Research in Iran in the Time of Trump

Shervin Malekzadeh, University of Pennsylvania

*This memo is part of POMEPS Studies 24: New Challenges to Public and Policy Engagement. Click here to download the entire publication as a free, open access PDF and to see each of the individual memos.

Days after America had inaugurated its first African American president, I found myself back in Iran and in an electronics shop near Aryashahr Square in western Tehran, sent there by my grandmother to buy light bulbs for our apartment.  With Barack Obama’s Cairo speech still weeks away, and the Green Movement many months more, I listened to the owner of the small family-run store explain to one his regulars just how bad the coming years were going to be.

“Things are awful enough around here,” he intoned.  “Now that the Americans have elected a Muslim to the presidency, all of us, the whole world, we’re all screwed.”  Ever the native informant, it fell to me to correct this bit of unexpected fake news.  Barack Obama was not a Muslim, I told them.  I left the rest of it, the question of whether or not Muslims were up to the task of running a government, alone.

Iran can be this way, full of surprises that double up as revelations.  Obama’s popularity with ordinary Iranians had done little to diminish their pessimism about their own prospects or the ability of their government to change (some, as we just saw, were already finding ways to make the new president complicit).  His election would have even less effect on my ability to carry out fieldwork, my reason for being in Iran.

I had returned to wrap up my doctoral research, certain that after eight years of escalating hostility between the United States and Iran, things were sure to get better in terms of gaining official access to sources, of getting the work done.  They did not.  One might reasonably expect with Donald Trump as president and an incoming administration openly hostile to Iran and contemptuous of the nuclear agreement signed just over a year ago that things are certain to get worse for folks out in the field, that the prospects for carrying out research as a foreigner or dual-national in Iran will become treacherous, if not suicidal.  They likely will not.

Years of travel back and forth between Iran and the US, dozens if not hundreds of hours of interviews and observation, have led me to hold the somewhat contrarian view that the politics of fieldwork in the Islamic Republic, as in most places, is almost always local.  The truth is for researchers toiling away in the field in Iran it matters less who is in the White House than which group is in charge in Tehran.

I carried out the bulk of my fieldwork under what seemed at the time to be the worst possible circumstances.  Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was in power during the entirety of my stay, the head of a government that took perverse pleasure in antagonizing the rest of the world, above all, the Americans.  He was met more than halfway by the fecklessness of the Bush White House, an administration with a demonstrated willingness to engage in reckless behavior of its own.  With two major wars on either side of Iran and the threat of American-led bombing constant, at times imminent, it became a running joke among our merry band of in-country researchers that we were the last of our kind, latter-day Sovietologists out in the wild.  We were budding experts on a regime on its way out, and like the dodo before us, slated for extinction.

Less funny were the prospects of what might happen while travelling across borders between the United States and the Iran.  If we weren’t taken in for questioning at Imam Khomeini Airport, there was always the possibility that we would be sent to the back room at our point of entry to the US.  A sealed envelope from my department chair declaring my status as an American citizen with an IRB-approved research design was on my person at all times, my get out of TSA-jail free card.

No such recourse was available to me in Iran, a country that has a steadfast policy of not recognizing dual-nationals as anything other than Iranian.  Even with the necessary approvals squared away, we faced the constant prospect of being detained arbitrarily, kept away from our families for months if not years, as had happened to the Woodrow Wilson scholar Haleh Esfandiari or more recently, Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian.  The benefits of the possible contributions that our research might make to “the literature” hardly seemed worth the cost.

And yet, the work gets done.  In practice, research in Iran, like most places, comes down to the day-to-day encounters of the researcher with the people she meets on the ground:  The librarian, the archivist, the high school principal who makes the determination that he can trust you.  Iran, as the saying goes, continues to be a place where (most) everything is prohibited but (almost) anything is possible.  It sounds trite, and it hardly eliminates the very real personal risks that exist for the scholar and above all, for her subjects, but access to sources and to new knowledge almost always comes down to the trust earned in the moment.  It is my experience that Iranians, inside and outside of the government, are able to distinguish between the early-morning bluster of a president and the earnestness of the researcher whose work is dedicated to the comity between countries.

The work goes on because it does so for the Iranians already on the ground.  Iranian academics in the social sciences constitute a vibrant and indigenous research community that spans the entire ideological spectrum.  In that world, rules of hospitality to the foreign visitor and a genuine desire for knowledge, elm va farhang, science and culture, reign paramount.  Our travails, challenges, and possible dangers as foreign researchers pale in comparison to those daily faced by the many colleagues and gatekeepers who enable our work.  That they have taken so many of us in over the years speaks to their unwavering belief in the scientific method, in many instances taken as a component and expression of their Islamic faith.  Trump’s latest saber rattling is unlikely to change that.

That the work is different, if not exactly easier, with a reformist administration in power in Iran is undeniable.  The impossible becomes more possible, research objectives more likely to be met under a Rouhani than under an Ahmadinejad, a Khatami rather than a Rafsanjani.  These variations, these changes in prospects are in themselves an important data point, evidence that politics exists in Iran, and that elections do in fact matter.

That is not to say that the work is necessarily safer.  A healthy dose of paranoia can go a long way in helping to finish the research and to return safely home, a point that I explain at length in a recent article.  It is important to keep in mind that moderate administrations like those under Rouhani and Khatami set into motion reactions from revanchist forces, rogue elements within the government eager to embarrass and undermine their rivals for their own political gain.  It is also true that progressive leaders feel compelled to shore up their right flanks as they maneuver towards more moderate positions.  One doesn’t need to read Machiavelli to know that reforming governments are frequently guilty of introducing some of the most cruel and retrograde policies as part of the cost of doing business.

Four years after my corner-store encounter, with Obama’s outreach to Iran and the Muslim world diminished by increased tensions over the international sanctions regime being leveed against the IRI over its nuclear program, the authorities put up a wall sized mural of the president near Vali Asr Square, in the heart of downtown Tehran.  The image featured Obama, his hand outstretched, framed against Shemr, reviled by Shiites for his role in the death of Hussein, the Prophet’s grandson, killed in the battle at Karbala.  Below this unlikely juxtaposition a caption made clever sport of a popular pun made on the president’s name, Obama in Farsi sounding like Oo ba ma’st (“Here’s with us”):  “Be with us, be safe.”  Iranians, long accustomed to such displays, have a sense of humor about these sorts of things.  Later that same year, with its paint already fading beneath the summer light and city pollution, the mural served as a charming background to the dancing thousands who had poured into the square and surrounding streets, in celebration of Rouhani’s victory and the end of the Ahmadinejad era.

Shervin Malekzadeh is a Visiting Scholar at the Middle East Center, University of Pennsylvania.  He recently published a piece on the Republican administration’s travel ban and its impact on Iranians here in the U.S. and in Iran, in the Huffington Post and Muftah.  His research can be seen at