Last Thursday-through-Sunday was “Harvard Arab Weekend” in Cambridge, Massachusetts, featuring a glittering array of speakers from Harvard President Drew Faust and Queen Noor of Jordan to Saudi Prince Turki al Faisal al Saud. The event unfolded in two stages, first at the Kennedy School and then, on Sunday, at the Business School, where, rather surprisingly, there was a distinctly non-Arab panel discussion entitled “Business Success in Iran: Today’s Challenges, Tomorrow’s Opportunities.”
What was Iran doing in the middle of an “Arab weekend”? Certainly the organizers know that there are only a very few Iranian Arabs, and that more than 90 percent are non-Arabs like Persians, Azeris, Balouch, Kurds, Azerbaijanis and so forth. The description of the session on Iran sounded like an appeal to businessmen to get involved in the Islamic Republic. The program notes remarked that “the global business community has often times shied away from understanding and exploring opportunities in today’s Iran,” and the panel promised to “highlight success stories and draw lessons learned from entrepreneurs who have overcome the country’s unique obstacles.”
Two of the three panelists (Siamak Namazi and Rouzbeh Pirouz) could certainly have been expected to paint an optimistic vision of money-making opportunities in the Islamic Republic. The third, the Carnegie Endowment’s Karim Sadjadpour, has compared the Islamic Republic with Stalin’s Soviet Union, and likely sounded a more critical note. Messrs Namazi and Pirouz work in Tehran, and both have stoutly defended the Iranian regime against Western critics. Indeed, Mr. Namazi, who has a consulting firm in Tehran, is the cofounder of the National Iranian American Congress (NIAC), which has long pushed for American détente with the Iranian regime and opposed American sanctions. NIAC has been accused of receiving money from the Tehran regime, and lobbying on its behalf. Mr. Pirouz runs a small fund for foreign investors, and has every interest in presenting a benign image of Iran. I was unable to find out precisely what was said, since Harvard claimed the whole thing had been run by students and their numbers were unavailable. Mr Sadjadpour didn’t return a phone call, and none of the students responded to emails. But, barring an amazing conversion, the two long-time supporters of the regime undoubtedly…supported the regime.
The well-advertised presence of such panelists at the Harvard Arab Weekend was at odds with one of the main themes of Prince Turki’s keynote address: “Saudi leaders are keenly aware of Iran’s provocative agenda,” he said, adding that “expansionist” Iran had aggravated tensions throughout the region.
So the Iran panel wasn’t a clever Saudi effort at diplomatic breakthrough (they generally entrust such efforts to Thomas Friedman, anyway).
Moreover, Harvard Business School, at a minimum, appeared to legitimize investment in Iran by inviting Messrs Pirouz and Namazi, and it’s surprising that the event attracted such little attention. In contrast, a similar session in Germany the very next day provoked outspoken condemnation from two NGOs. The event was an “Iran Business Forum” in Hamburg, focusing on investment opportunities in the country’s Northwest provinces. The Iranian Ambassador was the keynote speaker. Two organizations — United Against Nuclear Iran (UANI), and Stop The Bomb — denounced the session as morally contemptible and contrary to the international community’s efforts to isolate the Islamic Republic. UANI called on Marriott Hotels to deny space to the conference: “Ambassador Attar represents a criminal regime that flouts international law in developing an illegal nuclear weapon, brutally represses its own people and is the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism.”
The meeting went ahead, and about 20 Stop The Bomb activists demonstrated at the hotel.
There was no protest at Harvard, nor, so far as I know, were angry letters sent to Harvard or to the event’s sponsors, who included American firms like Booz & Co, McKinsey & Co, and Oliver Wyman. Yet the curious inclusion of Iran and Iranian apologists at Harvard’s Arab Weekend was worthy of protest, and the corporate and academic sponsors should be shamed for their encouragement of American investment in Iran while the Iranian rulers are doing everything in their power to kill Americans in Iraq and Afghanistan.