Response to Martin Kramer on Ann Lambton

Martin Kramer had a post today on the MESH blog at Harvard pointing out that all the Ann Lambton obits (like this one) glossed over her advisory role in the 1953 US-British coup. A valid and timely point to make, but I think he went a bit too far in saying that Western scholars are shut out from Iran, and that this is because the government is afraid of Westerners exposing the weakness of the regime. With typos corrected, here’s my reply:

In his post today, Martin Kramer is right to highlight Ann Lambton’s role in the Mosaddeq coup. But as an American orientalist who traveled to Iran in April, I must push back on his assertion that “The present incumbents in power in Iran are careful to shut out Western Orientalists, not because they fear the situation in Iran will be misrepresented but because it might be accurately represented, exposing the weaknesses of their regime.”

A couple of points:

1. “Western Orientalists” travel to Iran frequently. As a student for the last two years in a UK university, I personally know British, Canadian, German, Irish, and Italian orientalists who were able to obtain visas for travel or study.

2. A better bet would have been saying that American orientalists cannot travel to Iran. This is closer to the truth, but still not totally there. I recently obtained a visa to travel to Iran for an academic conference, and I am aware of several other cases where American Iran specialists and students of Persian have been granted visas. To be fair, I have had my fair share of visa rejections, but the situation is more fluid than a simple visa ban on Americans or American scholars.

3. So why can other Westerners travel to Iran more freely than Americans? I think the Iranian government’s concern is not that Americans will learn the truth about the regime, but, rather, the perception that overthrowing the Iranian government is a goal of American foreign policy. I am aware that the official position as articulated in US strategy documents is “change in regime behavior.” Yet with the millions earmarked to promote democracy in Iran, American Persian broadcasting highlighting “color revolutions” and the allegations swirling about US covert funding for dissident groups, you can bet that it doesn’t seem that way from Tehran.