A delegation of four Iranian officials was in Pittsburgh last week participating in what was billed as a “business conference” sponsored by the American Middle East Institute in order to foster a cultural exchange with the Islamic Republic.
While the United States does not have diplomatic relations with Iran, it does have a longstanding policy of engaging in cultural exchanges with countries around the world, according to a spokesperson for the U.S. Department of State, which issued the visas allowing the delegates to travel here.
Although they were invited to attend the business conference, called OASIS, the purpose of the delegates’ visit was entirely focused on culture, according to Simin Yazdgerdi Curtis, president and CEO of the AMEI.
“Part of our mission” said Curtis, who founded the AMEI in 2008, “is to facilitate cultural connections.”
OASIS, which was the AMEI’s seventh annual business conference, drew about 150 attendees and took place on Oct. 28 at the Fairmont Hotel and the Carnegie Music Hall. Featured speakers included retired Gen. David Petraeus and
Gregg Sullivan, a U.S. State Department senior adviser for strategic communications in the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs.
One of the Iranian delegates, Ali Moradkhani, deputy minister of Culture and Islamic Guidance, delivered the featured lunchtime address.
Officials from Egypt, the Sultanate of Oman — which Curtis also represents as an honorary consul — Dubai and Lebanon delivered talks and sat on panels alongside American leaders in business and education, including the president of the Marcellus Shale Coalition, David Spigelmyer, and Gregory Reed, the interim director of the Center for Energy at the University of Pittsburgh and the director of the Electric Power Initiative and Electric Power Systems Lab.
Although the U.S. does not have normalized relations with Iran, the issuing of visas to the Iranian cultural officials is in line with U.S. policy.
“This is the same thing Louis Armstrong did in the 1950s, when the U.S. government sent him around the world to be an ambassador,” the State Department spokesperson said. “This is the same thing we did when we sent students to Russia on Fulbright scholarships during the Cold War, and Americans giving their time and effort to do hip-hop in Morocco. All of this stuff we’ve done in every administration since World War II.”
According to the State Department spokesperson, the purpose of the Iranian delegation’s visit to Pittsburgh was to meet with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra in order to arrange for a performance in Iran. The PSO performed in Tehran in 1964, he said, and a concert this year would mark the 50th anniversary of that performance.
“That’s the timing,” he said. “[The Iranian deputy minister of culture] was supposed to talk to the PSO on this trip. We were contacted by Simin Curtis, who asked if this would be OK with the State Department.”
While the PSO had been considering a performance in Iran earlier this year, those plans were put on hold indefinitely last March, Curtis said, and the Iranian delegation had no meeting with the PSO while in town last week.
“It’s a little too controversial at this point,” she said of a PSO trip to Iran but added that she hoped to take another American orchestra, or other musical group, to Iran in the near future. To that end, Curtis had the Iranian delegation meet with Carnegie Mellon University associate professor of music Reza Vali to discuss bringing some smaller musical groups from around the nation to participate in the Fajr Music Festival, which is held every February in Tehran. Ali Torabi, the organizer of that music festival, was part of the Iranian delegation to Pittsburgh.
In addition to attending OASIS and meeting with Vali, the Iranian delegates also met with Volker Hartkopf, the director of the Center for Building Performance and Diagnostics at CMU. Hartkopf was one of the panelists at the OASIS conference.
“The meeting at CMU with Professor Hartkopf was just so we could show something cool about Carnegie Mellon to our visitors,” said Curtis. “Professor Hartkopf has an amazing set-up, where his building completely heats and cools itself. It realizes amazing energy savings.”
Delegates from Egypt also met with Volker, Curtis said.
“The idea is how to reach beyond boundaries,” Volker said of his presentation to the Middle East visitors. “It’s about how to collaborate in a way looking into our future on a common basis.”
Curtis denied a Oct. 31 report in The Washington Free Beacon that the Iranian delegation met with “corporate leaders” while in Pittsburgh.
“There were no business meetings,” she said. “That’s just not true.”
She also denied a claim in the Free Beacon that Iran’s former nuclear negotiator, Hossein Mousavian, was in Pittsburgh, although he was listed as part of the delegation in the program for the conference.
“Ambassador Mousavian was not here,” she said.
While Curtis maintains the purpose of the delegates’ visit was purely to promote cultural exchange, some pundits have speculated otherwise.
“What is the purpose of having a cultural delegation participating at a business conference if not Track II diplomacy?” queried Ali Alfoneh, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, who also was quoted in the Free Beacon article.
Since his comments were published last week, “new information has surfaced which in my opinion raises new questions,” he wrote in an email. He cited a Fars News Agency article in Farsi, which reports, he claimed, that the delegation to Pittsburgh was “kept secret in Iran.”
“Why would the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Propagation keep a cultural visit secret from the Iranian media?” he asked.
But according to Curtis, it was mostly a matter of circumstance that the Iranian delegation was here for the OASIS business conference.
Moradkhani’s visit to Pittsburgh was originally slated to coincide with the PSO’s season opening in September but had to be postponed for personal reasons. Curtis then invited him to come to the OASIS conference instead.
If, in fact, business talks were taking place, said the State Department spokesman “they were not something we were aware of or something that we would approve of, and frankly, they would be a waste of time.”
“We have no diplomatic relations with Iran,” the State Department spokesman continued. He further noted that it would be a challenge for anyone to find any U.S. companies, at the conference or elsewhere, that would be ready to sign business deals with Iran prior to the reaching of a comprehensive solution to the ongoing nuclear talks with the United States.
Still, the State Department has been “very receptive” to the idea of a cultural music exchange, according to Curtis. She noted other recent cultural exchanges between the two countries, including a group of American wrestlers traveling to Iran last May for a two-day competition and the national Iranian volleyball team coming to the United States this past August.
The new regime in Iran under the leadership of President Hassan Rouhani opens up new possibilities in U.S.-Iranian relations, Curtis opined.
“These are folks we can work with,” she said. “That’s why we’ve come so far in these nuclear negotiations. These are really good guys — just lovely, lovely people. And if you can’t connect on a cultural level, where are you going to connect?
“Some of my friends went [to Iran] — some of my Jewish friends — and they loved it there,” Curtis continued. “They were treated so well. And there’s a Jewish population in Iran. Iran doesn’t have a problem with someone who is Jewish. It has a problem with Israel.”
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.