Iranian students hold pictures of Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in front of an anti-US mural, painted on the wall of the former US Embassy in Tehran.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
WASHINGTON/ANKARA - Just before last year's nuclear deal with Iran, five US universities visited the country to explore renewing educational ties that flourished before the Islamic Revolution.
The group, which included representatives from Rutgers and the University of Southern California (USC), found a desire on both sides for more exchanges and concluded that US students and scholars would be warmly welcomed in Iran.
But there was a hitch -- the head of the delegation, Allan Goodman, was a former US intelligence analyst. In March this year he was attacked in hardline Iranian media reports which have painted the June 2015 visit as a US attempt to build an espionage network and undermine the Iranian state.
US officials and Goodman's employer, the Institute of International Education (IIE), say that's not the case and that there was no US government involvement in the trip.
Nevertheless, the negative press reports have cooled efforts to rebuild educational ties in the wake of the landmark nuclear deal, two US officials said. They said the US government is now cautioning American universities against moving too fast and that the schools themselves are treading warily.
"People looked at that backlash and said 'Let's go slow,'" said one of the officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Goodman, who lists his intelligence background in his online biography, did not respond to repeated interview requests.
Earlier in his career, he coordinated the daily intelligence briefing President Jimmy Carter received in 1979 and 1980, a period when the Islamic Revolution toppled the Shah and dozens of US diplomats were held hostage in Tehran.
The CIA declined comment on Goodman's intelligence past, saying it does not discuss personnel matters. The State Department and Iranian foreign ministry also declined comment.
The episode highlights the political struggle between Iranians who want to work with the United States and hardliners who often raise espionage accusations and fear opening up will undermine their rule.
US officials say it also illustrates the challenge of establishing even seemingly innocuous exchanges given Iranian mistrust
of foreign involvement in its affairs. That mistrust dates to Britain's exploitation of its oil, the CIA-sponsored coup that overthrew its prime minister, Mohammed Mossadegh, in 1953 and Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi's subsequent brutal reign.
The official said he had expected at least one memorandum of understanding between a US and an Iranian university to have been signed by now. A senior Iranian official said it appeared that the foreign ministry had "suspended the issue."
The IIE's mission is to advance educational exchanges and access to education worldwide. It administers the Fulbright program that sends US students and scholars abroad and brings foreign ones here.