From Scientific Exchange to National Libraries
The National Academy of Sciences was not—in the late 1990s—part of the U.S. government. Listed as part of the legislative branch from 1935 to 1939 and as part of the executive branch in 1940-1941, it was listed in government organization manuals in the 1970s as “quasi-official.” (Note) By the 1990s, the NAS was being treated as a private organization.
Thus, the agreements between the two academies involved a private organization here. What about official exchanges? At that time, under Bill Clinton’s administration, Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott was assuring me: “Jeremy, no problem about giving your delegation visas to enter the United States for unofficial exchanges, the door is open, if the Iranians want to walk through it, even for official exchanges!”
Based on our 1999 scientific exchange, we had some standing with the Iranian mission to the United Nations. Now working for Catalytic Diplomacy, we decided to try library-to-library exchange, which, while it would involve real, honest-to-God government officials between the two governments, could be portrayed as a harmless “cultural” exchange.
The former Iranian ambassador for cultural affairs was Mohammad Javad Faridzadeh, who had become the director of the International Centre for Dialogue Among Civilizations. He was in New York for the annual U.N. meeting, to which President Khatami was going to speak. With the Clinton administration still in office, we managed to secure a one-day visa for Faridzadeh to travel from New York to Washington for a cultural visit on September 14, 2000. A key part of the visit was a meeting at the Library of Congress (LOC). At the meeting was Librarian of Congress James Billington, Faridzadeh, myself, and Suzanne Maloney, an Iranian expert who was serving as a translator for Catalytic Diplomacy.
At the meeting, it was mutually agreed that relations between the two national libraries, which had been broken in 1979, should be restarted. (Note) But Faridzadeh was extremely cautious throughout the day and said very little. In fact, if we had not been very careful to check everything, he would have arrived from New York on a different shuttle than the one we expected and been picked up by local Iranians from the World Bank who wanted to host him instead; in that case, all our preparations would have been for naught. As it was, these hosts insisted on taking Faridzadeh off for dinner and we had no real discussion.
Our efforts on library exchanges were importantly encouraged a month later when we received a letter dated October 17, 2000, from the Library of Congress, signed by Carolyn T. Brown, assistant librarian for library services—second from the right in the above picture—asking our help in starting a dialogue. It stated that Judy McDermott, chief of the Overseas Operations Division, would be “happy to speak with you or speak directly with the Iranian contact on initiating the dialogue.” We took this as a request from an agency of the U.S. Government to use our good offices to follow up on the meeting and get something started.
On October 24, we sent a copy of the LOC letter to Ambassador S.M. Hadi Nejad-Hosseinian and said:
One possibility, it seems, is for someone from the Islamic Republic of Iran to meet with her [Judy McDermott] and her colleagues in Washington—perhaps someone from your staff at the Mission acting on instructions from Tehran or someone from the National Library of Iran who wished to visit Washington for this purpose. A second possibility is for a small delegation from the Library to visit Iran to discuss this issue. We would be happy to help facilitate any of these meetings. (Note)Five months later, on March 26, 2001, after a visit to the Iranian mission, we wrote the Ambassador for Cultural Affairs, Mehdi Tabeshian, a follow-up letter enclosing again the letter from the Library of Congress. (Note) After this second effort failed, we invited the director of the Iranian National Library to visit Washington as a guest of Catalytic Diplomacy. Agreement in principle was received, yet nothing seemed to be happening.
Accordingly, we secured an invitation to visit Iran at the invitation of the National Library of Iran; this visit took place during June 20-28, 2002. This was twenty months after the original visit to the Library of Congress. I had been slow to realize that nothing would happen unless I went there and presented myself in person and worked things out in person.
The Trip to Iran: June 20-28, 2002
On June 22, I met with Kazem Mousavi Bojnourdi in his office. (Note) He was sitting to my right, and a large, friendly man named A. Bijan Ghodstinat was sitting to my left and translating. Bijan Ghodstinat turned out to be an Iranian-American businessman who was Bojnourdi’s closest adviser on American affairs; as time proved, his involvement made the entire project feasible. (A few minutes before, I had been introduced to Bijan by the Iranian ambassador to the United Nations for cultural affairs, Mehdi Tabeshian, who may have returned for this occasion.)
Indeed, as I learned months later, when we had become friends, Bijan interspersed into his translations, quite early in the conversation, a Farsi sentence: “You can deal with this man,” signaling to Bojnourdi that I was okay. In fact, he later disclosed that he had been a member of the FAS in 1965 while a graduate student at a small college in Kansas! (Note)
Bojnourdi drew me out on my background and provided some of his. He had been arrested, condemned to death by the Shah, and had his sentence commuted to life imprisonment on the day before his execution. He had spent thirteen years in prison and later was governor-general of Isfahan Province. For four years, he served as a member of the parliament in the first session of the Islamic Parliament. He then left the parliament and founded the CGIE center for constructing an Islamic encyclopedia, with 400,000 volumes, which he had been running for seventeen years.
He was genuinely friendly and open but not a particularly political person. He did not speak English. He was very interested in visiting America and visiting the Library of Congress. He had a brother who was an ayatollah and who was very interested in improving the rights of women; indeed, he had ayatollahs on his family tree on both sides and back for three generations.
In an important exchange, Bojnourdi asked if he would have trouble getting a visa and was told: “No, the only people who have problems are the young radicals who keep our embassy officials imprisoned in the embassy; for them, the State Department has a long memory. But you are too old to have been one of these.” He responded that he had, however, been involved.
Asked how, he told this story. When Ayatollah Khomeini decided to move the issue of the hostages from the streets to the Majlis, Bojnourdi was placed on the Parliamentary Committee, along with about six others, to decide what to do next. Asked what happened, he said: “I immediately proposed that, the hostages having been moved to the control of Parliament, they should be released at once and unconditionally.” Asked what happened next, he said: “There was silence and negative comment.” I realized that Bojnourdi was the only Iranian in authority who had tried to get our hostages released! To me this magnified his potential usefulness as an ambassador between the two countries. This important historical note has since been written up in Bojnourdi’s biography, despite the fact that the release of the hostages is still somehow controversial in Iran. (Note)
In a visit to the National Library office, I was shown proof of complaints that books that had been paid for had not arrived and the Library of Congress was not answering complaining letters. They showed how LOC could get much cheaper prices by buying books directly from them.
Later, I met with S.M.A. Ahmadi Abhari, head of the Parliamentary Library. (Note) He resembled Peter Sellers and, when asked about exchanges of books, provided, with a straight face, this comment: “We will send you all the books and magazines we publish each year and, in return, you can send us all the books and magazines you publish.” He was quite prepared to engage in exchanges, he said, even with Israel. (“The Prophet,” he said, had maintained that “one should learn even from the pagans.”)
The Library of Congress staff had told me that only one library institution had “kept the faith” in dealing with America in library exchanges after the revolution. It was the Great Library of Ayatollah Al Uzma Mar’ashi Najafi in Qom, now run by the ayatollah’s son. Qom is the Vatican City of Islam. This library, I was told, was accumulated through the Talmudic wisdom of Ayatollah Mar’ashi. Too poor to buy books on his own, he took advantage of the right under Islamic law to agree to fast for others for pay. And he knew, also, that the fasting did not actually have to be done until the person paying had died—after all, there was always the theoretical possibility that this person might decide to do the fasting himself.
The son of Dr. M. Mar’ashi showed me the beautiful library—preoccupied as it was with Korans of all sizes, shapes, and ages, with a “hospital” that repaired ancient books. Women, he said, with a proud air, were permitted to use the library on weekends, during which days no men could enter so they could feel especially comfortable and could take off their headgear. It was very hot in Qom, and scholars used underground studies to defeat the heat.
At this meeting with Bojnourdi, I had suggested that the two national libraries have a first meeting in Glasgow, England, in August 2002 at an already scheduled meeting of the International Federation of Library Associations. This was accepted.
I returned to America on June 28 quite pleased. It seemed a great success. Everything had gone smoothly with Bojnourdi, and I had invented a place and way for the two libraries to get started in England. He seemed willing to come to the United States, and we talked about places he would visit. The head of the Parliamentary Library was willing to do more in the way of exchanges—as was the head of the Library of Mar’ashi—and both gave me letters. (Note) Also, behind the scenes, I had had other successes: I had conceived a new way for President Khatami to justify direct talks and asked one of his advisers, Seyyed Ataollah Mohajerani—then head of the International Center for Dialogue on Civilizations—to take it to him. The idea was to open private talks (whose existence would be publicly announced) on issues that were, in principle, already resolved (e.g., cultural exchanges). Once the talks got started, they could evolve further and would be, in any case, conducted in private.
And in a quiet talk with another of President Khatami’s advisers for science, he actually asked me: “So what do you think we should do?” I had replied, “Free the Ayatollahs.” I was referring to the house arrest of Grand Ayatollah Montazeri in Qom and the subdued activities of many other Ayatollahs. (If the country could not permit its ayatollahs to speak freely, where on earth would it end up?) In talks with an important official in the Ministry of Science, Research, and Technology, I had had a successful talk about an exchange of scientists—especially scientists in the two parliaments, of which the Iranians have plenty.
I felt confident that at least three of President Khatami’s advisers would take up ideas of mine with him. I was struck with the enormity of this. U.S.-Iranian relations were frozen much like those between the United States and the Soviet Union during the earlier period of cold war. Imagine a person arriving from Moscow who could generate ideas such that three of the president’s advisers would take them to him—or vice versa, with an America going to Moscow. I was on a roll.
Arrival at Home
On July 1, I met at the Library of Congress with Judy McDermott and James Armstrong and briefed them on the entire visit, which included, besides meetings with Bojnourdi, meetings with the Iranian Archives, the Parliamentary Library of Iran, IranDoc (a kind of Iranian NTIS), and the Mar’ashi Public Library of Qom. They were very pleased; Armstrong called my report, by e-mail, “splendid,” and both made warm comments about our work.
On July 3, I sent the Iranian National Library a report on some concerns it had expressed about mail not being answered; it was paying for things it was not getting. And because of an anthrax scare, all LOC mail was having trouble getting through—this I could not dare to tell them.
On July 11, I met with the superior of McDermott and Armstrong, a bureaucratic infighter named Nancy Davenport, for forty-five minutes—most of which she seemed to want to use to talk about a project of hers. She said she wanted to put this “in my mind.” I learned later that she did not know that the LOC had asked us to pursue a library exchange and was asking other employees, “What does Stone want to get out of this? We have no money.”
On July 11, I wrote Bojnourdi, in letters cleared with the Library of Congress, that Davenport would be at Glasgow and that the LOC was prepared to exchange a “full set” of unclassified official documents (and indicated what these were) and wondered if the Iranian National Library could provide a comparable “full set” of unclassified official documents—and asked what such a list would look like. A “partial” set would be a backup possibility. And the exchange of nonofficial publications, which comes under a different international convention, could be worked out in a second stage. This letter was copied to Nancy Davenport and Judy McDermott. (A similar letter was sent to Dr. S.M.A. Ahmadi Abhari, head of the Library, Museum, and Documentation Center of Majles-e Shora-ye EsLami, i.e., the Parliamentary Library.)
Before these letters, sent by FedEx, could arrive in Iran, on July 16 I received a two-page draft agreement prepared by the National Library of Iran and asked for an appointment with Jim to discuss it with him. It seemed straightforward. (Note) An e-mail from Davenport asked for a copy of what she called “your proposal.” I reached her on July 18 and urged her to provide “options” for Billington on how to handle this proposal from Bojnourdi—rather than just reject it. On July 19, Judy McDermott confided that Nancy was planning to try to block a meeting between Jim and myself and was going to tell Billington that she (Nancy Davenport) would not do what we wanted. Part of her reasoning, I think, was that it might mean she had to collaborate with other countries in a similar way.
When I talked to Davenport, she said I had put the LOC in a “difficult position,” and she was astonished to learn, in response, that I had a letter from the LOC to do this work. When she saw the letter, she announced that it “meant nothing.”
Recognizing that Nancy Davenport was moving to veto Bojnourdi’s draft, and having learned from Davenport that much of what Bojnourdi wanted was done at international meetings, I got quiet help from Judy McDermott in trying to figure out how the LOC could say “yes” and yet do much of the interaction abroad or through websites rather than with and through Davenport. In a letter dated July 25, with a copy sent to Davenport, these suggestions were forwarded to Billington. I said, “The simple fact that the United States of America has no diplomatic relations with Iran would, it seems, fully justify the Library entering into an unorthodox agreement with Iran.” No answer was ever received and, in particular, no meeting resulted. This was one of the low points of my dealings with the Library of Congress, but there were others.
In any case, for the purpose of the Glasgow meeting, the Library decided to send Nancy Davenport, director for acquisitions, and a letter dated July 18 was sent to me from James Billington confirming this. It thanked us “for your help in revitalizing exchange relations” between the two libraries and said, “We sincerely appreciate your intervention to get this process started.” Thanking us again for our “good offices,” it expressed the hope that the Library could continue to “have your advice.”
Nancy Davenport did go to Glasgow and had a meeting with an Iranian National Library official, Ali Mazinani, but the Library seems to have no record of any report, and her subordinates, McDermott and Armstrong, never were able to find out what happened. Further, she refused to meet with me to tell me what had happened. I was very frustrated. (Note)
An Iranian present at the meeting sent me an e-mail dated August 21 about the meeting, although it did not contain too much substance. Still, the meeting had involved two representatives from the National Library of Iran, one from the Parliamentary Library and one from IranDoc. Davenport, I felt, had decided to take charge of the project personally so as to kill it.
Bojnourdi’s Aborted Visit: December 21, 2002
But Billington’s letter to me had confirmed that “we will be glad to meet and talk with Dr. Kazem M. Bojnourdi when he arrives.” And I sent this along to Tehran to encourage Dr. Bojnourdi to accept the invitation of Catalytic Diplomacy, which we had earlier provided. After a five-month delay characteristic of Iranian politics, Bojnourdi went to Dubai with his wife from December 18 to December 21, 2002, to apply at the U.S. consulate for the visa.
After standing in a long line, and remembering my advice that, if there were any problems, he should ask for help from the consul-general—whom I had earlier briefed in great detail by international phone—he asked to see her. Told she was otherwise occupied, Dr. Bojnourdi decided to return home.
He wrote on December 28, 2002, that he had found the conditions for a tourist visa by regular passport “against my dignity and inappropriate” and so regretted that, at present, he could not visit. He said, however, that “it would be a great pleasure to make a visit to the Library of Congress officially and by diplomatic passport provided this conforms with my dignity.” Two years had gone by and nothing had happened! Worse, reading Dr. Bojnourdi’s letter, it was not clear that even an official visit on his diplomatic passport might not lead to further decisions that other things were “against his dignity.”
Official Iranians were, I later learned, quite worried about criticism from colleagues for having let down the country’s honor. Accordingly, Bojnourdi had, earlier, requested and received a written letter from a Foreign Ministry official affirming that it would be acceptable for him to travel on the mere private invitation of Catalytic Diplomacy. But he was clearly still ambivalent about this.
The Invitation to Billington
Five months later, on May 13, 2003, Bijan arrived in Washington for a few days as part of one of his business trips, and he stayed with us in our guestroom. We talked over what to do. I was certain—and future events confirmed it—that Billington was not going to offer Bojnourdi an official invitation, much less one that would permit an official passport. I had a brainstorm. Why not argue that the key point was to have the two librarians meet—one place or another? With this in mind, Bojnourdi should invite Billington to Iran. And if, for some reason, such as age or a bad back, Billington declined to accept, we would have an opening to raise the issue (with Billington) of Billington inviting Bojnourdi here. And if Billington did go, this would be all the better! Bijan agreed.
It took another five months for Iran to issue the invitation. As was explained later, Bojnourdi asked for permission from the chairman of his board of directors. Since the National Library works, formally, out of the president’s office, this was President Khatami. President Khatami requested the opinion of the Foreign Ministry, which in turn set up a special commission. The commission reported favorably to the Foreign Ministry, which reported favorably to the president’s office, and there the matter sat for some weeks until, in September, the decision was sent along to Dr. Bojnourdi.
Transmitting the Invitation to Billington
Much to-and-fro occurred while transmitting the invitation because the Iranian side was not sure whether to send the official invitation through me or through its official channels. The invitation actually had five signed cc’s! The whole society is obviously highly bureaucratized. In a characteristically Iranian maneuver, the Foreign Ministry aborted the discussion of which way to deliver the invitation, dated October 22, 2003, by sending it through channels (i.e., through the Iranian Interests Section in the Pakistani embassy), without telling the Iranian National Library, which wanted to send it through me. But I had a faxed copy of the Iranian invitation and finally got an appointment to deliver it personally to Billington on November 3.
Billington seemed interested but said he was not sure whether and what the Library of Congress needed from Iran—something I considered weird. On November 12, I met with a former congressman, Lee Hamilton, president of the Woodrow Wilson Center. He was one of the co-chairs of the Atlantic Council Iran Project, and I appealed to him to call Billington and encourage him—which he later did. Hamilton confirmed that Billington was doing a study of what the LOC might want to exchange with Iran.
Removing the Attachment
By December 1, the original letter had still not shown up. It turned out that the Iranian Interests Section had just put the invitation in the mail. The LOC was having trouble with its mail delivery—as were other government offices—because of the anthrax scare on Capitol Hill meant that all mail was being treated as potentially dangerous. Also on December 1, I sent another letter to Billington saying that the official invitation, which had just been put in the mail from the Interests Section, had erred in enclosing the earlier draft agreement. This “prejudiced” that entire meeting and negotiations by making the visit seem contingent on accepting the draft agreement.
With Billington’s encouragement, I sent three packets of information (on December 8, December 9, and January 5) to his home that summarized what had transpired with increasing urgency and pleas. (Note)
False Alarm, Acceptance, and the Senator Stevens Problem
On January 3, 2004, somebody was spreading word that Billington had accepted. Billington was upset and stated that he had not accepted. At a meeting with him about this, Billington said he had “hired a woman to take care of this problem, Deanna Marcum,” and I asked if I could meet with her; I thought she was a secretary.
On January 9, I met with Marcum, a charming woman, who had an unusually nice corner office with a window. It was ten times grander than I had anticipated. I asked if she was “above” or “below” Nancy Davenport. She said “above,” and I almost fainted with pleasure. It turned out that she was the fourth-highest-ranking official in the Library and, really, the most important one after Jim! My notes called this meeting a “major breakthrough.” Deanna understood everything and agreed with everything. She heard what had happened and said I had been treated indecently. I almost fell over with satisfaction and relief. I can honestly say that, without Deanna Marcum, the whole trip would not have occurred—her existence and sympathy and role provided the inside organizational support that I needed.
On January 12, observers said Billington was “in the throes of a decision” and on January 18 the Library presented him with a report on what the Library might want from Iran. He seems to have decided to accept on January 22. That same week, Iranian U.N. Ambassador Javad Zarif was co-hosted for dinner in Washington by Senator Arlen Specter (R–Penn.; now a Democrat) and Congressman Robert W. Ney (R–Ohio). At the dinner, Zarif told the guests that Billington was going to Iran! After the meeting, a Washington Post article said that a trip to Tehran was planned by a delegation of congressional staffers. (Note)
But this article, which appeared on Sunday, February 1, may have cost us several months. On that day, after talking it over with the chairman of the congressional oversight committee, Senator Ted Stevens (R–Alaska), Billington learned that Stevens wanted to join the trip. Billington called me on that same Sunday to see if this could be arranged.
On February 2, there was excitement in Tehran about the possibility that congressmen would come. But, evidently, the Iranian government felt it could not invite the congressmen because there were no official relations. Furthermore, the Parliament was coming to the end of its term, and, in addition, there was a governmental crisis. Hopes for a trip in April failed, and nothing has happened on this front yet—several years later.
By February 3, I sent a draft of Billington’s acceptance letter to his home. It proposed arrival in Iran on March 12. Billington was returning from a late-night Library reception at about 1:00 A.M., and I decided to call his home to get his approval. My call arrived just as he was entering his home from the reception. He was very tired, and Mrs. Billington was reluctant to put him on.
But I explained that the letter was already approved and that it needed only his signature. When he got on the phone, he was reluctant to review it at that hour and referred to his age (seventy-five) and heart condition. But I insisted that his agreement was critical to making effective this request for a “special favor,” that is, asking for Senator Stevens to be included.
Privately, I also feared that he might never really make up his mind. He reviewed the letter, made a few small changes, and approved it, and then I sent it by e-mail. The letter stated, “On behalf of the Library, I accept your invitation with great pleasure.” And in asking for Stevens to come, it said “he would be glad to come simply as the Chairman of our Library oversight committee and would not require any special protocol connected with his other responsibilities.”
Afterward, I sent a long message to Tehran at midnight, February 3, calling Stevens’s interest in going to Iran a “gift from God”—explaining his unique standing in the U.S. political system. I expressed the hope that Khatami would meet with him—much as Chairman Mao had signaled a change in relations by inviting an American, Edgar Snow, to the Tiananmen Pavilion on National Day—and I discussed this in detail. (This elegant signal of Chairman Mao had been missed by Richard Nixon’s administration.)
I continued pleading for Stevens’s inclusion in an e-mail dated February 6, pointing the Iranians to his Senate website and to his position on the Commerce Committee, among other things. And on February 9, in response to my urging to Billington to have Stevens call me, the senator did so. As I expected, I was able to distill from the conversation more ammunition in his favor, including the fact that he had asked Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, in the Clinton administration, for the right to go to Iran and the fact that his wife had a long interest in Iranian affairs.
He said he was being encouraged to go to Iraq but preferred to go to Iran. One problem was that Billington anticipated that Stevens would fly in his own airplane. As president pro tem of the Senate and third in line for the presidency, he could get an airplane when he wished, and Billington, in particular, thought the trip would be more comfortable for him and his wife if this were done. Perhaps, neither of them realized what a dramatic political signal this would generate in Iran and how unworkable it was. So I sent a note saying that the airplane could land in Dubai and they could fly in from there.
A formally signed version was finally sent to the Iranian interests office on February 6, by which time the National Library in Iran had already confirmed the acceptance by e-mail. And on that day, we prepared a press release just in case an Associated Press reporter—who had called—broke the story.
Billington, in Florida, wanted no press release without consulting Stevens, and he still hoped that Stevens might be accepted.
On February 8, Billington said, “No press release without a decision on Stevens.” On or about February 11, the situation in Iran was so tense over the way the conservatives were treating reformist candidates for the Parliament that a visit to Iran by some distinguished educators was canceled.
Meanwhile, by February 14, the letter, hand-delivered to the interests office, had still not arrived in Iran, and this failure was causing problems with the very formalistic Iranian system.
On February 15 Iran signaled that Stevens was not authorized and then sent a letter saying that the National Library had been “unable to secure the authorization.” But, behind the scenes, the National Library was still not sure that it could not get this authorization later, perhaps in a few days. Meanwhile, there was much e-mail discussion with us about the meaning of the fact that the original signed acceptance by Billington had still not found its way to the Foreign Ministry, as well as the hidden bureaucratic significance of this.
On February 16, I decided that postponing the visit until April would be best. So, on my initiative, the visit was postponed. It turned out, however, that the visit was postponed for seven full months!
Tension Produces a Heart Condition
I had fallen into the habit of glancing at my e-mail whenever I got up at night during periods of high e-mail traffic with Bijan, and beginning about February 7 I was often up about three times a night and not sleeping well because answering the e-mail would keep me awake. That week, I began feeling the symptoms of angina pectoris, a disease that had forced the end of the journalistic career of my father, I.F. Stone, at the age of sixty-four (I was sixty-seven at this time). Indeed, I found myself at the borderline of unstable angina. My cardiologist decided I had had a plaque rupture. People can die of this, but I did not. I started taking statins, but the angina remained although it is now, in 2010, under medical control. I felt marked for life by Billington’s indecision and the entire frustrating affair.
Stevens Was Too High
Stevens’s request set the effort back four months. On June 14, we received the answer to the request for Stevens. He was “too high a political figure to be included in what our Government has always considered to be a cultural initiative.” It expressed the hope he could come at a later date and indicated that, according to their understanding, Billington’s trip was still on and they looked forward to the setting of another date. But this, in turn, took another four months.
The Issue of Personal Security
Billington and I and Deanna Marcum met on June 21, and I presented the above letter. He said now that he “wanted” to go but was “uncertain.” He wondered if he could ask the Iranians to give him assurances that they would, in fact, exchange many things, including “official documents.” I said we could not ask for such assurances at this stage—he had, after all, already agreed to go in the letter asking, as a special favor, that Stevens be included.
But he did not feel committed and was clearly lukewarm. It seemed that he might never actually get on the plane. He said, however, that he would set a new date by July 15. In the meantime, he expressed concerns for his personal security in Iran. I suggested we ask the Iranians for official guarantees of his security; this sounded good to him.
The Iranians indicated that they could do this but, when the assurance arrived, it said, in effect, that assurances were not necessary and that we should not worry. I advised them that this would not do.
They began reconsidering, and on September 8 I received a letter from Dr. Bojnourdi accepting an idea I had proposed. It said: “To allay any concerns regarding their security I have been given complete assurances by our government that their safety and security would be guaranteed and dealt in such a manner similar to very high foreign official visiting Iran.” But, as so often happens with Iran, this answer came after the entire issue had subsided. (Significantly, also, the assurance was made to me, rather than to Billington.)
The date that Billington had given us for his providing new dates was July 15, but this came and went, and word was received by me that he would certainly provide new dates by September 8—another two months of delay (and for no seemingly good reason). He talked about having a busy fall schedule and the upcoming appropriations hearings. But the fall was going to see a U.S. presidential election, and so this idea that hearings might intervene was absurd—Congress would be out of session. He was waiting for something ... but what?
The Decision to Go
Billington’s decision to go came in agonizing driblets. I fully expected that his final decision would come too late to make flight arrangements or too late to make visa arrangements or that, in the end, he would never get on the plane. Apparently, this was his way of doing business.
For example, by September 23—only a month before the group was scheduled to leave—he still had not confirmed whether Deanna Marcum was joining himself and his wife or whether it would be someone else (which turned out to be Mary-Jane Deeb). But the Iranian bureaucracy required, normally, at least a month to process the visas!
At one point, the Library was considering, as a scribe and interpreter, an Iranian-American who then announced that he wanted to travel only on an American official passport, which he was applying to get. This ran up against the nasty Iranian habit of considering all Iranian-Americans to be Iranians unless they had applied to the Iranian Parliament to have their citizenship canceled, which takes a year. If they had not done this—as I doubted anyone ever has—they were required to come on an Iranian passport. This was something that many Iranian Americans were reluctant to do since if they were arrested, they would be treated as Iranians, not as Americans.
I feared that if this employee made a point of not wanting to go on an Iranian passport—with which I wholly sympathized—then the Iranian bureaucracy would delay the trip until the next century. And it seemed entirely possible that the rest of the delegation, for political reasons, would be required to refuse to go in solidarity with this snubbed hyphenated American. Alerted to this problem, the Library decided on a higher official who was not Iranian-American.
There were many other issues involving much back and forth. The question of “topics of discussion” and a draft Memorandum of Understanding was sent by the Iranian side and replied to by the American side, that is, sent back with a few suggested changes. There was the question of organizing the excursion to Isfahan and whether it should be extended to Persepolis. There was the effort to round up four poets for Billington’s group to talk to. And there was the issue of the schedule and itinerary generally and, in particular, the question of a “return banquet.”
Remembering an ancient tradition in China, in which a visiting delegation hosts a “return banquet” on the last night to return, symbolically at least, the hospitality of those who had received the delegation, I suggested to the Iranian side that Billington give such a dinner on the last night. They were agreeable, but he was apprehensive and thought it should take place only at the Swiss embassy. I insisted on checking with the Iranians, and they were apprehensive about going to a non-Islamic embassy during Ramadan. (In the end, after much consideration, the return banquet was accepted by Billington and done in a hotel after the signing of the Memorandum of Understanding.)
In the first week of October, I began wondering if Billington could handle this by himself and also began wondering if I would miss the chance to meet Khatami and, in general, to see the consummation of an effort that had taken me four years to arrange. I well knew that Billington would not invite me as part of the delegation—partly because he would not want to pay for it and partly because he had a keen sense of who was in the government and who was not.
I inquired whether, on the Iranian side, there would be any problem with my joining in as an independent entity. Bijan and Dr. Bojnourdi were quite willing if Billington was. But he was not. He was diplomatic about it but clearly feared the implications of being seen as too close to Catalytic Diplomacy. He was willing not to object if I were in Tehran while the delegation was, and at my own expense, but was not willing to have me travel with the delegation but only “intersect” with it from time to time.
The truth is that I was not too disappointed. I was so used to traveling as a one-person delegation under my own sole command that I did not look forward to being part of a delegation—certainly not one led by Jim, who seemed so ambivalent. I felt a bit like a girl who wants to be asked out but, in fact, does not really feel much drawn to the boy in question.
Has Iran Endorsed Bush?
On Friday night, October 22, a week before Jim was to leave, he called me. I received the call at my vacation home via call-forwarding and so was not at my computer or in touch with the press. He mistakenly said that “Iran had endorsed Bush” and his trip would have to be postponed a month—or at least two weeks to avoid the Library’s involvement in politics.
It sounded crazy to me. I said that I was sure Iran had not endorsed George W. Bush for president. In any case, whatever had been said, no one would think that his visit was a reward to Iran for a politically undesirable endorsement! He calmed down later. But his nervousness and political judgment were threatening what had become a life’s work. (It turned out later that the head of the Supreme National Council in Iran had said, on a TV show, that the Democrats were no better than the Republicans.)
In the end, I organized things so that my next trip (to China) would not begin until just after the Billington group left Iranian airspace. This way, I was available to help from Washington if anything went wrong but did not have to go with the group—covering their backs, so to speak. And, in the end, this worked out well.
But the truth is that, after four years of work on this, I went into a kind of postpartum depression after the baby was born (i.e., when the group actually left the ground without me). And I was exceedingly angry with Billington for wasting so much valuable time—a year had gone by since he had received the invitation—and for his evident desire to hide the entire enterprise from the world. I felt that all this work had gone for naught. It was coming too late to deal effectively with the political crisis; it was only three weeks before the International Atomic Energy Agency was to send Iran’s case to the United Nations. And, worst of all, Billington was going to pretend that, from a public point of view, nothing at all had happened. There was no sign of his interest in putting out a press release. Underlying my anger was the fact that this affair had induced and left me with a seemingly permanent infirmity.
On October 27, the day before the delegation left, I had sent Dr. Bojnourdi a letter summarizing where the situation was, after four years, and suggesting that his library would “naturally prefer to deal directly with the Library of Congress in future now that a direct relationship has been catalyzed. And this would be my preference also.” On hearing this, he ordered that a letter of thanks be sent to me and that I be invited to Iran as part of a follow-up. He also “welcomed your offer of help on other matters” and he emphasized “that this friendship will be continued on a warmer basis in the future.” This raised my spirits. But I was still in a bailing-out mood. The idea of continuing to work for Billington was anathema to me.
Still, buoyed up by the Iranian response, I decided to keep my agreement to have a farewell lunch with Deanna Marcum on Monday, the day before the presidential election. It seems that Billington had been, up to the last minute, consulting with every congressman he could find. So many people had heard about this that the Capitol Hill magazine Roll Call had called the Friday before for a story. But it seemed entirely unclear whether Billington was going to put out a press release.
He was, apparently, worried that the Iranian press might be at the airport on his arrival—and thus had prepared remarks carefully. But it seemed from Deanna that, if left to his own devices, this tree falling in the forest would never be heard. Indeed, it seemed to me that he set the date for the visit—which started a few days before the presidential election and ended a few days after it—so as to travel during a period of major media “blackout” (i.e., preoccupation with the election).
Reports from Iran and Dealing with the Press
Bijan, who was coordinating Billington’s visit, was keeping me informed, almost every night, about how things were going, and they were going well. On November 2, my former staffer at FAS, Steven Aftergood, who was still putting out Secrecy News, discussed what was happening. He had recently become part of my small three-person Catalytic Diplomacy board upon the death of the chairman of the board, Townsend Hoopes. His Secrecy News put out an e-mail report on matters involving secrecy—and anything else that interested Steve—to about 9,000 subscribers, many of them key press people.
Steve said he would “love to” put this item out. The fact that Billington was in Iran was, for him, the biggest scoop thus far. I was unsure what to do. Catalytic Diplomacy tried to stay out of the press. But if this were carried to extremes, then in this case there would be no publicity at all. The whole purpose of the four-year exercise was to desatanize relations between the two sides and to show that such an exchange could happen. Accordingly, after thinking it over for twenty-four hours, I decided not to object to Steve putting out two paragraphs on the subject.
The immediate result—within a nanosecond—was a call from The New York Times reporter Douglas Jehl. He talked to me on background and put out a report (“Librarian of Congress on a Rare, Discreet Visit to Tehran”) on November 4. It just quoted Secrecy News, using the Federation of American Scientists as its source. It noted that the National Security Council, White House, State Department, and Senator Stevens had approved the trip.
The Washington Post then called and said its ace Iranian reporter, Robin Wright, wanted to know where Billington was staying. I suggested they try his host, Bojnourdi, and she wrote an article saying that Billington, “a presidential appointee confirmed by the Senate, is the highest-level U.S. official to visit Iran and meet openly with Iranian officials since relations between the two countries were severed in 1980.” Billington was quoted as saying it was his best trip in seventeen years. (Note) He also tried to hide the fact that a Memorandum of Understanding had been signed. Early on November 5, Bijan said Billington wanted to know if the “leak” had come from Jeremy’s former organization, FAS.
On November 21, Billington called a second time—a week before, he had left a message—and discussed his trip with considerable enthusiasm. He said Bojnourdi was very moved by an indication that the two librarians were friends—he had said the only thing that mattered was that they were friends. Billington thanked me warmly as usual and said “stay in touch.” He had talked to Congressman Ney and Stevens. Later, I was told that he was so happy about the trip that if the mailman came to his office, he would regale him with the fact that he had been the first American official to go to Iran.
Parliamentary Exchange and My Deportation from Iran
After the success of Billington’s visit to Iran, I advised Billington—as I had earlier advised Bojnourdi—that I preferred to have future links between the two libraries organized by themselves rather than by me. I was burned out with the libraries, and I felt it served the interests of their collaboration to have them be forced to deal with each other directly, which was certainly the preference of the Iranians.
I began thinking about parliamentary exchanges and, recognizing how the library project had evolved, realized that I would have to go there to arrange anything. Ambassador Zarif, in New York, thought that my idea of going there and inviting some parliamentarians to come here—as a first step—would, indeed, be more feasible than trying to secure invitations from Iranian parliamentarians to invite American parliamentarians there. In short, I was prepared to try a “pull” approach where, in the small world of others in America interested in these things, they were working on a “push” approach—one that had not succeeded in getting a congressional assistant there.
An occasion for the trip arose with the inauguration of the new Iranian National Library in the beginning of March. Dr. Bojnourdi, still remembering clearly all the help Catalytic Diplomacy had provided, was happy to invite me. I began making preparations.
I decided to try to get congressmen and senators to write me a letter saying, in effect, “Dear Jeremy, if you manage to bring back some Iranian parliamentarians, we would be happy to have tea with them to discuss pending issues.” I thought this would be relatively easy. And I thought the letters on congressional stationary would persuade Iranian parliamentarians that a private invitation from a private Catalytic Diplomacy would, nevertheless, lead to their being received in a respectable way by real live congressmen.
This turned out to be a failure. Except for Congressman Rush Holt, whom I knew and had helped get elected, no one was willing to sign an appropriate letter. (Note) I decided to press on anyway.
I drafted a letter to the Speaker of the Islamic Consultative Assembly (Majlis), Dr. Gholamali Haddad-Adel, asking to see him to get help in inviting a suitable delegation of parliamentarians to visit Washington for a “cultural and/or political tour” at an appropriate time and “if possible, under your leadership.” I asked for a meeting to discuss this.
I prepared a second letter to the chairman of the Expediency Council, the former president of Iran, Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani. This letter asked for advice “either in your capacity [as chairman of the Expediency Council] or personally [as a former president of Iran]—in our efforts to improve civility and respect in the U.S.-Iranian dialogue.”
These were faxed in advance to the office of President Khatami, where someone was waiting to redeliver them to the addressees. These letters, unbeknownst to me at the time, were my undoing.
On the advice of Bijan, I also sent a letter to the president of the Iran Chamber of Commerce, Industries, and Mines, Ali Naghi Seyed Khamoushi, to discuss “strengthening commercial ties between our two countries.” I said I had “discussed this with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce but I need your thoughts.” (Note)
After meetings with the vice president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the State Department’s desk office for Iran, and the head of the Iranian Interests Section, I left for Iran via Paris on Saturday night from Dulles, arriving at Tehran Airport at 9.30 P.M. on Sunday night.
On the tarmac next to the plane was a big black car, which drove me, in all ceremony, to the VIP lounge. But where was Bijan? I called him on his cell phone, and he got permission to come to the VIP lounge, where he advised me that: “I am not sure we can get entry for you.” (The other American invited to the library building dedication had been refused entry and deported about twenty-four hours before, and it was clear there might be trouble.)
In the VIP lounge, someone asked if I had another passport (i.e., from some other country); they said this “might make it easier.” I said, “Of course, no.” After some time, I was led out of the VIP lounge and around into the holding room where people line up to be admitted to the country—but by then everyone had been passed through and the room was empty.
While Bijan tried to work the phones and talked to the officers, I asked a control officer what the problem was, and he said: “Where did you get this visa?” I said “Washington,” and he snorted. What, I said, is going to happen now? He said: “Much paperwork.” Still it sounded like everything would be okay.
But it wasn’t. While waiting in the departure lounge, I called my wife, B.J., got a phone number for the Swiss ambassador who represents our interests, and tried to raise the Swiss embassy on the phone. But it was Sunday between 9:30 P.M. and 2:30 A.M. and nothing could be done. I asked a woman working in the airport for Air France what was happening to me and why. She said enigmatically: “It has happened before and will happen again.” So this was not uncommon.
Upon my return to Dulles Airport, I advised a passport control officer: “You aren’t going to believe this. I have been out of the country for 50 hours and have not legally entered any other country.” I thought they would think me a courier or drug peddler, but they just laughed. At times like this, it sure feels good to reenter America—God bless it.
What Had Happened?
I knew there was a conference going on that was run by the research institute of the Foreign Ministry known as IPIS. And I began to hear that others had not been able to attend. As I reconstruct things, the Iranian Foreign Ministry—alarmed to find that their passport “writ” was not running and unsure how widespread the problem might be—had asked its embassies in London and in India to, in effect, put a reservation on visas to Americans leaving from there so as to avoid embarrassment. The visitors were called and encouraged not to go. (Note)
The official reason I was given at the airport was the absurd idea that my visa “was not listed in their computer.” For a normal government, this would be seen as a “mistake” because, obviously, I had a visa in my passport and a representative of my host—the Iranian National Library—was waiting there to receive me, confirming the authenticity of my visa. Furthermore, as an official guest of the Office of the President, which oversees the Library, I was certain that President Khatami’s staff was aware of the problem while I was at the airport. He was, after all, speaking at the National Library ceremony I was to attend the next day and was the superior of Dr. Bojnourdi, my host.
After returning, on March 1, I wrote Ambassador Zarif, the director of IPIS, and Mostafa Zahrani, the Director General of the Institute for Political and International Studies (IPIS) explaining what had happened and asking for some comment. I then realized that the second American, Leonard Kniffel, had also been turned away with the same rudeness, lack of explanation, and no conversation. Kniffel was simply the editor of the journal of the American Library Association and had had no previous contact with Iran whatsoever. So on March 2, I wrote the director of the Interests Section, Ali Jazini, with a copy to Zarif, another letter asking if, perhaps, an emergency power of ambassadors was being overruled.
And on March 4, I complained to Bojnourdi that Abraham Lincoln had taught us that “a house divided cannot stand” and that Iran was, unfortunately, a house divided. (Note)
Zarif had sent word that it had been a “computer error” and that an apology would be forthcoming; originally, the idea was that I could go back any time I wanted. But when the apology did finally come, by e-mail on March 4, it did not include that element. It did, however, express the “deepest regrets” of the government after discussing the matter with the “highest levels” of the government. He had referred to my “extremely impressive and valuable efforts over the past many years to foster dialogue, understanding and mutual respect” and characterized my achievement as “unique.” With regard to the deportation, he said he had been assured that “steps were being taken to avoid its repetition.” He said suspension of my activities would “be a great loss” and that he was “confident that because of your personal dedication and conviction, this decision will be temporary and you will reconsider it very soon.” And he indicated that my visa had, indeed, gone through the interagency procedure.
Meanwhile, on March 5, Mostafa Zahrani said it was just “mismanagement and paperwork difficulty” and not something that should be “considered as a political issue or something against an individual with very good intention.” He said he would arrange a visit to IPIS as soon as possible. (Note)
But thinking about it, I decided that some kind of protest had to be made. I felt that the academics would have to grin and bear it because they need the possibility of access to their area of study for their careers. I felt that if Catalytic Diplomacy did not protest, then this sort of thing would continue; anyway, I was not comfortable sitting still.
On March 8, I put out a press release and sent it to Douglas Jehl, The New York Times journalist who had written the article about Billington’s trip—an article that had mentioned me. The press release explained the situation and complained that a government that “cannot maintain a sufficient consensus to honor visas” was unlikely to engage in the kinds of exchanges we wanted. And it quoted a petition, released the day we were deported, by 565 brave Iranian scholars and activists that said the selected leader was “impotent and incapable of discerning and defending the nation’s interests.” It went on to say that “the deportation of FAS's President was a glaring example” of what the students had in mind. And it said a government whose visas were not reliable was asking “the world to take its word on its intention not to build atomic weapons.”
The Times called the mission, and Zarif’s deputy called me and said, about the impending story, “After an apology from the Ambassador! This is not the right way! Call The New York Times and tell them not to write the story.” I said “In America, people do not tell newspapers what to write.” He was sore.
Jehl wrote a very professional story. (Note)
Upsetting the Iranian Election
So why was I refused entry and deported? My letter to Rafsanjani seems to have blown a fuse. The Iranian election was planned for June. Rafsanjani was the candidate who seemed, to the public and others, most likely to open relations with America—a popular idea. It seems that some authorities thought a meeting by Rafsanjani with an American “operative” might lead to rumors that America approved of Rafsanjani. This could sway the election. So there it was. Clark Kent in Washington, I looked like a superman kingmaker in Iran, which I had never intended to be.
The Return Trip of Bojnourdi
In a great surprise, the election was won by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who promptly purged large numbers of Iranian officials, including Bojnourdi. Bojnourdi ceased to represent the National Library and became only the director of the Great Islamic Encyclopedia Project. In that capacity, he was invited to Washington on December 4 for a week; after that, Catalytic Diplomacy hosted him for five days, from December 10 to December 15.
Dr. Bojnourdi was no longer the radical revolutionary he had been under the Shah. One night at Clyde’s Restaurant, however, he scribbled a poem on a newspaper and presented it to me. It said:
In many years, was no time and no place;At the end of the visit, there was a lunch hosted by Billington for Bojnourdi and a half-dozen congressmen. Toward the end of the lunch, an aide came into the room and advised the group that the new president, Ahmadinejad, had made the outrageous remarks about Israel and the Holocaust for which he is now famous. The congressmen bolted from the room.
I was flapping my wings
Across lonely corners of skies;
Although friends have left and have died;
Although there remains
The weeping of this one and that one;
Once again, I have the urge to fly to the sky;
Once again, the sound of my heart
And the dim and uneasy destination