancourt
13 min read
Bobby Ahdieh, Dean of Texas A&M School of Law, has helped the law school's ranking jump 54 places in just a few years
Bobby Ahdieh, Dean of Texas A&M School of Law, has helped the law school's ranking jump 54 places in just a few years
Educated at Princeton and Yale, Bobby Ahdieh also spent time in Russia, working at former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev's foundation and studying legal reform
Educated at Princeton and Yale, Bobby Ahdieh also spent time in Russia, working at former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev's foundation and studying legal reform
Bobby Ahdieh's experiences in Texas and Russia, as well as his upbringing in Harlem, offer a range of insights for Iran's own future
Bobby Ahdieh's experiences in Texas and Russia, as well as his upbringing in Harlem, offer a range of insights for Iran's own future

Bobby Ahdieh – an Iranian-American lawyer and Dean of Texas A&M School of Law, transplanted from his hometown of New York to the Dallas area – tells me something that a Texan told him, after learning he was Iranian: “In many ways, Iran and Texas have a lot in common. Oil and gas, diversity of geography, there’s the desert, but there’s also the mountain. And, you know, we both can be a little fanatic.”

Fanaticism in Iran is a good place for us to start – it’s why Bobby is American at all. His parents, Hussein and Tahereh, were born in Iran but left their homeland in the 1960s to pursue their education in the United States. The pair were not yet married and Hussein left Iran first. Bobby says his father claims “that my mom was chasing him,” and while she denies it, “he does have a good data point, that of all the hospitals in the United States where she could do her residency, she ended up at one two miles away from where he was living.” The couple married and in 1971, following an elder sister, Bobby was born.

Bobby’s parents, Hussein and Tahereh, may have left Iran to study and work. But they never returned – in large part because of the ignorance of others.

Baha’is in Iran have been persecuted in various ways since the faith emerged in the 19th century. Before the 1979 Islamic Revolution, being a Baha’i was difficult, at times dangerous, and Iran’s Shia Muslim clerics have attacked the Baha’i faith since its beginnings. But the persecution became systematic state policy after 1979 when Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini came to power. More than 200 Baha'is were executed for their faith by the new Islamic Republic.

I can relate to this story. Different people in my own family were discriminated against in the 19th century for their faith, or left Iran before the Revolution, and others died at its hands.

Bobby grew up in New York and Pennsylvania and in 1990, before attending Princeton University to study international relations, he spent a year in Haifa, Israel, to serve as a janitor at the Baha’i World Centre. Mikhail Gorbachev, leader of the collapsing Soviet Union, had just begun allowing Russia’s political “refuseniks” to emigrate. “Suddenly, all my neighbors in Israel were Russian,” Bobby says, sparking in him a fascination for the country. He learned the language, traveled to Russia whenever he could, and majored in Russian studies at university.

During his time at Princeton, “I heard that Gorbachev was going to speak at the University of Pennsylvania. And so, with the hubris of youth, I decided that I'd go and meet him.”

Bobby remembers another story as he tells this one. In later years he saw the former Soviet leader speak at the Carter Center, in Atlanta, Georgia, where he told the audience that, like his host, former US president Jimmy Carter, he hoped to use the presidency of his country to “go on to do greater things.”

When Bobby traveled to Pennsylvania to meet Gorbachev, he had already retired from politics, was running his Gorbachev Foundation for socio-economic and political studies, and was “at the peak of his western fame.”

“I go and it’s an auditorium with probably 4,000, 5,000 people there,” Bobby says. “But being Iranian, I somehow found my way backstage, tricking a policeman or two along the way. Gorbachev was standing by himself. I ran up to him, explained I was a student at Princeton researching legal reform in Russia, and I’d love to go to Russia and be based at the foundation and to work for him.”

The last leader of the Soviet Union seemed baffled that a lone student had been able to waylay him. But Bobby insisted. He even asked Gorbachev for his personal fax number. A week later he had a letter of invitation to the foundation and was applying for his visa.

Bobby later wrote a book filled with interviews with key Russian figures of the time, “Russia's Constitutional Revolution: Legal Consciousness and the Transition to Democracy, 1985-1996,” and he stayed in touch with Gorbachev for years.

When he returned to the United States, Bobby studied at Yale Law School, clerked for an appeals court judge, and then worked as a trial lawyer for the US Department of Justice.

His work as a US attorney also revealed something of the immigrant American experience. “You stand up in court, representing the United States, and in most jurisdictions you stand up and say ‘Robert Ahdieh for the United States,’” Bobby says. “But in some jurisdictions, you don’t say the ‘for.’ You just say: ‘Robert Ahdieh, the United States.’ And I would tell people, at that moment, I was the United States.”

“Those words I said in court bound the United States of America,” Bobby adds. “What an amazing idea; that a child of Iranian immigrants, who escaped to America to avoid religious persecution, decades later ‘is’ the United States. To me, that was a reflection of the opportunity that America offers, whatever its challenges and limitations.”

I ask him whether his unique mix – both Iranian and American upbringings, American legal training, study of international legal reform, and his time in Russia and analysis of Russia’s situation today – offers any insights for Iran’s future.

The evolution of legal institutions and cultures is a “common phenomenon,” Bobby says, citing not just the experience of Russia, but also reform processes in Indonesia, South Africa and Iraq. The experience is so common that there is a tendency to default to a “Washington Consensus,” which prioritizes building the “right institutions,” such as an independent judiciary, the separation of powers, and so on.

All of these elements are needed for success, Bobby says. But “among the lessons I took away from Russia,” he adds, “which we didn’t sufficiently implement, was that those institutions are not enough by themselves. The piece we often neglect, in part because it’s more difficult, is; how do you create the legal culture, the legal consciousness, that must undergird those institutions?”

“In Iran,” he adds, “the first question will be: What aspects of the nation’s value structure need to change? Maybe it’s the religious orientation of the government. Or the relative power of the judiciary versus other institutions. Or something else. Once we know that, we get to the next step: What's the educational campaign, or public socialization of the nature of law, that will help the citizenry evolve in the right direction?”

Bobby left the courtroom in 2000 to go into academia. His teaching career took him through associate and vice deanships at Emory University, in Georgia, leading to his 2018 appointment at Texas A&M. The school has risen 54 places in the national rankings since he arrived. And in January of this year, Bobby was named by the National Jurist as the fifth-most influential individual in US legal education.

I don’t want to embarrass him – or cause him to sound immodest – but how can a law school jump 54 places in six years? 

“The brand of the university does a lot of work,” Bobby says, referring to Texas A&M's 2013 acquisition of the law school from Texas Wesleyan University. “Resources from the university, as well as public resources and philanthropic support, make a difference. But ultimately, it’s about people. High-quality faculty who are committed to the project, hard-working staff, and students and others who are excited to be part of the law school’s crazy trajectory.”

“No law school has ever risen as far as we have,” he adds. “As to my place in that, there’s a little bit of being an orchestra conductor. Nobody would say that any conductor could take a bunch of mediocre musicians and perform a great symphony. No matter how amazing a conductor they might be, it’s the members of the orchestra who are playing the music.”

Bobby says that his job has been to do three things. The first is to set an “an ambitious vision, but a relatable one.” He also works to identify the right talents: “to discern that a person has the qualities of mind, abilities, and skills to be able to do their job well, and then to ensure that they have the support and resources they need.” And lastly? “If they're not doing the job,” Bobby says, “you need to be able to say this isn't working. A lot of people are not very good at the last part because it's the most unpleasant. But it’s the reality of things, whether we like it or not.”

Texas A&M is a public service university, Bobby says, and “selfless service” is among its six core values. Training the next generation of lawyers with this in mind, whether they go into government, do commercial work, or become an academic, is at the heart of his own vision of his role as an educator.

In the United States today, “we are seeing direct challenges to the relevance and even legitimacy of law. But law – and lawyers – have been a fundamental ingredient of our democracy from the outset,” Bobby says. “Without them, we lose among the most powerful teachers of the insight that the world is almost never either black or white.”

“So my focus is on, how we ensure that our students, not just in my school, but more broadly, retain that mindset, because all the pressures from the outside, the way they are raised, what they watch on television, what their friends say, and so on, all suggest that the world is black and white,” Bobby says. “And I worry that if we lose law as a bulwark against that kind of absolutist thinking, we are really in peril.”

“If we can do that at our law school, if we can instill that in our students, that's doing a real service,” he adds.

Is it too late? Absolutism has been a rising concern on campuses for years. Today's protests and encampments at many US college campuses – including clashes between pro-Israeli and pro-Palestinian protestors, and police crackdowns – are a stark and violent example of that tension.

Bobby acknowledges the risks – but also points to the potential for growth. “In the campus protests happening across the US today, one can tangibly see two things,” Bobby says. "First, the opportunity that higher education offers for engagement around complex and challenging issues, competing principles, and the like. In equal measure, however, the protests reflect the dangers of the polarized mindset that has come to characterize so much of our thinking in America. Unless we can push past that division and embrace engagement, the threat to democratic discourse, in America and beyond, will remain.”

The work of “pushing past” is the trick. Transitions – such as Russia, or Iran in the future – also need an appreciation of nuance. Looking at truth and reconciliation commission activities, Bobby says that “one theory of [how these should work] involves liability, that you should be liable for your bad conduct,” such as committing human rights violations. Iranians outside Iran working with some inside have started to hold versions of these – such as the 2022 Aban Tribunals in London.

But with some tribunals, Bobby notes, “the rules were the opposite: if you testified honestly, you received immunity. It was the opposite of liability. The notion was that the public seeing this process that looked like a trial – with a judge at the front, a witness stand – would send a message that we have a process and we can identify responsibility. Even if nobody goes to jail, it instills in the population the notion there are ways to respond to injustice that do not involve responding in kind, but through the kind of process the law offers.”

Bobby is not the first Ahdieh to grace IranWire’s pages. His father Hussein, an author and also an educator, spoke to IranWire in 2016 about his time at the pioneering Harlem Prep School in 1960s New York. The school recruited high school drop-outs – often picking them up from basketball courts or sitting on a corner, Bobby says – and gave them a chance to resume education all the way to college. Harlem Prep operated during a period of educational reform in the United States and, though it closed in the 1980s, it remains a powerful example of an alternative educational system even today.

Is it too neat to think that his two legacies – his parents escaping or avoiding persecution in Iran, and his father’s pioneering work in education in America – helped shape Bobby today?

Bobby hesitates. “It didn’t really imprint on me until I became the associate dean at Emory Law School. I had in some ways resisted anything to do with my parents’ careers,” he says. “When people asked my sister, what do you want to be when you grow up, she’d say either a doctor or a teacher; like our mother and father. And when they asked me, what do you want to do, I said: ‘I don’t know, but I definitely don’t want to be a doctor or a teacher.’ I don’t think it hit me, even when I went into teaching, because what I was doing was so different. But my father, after Harlem Prep, was an associate dean at Fordham University. And so when I became the associate dean – it suddenly registered that I was following in his footsteps.”

“That said, I do think Harlem Prep imprinted on me the idea that education may look different than what we ordinarily think it’s supposed to look like,” he adds. “I'm relatively entrepreneurial as an academic administrator, probably in part because, from the time I was a kid, I didn't have the notion that PS 98, where I went to elementary school, was the only way to teach and learn.”

The premise at Harlem Prep, Bobby says, was that “you were with us until you got into a college program. I think that also taught me that education is not a selective asset. It’s not, there’s a little bit for you, but that’s enough. No, we want you to take in as much as you can, even if you’re someone no one would think of as a collegiate-quality student. For them, the standard that my dad and others set was: ‘You are going to college.’”

And in some version of the future, some day, would Bobby take these insights about education and the role of law back to the homeland of his parents?

“Oh sure … In a weird way, I probably have more affinity for Iran than my mom and dad do,” Bobby says, “in part because they were escaping from the negative experience of growing up being persecuted. I obviously have a second-hand element of that from them, from my cousins, and others, but I don't have any first-hand experience” of either discrimination or systematic religious persecution. Given that, he adds, Iran “is a place of potentially great fascination, great interest, and passion.”

“Should the time come,” Bobby says, “when there’s the opportunity to bring to bear whatever modest talents I have to contribute to what the future of Iran looks like, I would welcome the opportunity. Reform takes lots of forms. There’s regime changes after cataclysmic conflict, changes that follow external disruptions, and patterns of reform that are neither of those: just the progressive evolution of a system. I don’t know what the future will look like in Iran, but if the opportunity presented itself to make the country better, I would be honored to be part of that.”

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