Apocalypse now? Sewanee professors host panel discussion on U.S. and Iranian relations

Dr. Nicholas Roberts presents on U.S./Iranian relations. Photo by Rob Mohr (C’21).

By Dixon Cline
Staff Writer

In response to the U.S. assassination of Iran’s General Qasem Soleimani, Dr. Matt Lynch, Dr. Jessica Mecellem, and Dr. Nicholas Roberts hosted a panel discussion in McClurg Dining Hall on February 13. The professors discussed the relationship between the U.S. and Iran through religious, political, and historical lenses, respectively.

The first speaker was Dr. Nicholas Roberts, professor of history and former co-chair of the International and Global Studies program, who has had a professional focus on the history of Islam. Roberts outlined the history of the relationship between Iran and the United States, and he incorporated information from both U.S. and Iranian perspectives. 

Roberts explained that the tensions between Iran and the United States could be a series of reciprocal conflicts and grudges. A recent example Roberts used was President Trump’s proposed targeting of 52 cultural sites that would account for the 52 Americans held hostage by Iran in 1979. However, Roberts pointed out that the mutual animosity between the U.S. and Iran dates back to the 1953 U.S. and U.K. backed coup, which ended with the democratic Iranian government getting replaced by the authoritarian Shah. Roberts stated that “graffiti on the streets of Tehran from that period”  shows that “U.S. intervention was resented for interfering with Iranian sovereignty and for returning the autocratic government of the Western aligned Shah.”

As Roberts pointed out, relations between the United States and Iran have waxed and waned since the coup; despite the hostilities of both the U.S. and Iran, considerable achievements in peace were made including the Iran nuclear deal. Despite the recent downturn in affairs, the three speakers all agreed that it is unlikely that Iran and the United States would go to war.

Dr. Mecellem followed Roberts to discuss the politics of Iran. Mecellem was quick to point out that the Islamic Republic of Iran was not a totalitarian regime as so many may have commonly believed as the government does not actively seek to infiltrate all structures of the lives of the citizenry, but is what she referred to as a “theocratic democracy or a tutelary democracy” where the tutelary refers to when a small group, or in this case one actor in the regime has veto power over all major decisions.

In the case of Iran, the veto power is held by the Supreme Leader and allows him to choose who can run for public office. In examining the distribution of power, Mecellem demonstrated that Iran is a nation whose government consisted of both republican and theocratic institutions. Iran has a democratically elected president, parliament, and Assembly of Experts, while other governing bodies made up of unelected religious experts or judges. The Assembly of Experts is also the only governing authority to have a check on the Supreme Leader.

Another misconception regarding Iranian politics, Mecellem pointed out, was that Soleimani was neither an unpopular tyrant nor a lone actor, but was actually the second most powerful government official in Iran and was viewed as the regime’s best by the Iranian people.

Mecellem told The Sewanee Purple how she believed these misconceptions the public has concerning the politics of other nations, in this case Iran, is due in part to most people being too busy to devote time to researching foreign affairs.

In order to be better informed, Mecellem recommends drawing your own conclusion from collecting a variety of sources that come from a multitude of perspectives on the issue, but also focusing on the perspectives of those affected such as Iranian Americans. She also recommends www.allsides.com, which is an online news source that examines issues from the political left, right, and center in order to derive the least biased sum of information; as well as the Iran Primer, which is a constantly updating report on the news of Iran and is organized by the U.S. Institute of Peace. 

Dr. Lynch followed Mecellem with a focus on the impact religion has had on Soleimani’s death. He pointed out that due to religious beliefs in Iran, Soleimani was quickly considered a martyr, and was paraded throughout Iran’s religious institutions. The effect of this martyrdom, Lynch explains, will undercut the recent resentment the Iranian people had against the regime, thus rallying the nation against the United States.

The panel was followed by a questions and answers section with an audience primarily concerned with the impact of sanctions on Iran.