Better US-Iranian relations could usher in more diverse portrayals of Iran—in popular literature and scholarship.
With the signing of a nuclear agreement between Iran and the U.S., years of sanctions on Iran have ended and I hope a new era in U.S.-Iran relations begins, an era which will enable both Iranian and American scholars to complicate their notions of the other nation through fieldwork and research. Up to now, it has been very difficult for non-Iranians to visit Iran, let alone spend time there as researchers, creating a peculiar situation in which the majority of Iran scholars in the U.S. are first- and second-generation Iranian immigrants. While these scholars have produced some excellent research, we must nonetheless acknowledge the strange nature of a field in which citizenship (or parents’ citizenship) in the country is a necessary credential.
Scholarship in the first twenty years following the revolution was principally concerned with why the revolution happened. It was primarily authored by Iranians who left during the revolution, or learned (while in graduate school in the U.S.) that they could not return. This scholarship, while often excellent, also often reflected a (strong) political bias. In time, those discourses began to change. For better or worse, the past ten years have been defined by what we might call the “autobiographical turn,” best symbolized by Azar Nafisi’s controversial Reading Lolita in Tehran. Reading Lolita’s incredible commercial success enabled the publication of a spate of other memoirs, which capitalized on similar themes, traded in similar stereotypes, and generally promulgated the idea of Iran as a place that was mysterious and foreign. Critics accused Nafisi of promoting a neo-conservative agenda. This was, of course, in the wake of the invasion of Iraq, when Washington insiders were bandying about phrases like “Real men want to go to Tehran” and fear of an imminent invasion of Iran was running high.
If one’s degree of “Iranianness” is now inevitably part of Iran scholarship, is there a way to be reflective about it without becoming autobiographical in all the ways that offend scholarly notions of objectivity?