"Peace Corps Volunteers in Iran: Witnesses to the 1960s"

The US Peace Corps sent its first group of volunteers to Iran in 1962 and closed its Iran operations in 1976. During these fourteen years, the Peace Corps sent almost 1,800 Americans to serve on educational, agricultural, environmental, and urban planning projects in dozens of Iranian villages, towns, and cities. Entering Iran precisely when the Shah launched his 1962 White Revolution, the Peace Corps became involved in social, economic and political transformations unfolding in Iran.

Peace Corps volunteers thus witnessed and participated in major state-sponsored projects in 1960s Iran, such as the teaching of English in middle and secondary schools and the Literacy Corps. Three of the four presenters on this panel were Peace Corps volunteers in Iran during the 1960s and later became scholars of modern Iran. For many such Peace Corps volunteers, service in Iran sparked a lifetime of study and travel, facilitating their careers as scholars engaged with Iran and the Middle East.

The presentations on this panel will recount and examine the implementation and consequences of land reform and other reforms carried out in the 1960s. The first presentation, entitled “The Peace Corps in Iran: A Case Study of US-Iran Relations in the 1960s” will discuss the Peace Corps administration’s collaboration with the Shah’s White Revolution and the volunteers’ ambivalence toward aspects of reform implemented in the areas where they served. The second presentation, entitled “The Early Years of the Peace Corps in Iran (1962-64): A Volunteer's Perspective,” features the unique personal experiences and observations of a volunteer in “Iran-I,” the first group of Americans in the Peace Corps sent to Iran as witnesses to and sometime participants in the Shah’s reform efforts. The third presentation, entitled “From Agriculture to Urban Real Estate: A 21st Century Perspective on the 1962 Aliabad Land Reform,” charts the varied and adverse consequences of land reform in Fars province. The fourth and final paper, “Peasant Unrest in West Azerbaijan Based on Eyewitness Accounts, 1964-1966” will discuss mixed reactions to land reform and literacy projects in rural Azerbaijan from the mid-to-late 1960s.


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The American Peace Corps operated in Iran from 1962 to 1976, coinciding with the unfolding of Muhammad Reza Shah Pahlavi’s Inqelab-e Sefid, or White Revolution, launched in 1962 to preempt a “Red revolution,” combat communism and attract US military and financial aid. Next to land reform, the White Revolution’s cornerstone was the much-touted Literacy Corps, often compared to the Peace Corps. Thus, the Kennedy administration is considered the initiator of both Iran’s White Revolution and the American Peace Corps. By directly assisting people in developing nations, Kennedy envisioned the Peace Corps to counter the imperialist image of the US and hence undermine Communist propaganda.

The Peace Corps’ actual performance in Iran is generally deemed a success. This is according to the Peace Corps Agency and the few scholars who remember or have written about it, most notably James Bill in The Eagle and the Lion: The Tragedy of American-Iran Relations (1988). According to Bill, the Peace Corps was one of the most notable cases of positive US-Iran relations during the 1960s because it encouraged people-to-people interactions between ordinary Iranians and Americans. However, the Peace Corps’ arguable success in Iran cannot be separated from its involvement in the Shah’s White Revolution. Iran’s distinction as the first Middle East nation to host the Peace Corps and the longest-surviving Peace Corps program in the region, at fourteen years, is related to the Peace Corps administration’s assistance in carrying out the White Revolution’s development plans and priorities. Peace Corps Agency documents and correspondence illustrate that the Iranian Plan and Budget Organization’s economic and social development goals set the objectives of the Peace Corps’ programming in Iran. Yet, this administrative collaboration did not dictate the nature of relations on the ground between American volunteers and the Iranian communities they served. Oral history testimonies of these volunteers reflect ambivalence towards the White Revolution, ranging from positive assessments of the Literacy Corps to negative evaluations of land reform. Moreover, accounts from volunteers often note their resistance to participating in Iranian government programs they deemed unnecessary, detrimental, or even illegitimate. This paper will assess the record and legacies of the Peace Corps in Iran in light of volunteer and Iranian community accounts and oral histories, official US and Iranian government documents, and the existing scholarly literature in Peace Corps studies and US-Iranian relations.

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In the years following the 1963 White Revolution, Iranians has a wide variety of responses to the top-down land and social reforms of Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi. Between 1964 and 1966, the first and sixth points of the reforms - land and litaracy reforms respectively - received mixed reviews by Iran's rural peoples towards whom the reforms were aimed in general, and by the Kurdish and Azeri peasantry in the Western province of Azerbayjan in particular. While the published accounts of that time period described some of the problems voiced by the countryside or rusta, a number of eyewitness accounts of the American Peace Corps volunteers who were living in the small towns of West Azerbayjan and of the Iranian Literacy Corps or Sepah-e Danesh military volunteers in the Kurdish villages west and south of Mahabad described other issues and deeper problems occurring in reaction to the Land Reform in the region. In addition, the Literacy Corps began to voice their own difficulties with Tehran and Tabriz officials in their educational work in the villages. The reports of the U.S. Consul in Tabriz mirrored some of those problems from the peasantry and Literary Corps now housed in the U.S. National Archives in College Park, MD. The combination of eyewitness accounts and consular reports project a more troubled period of contemporary Iranian history than generally known publicly.

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Concerned about the communist movements in Latin American and wishing to avoid such trends elsewhere, the US Kennedy administration encouraged the government of Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi to bring about the “White Revolution,” including land reform. Although in some areas, including several neighboring villages, in Aliabad near Shiraz land reform did not bring about a more independent, better off, and productive community of agriculturalists. Through anthropological participant observation, open-ended interviewing, and oral history conducted in 1978-1979 and during six additional research stays in Aliabad from 2003 to 2015 totaling another year, the author investigates the short-term and long-term aftermath of the 1962 land reform: 1. The immediate result was violence and conflict, as villagers learned that only half of the land was to be distributed among cultivators: the landlord, knowing about the upcoming land reform, sold half of village land to his main village supporter. 2. Because of the violence, on-going conflict, and lack of sufficient land received to make a livelihood, almost all of the younger men turned to work outside of the village. 3. Lack of attention to sources of irrigation and increasing household use of water exacerbated the decline of agriculture. 4. Along with the tremendous population growth of the 1960s and 1970s, the highly contentious 1962 land reform process helped to bring about a village divided between supporters of and enemies of the man who bought much of the village land before land reform. Lack of fairness in how the land was subsequently assigned and further encroachments on land supposedly to go to cultivators further angered villages. The purchase of half of village land before land reform caused further strife after the 1979 Iranian Revolution when villagers took over and planted the land under contention. Supporters of the buyer of land even had to move to Shiraz to avoid disputing villagers. 5. With the growth of the real estate market in this settlement close to Shiraz, by the latter part of the 20th and early part of the 21st century, people were turning much former agricultural land into cash and real estate speculation. Many Aliabad residents became wealthy and enjoyed a much higher standard of living. 6. As land because highly valuable, family members fought over land, and suffered from alienation from each other. 6. Now Aliabad produces very little, and has become a community of consumers. Men earn money from construction and real estate, buying and selling, and services. The settlement has been formally incorporated into Shiraz.

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Soon after the establishment of the Peace Corps by President John F. Kennedy, the First Peace Corps Group to Iran arrived in September, 1962. There was an infant administrative structure and the lack of any precedent which created unique sets of circumstances for those first PC Volunteers. This presentation will highlight some of these circumstances based upon personal experience including firsthand village witness accounts of Iranian government reform efforts. As it happened, the Peace Corps Group One experience in Iran coincided with the origination of the "White Revolution" of the Shah and the attempt to introduce land reform and literacy to rural areas. The first Peace Corps Group was partly intended to be among the vanguard of this effort. It was a rocky road.