The U.S. and Iran: The History of Two Empires

January 23rd, 2014

The United States and Iran (also known as Persia) have not been on friendly terms for what is now more than three decades. Although, recently some overtures have been made over the discussions concerning Iran’s nuclear program, the relations between the two countries have been anything but amicable. But, thirty four years of animosity is a drop in the bucket where history is concerned. As much as the sound bites of the media and politicians on both sides and ends of the continent want us to think, the United States and Iran have had more in common than none.

Here are three examples of historic events and figures from both the U.S. and Iran and their significant impact on each other’s country over the course of time:

Cyrus the Great’s Persian Empire & the U.S. Declaration of Independence
Imagine my surprise when during a visit to the Getty Villa to see the Cyrus Cylinder, on loan from the British Museum, I learned that Thomas Jefferson and the Founding Fathers referred to the book “Cyropaedia” by the Greek historian Xenophone on the Persian King, Cyrus the Great (ruled 559-530 B.C.) in the drafting of the Declaration of Independence.


Cyrus the Great, was renowned as a benevolent and noble ruler, even before the discovery of the Cylinder in 1879. Reference to Cyrus the Great is also made in the Old Testament texts praising him for how he freed Jews and brought an end to their exile in Babylon. Influenced by Cyrus the Great’s effective leadership and management of the vast Persian Empire where different religions and traditions of the people in the empire were respected rather than outlawed, Jefferson and the Founding Father s employed these concepts in the drafting of the Declaration of Independence. This historic document which speaks of the people’s unalienable Rights, Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness has a great deal in common to Iran’s ancient Persian Empire.

The First Iranian-American
The Islamic Revolution of 1978 uprooted and displaced many Iranians creating a diaspora around the world. The U.S. has become home to the largest population of Iranians outside Iran.  The Iranian-American community has produced significant numbers of individuals recognized for their contributions in medicine, engineering, business and government. However, the first ever Iranian seeking U.S. citizenship dates back to 1875 and his name was Mirza Mohammad Ali, also known as Hajj Sayyah (which means the traveler).


Hajj Sayyah was born in 1836 in Mahallat, Iran and from a young age he was exposed through his studies to modern and democratic ideas that at the time were percolating around the world. Curious to expand his horizons, at the age of 23, alone and with little money, he set off on a journey around the world that lasted 18 years and took him to Central Asia, Europe and to the Unites States. He stayed in the U.S. for ten years and met with many important figures, one of whom was President Ulysses Grant. His travels afforded him a look into other societies and governments as compared to the harsh treatment suffered by most Iranians under their autocratic rulers. He became convinced that all human beings deserve to live humanely, treated justly and enjoy basic human rights. According to State Department documents, Hajj Sayyah became an American citizen on May 26, 1875, making him the first officially-documented Iranian to become a U.S. citizen. He returned to Iran in 1877 and became politically active by speaking out against the unbearable living conditions in Iran as perpetuated by the monarch and the clergy which led to his imprisonment. Once he was released, he immediately sought refuge at the United State Legation in Tehran and continued to play a major role in the Constitutional Revolution of 1906 in Iran. He died at the age of 89 in 1925.
(Credit: Dr. Ali Ferdowsi, the Chair of the Department of History and Political Science at Notre Dame de Namur University. Encyclopedia Iranica )

The Iranian Lafayette via Nebraska


Born on April 10, 1885 in Nebraska, Howard Baskerville, a Princeton University graduate and missionary came to Iran in 1907 to teach Iranian boys and girls at the Presbyterian Mission School in Tabriz, a city in the northwestern region of the country.

As far back as the 1870’s, American Christian missionaries had come to Iran (at that time: Persia) to help build schools, medical clinics and hospitals and proselytize. Two years after his arrival, during Iran’s Constitutional Revolution, Baskerville took up the cause of the Iranians who were dissatisfied with the Qajar monarchy (which pre-dates the Pahlavi dynasty that was overthrown in 1979), by raising a volunteer army. He did so against the advice of the evangelical Presbyterian missionaries and the American Consul in Tabriz. He saw the Constitutionalists struggle for democracy identical to America’s war for independence from Great Britain. The Qajar Royalists, with support from the Czarist Russia, had taken Tabriz under siege. Baskerville and his hundred-man army that included mostly young noblemen and some of his pupils attempted to break the ten-month siege. But as Baskerville and two others set off on a sortie to collect food for the city from a nearby village, he was shot in the back by a sniper from the Royalist’s army. The bullet went straight through his heart, killing him instantly. He was only 24.

One hundred years after his death, Baskerville continues to be revered as not only a hero by the Iranian people, who call him the “Iranian Lafayette,” but most importantly a shaheed, or martyr, turning him into a national legend. At his funeral, thousands turned out for a massive outpouring of mourning. He was buried in the Christian Armenian cemetery in Tabriz. When the Persian parliament reconvened seven months later, the first item on its agenda was a speech of tribute to the slain American. Even Ernest Hemingway credits his participation in the Spanish Civil War to Howard Baskerville and modeled the character of Robert Jordan in his novel For Whom the Bells Toll after him.

In 2003, a bronze bust of Baskerville was erected in Tabriz’s Constitution House. The Persian inscription at the bottom of the bust reads: “Howard C. Baskerville. He was a patriot – history maker.”

History has a way of helping us gain insight into the past, lessening our myopic perspective on the present. As Baskerville, the young American missionary was quoted as saying: “The only difference between me and these people is my place of birth, and this is not a big difference.” We are all pursuing our unalienable Rights of Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
(Credit: Hajj Sayyah – Dr. Ali Ferdowsi, the Chair of the Department of History and Political Science at Notre Dame de Namur University. Encyclopedia Iranica

(Excerpts on Howard Baskerville were borrowed from a previous blog “My Place of Birth,” which appears on AcademicExchange, 01/12/2012)

Jasmin S. Kuehnert
President & CEO ACEI

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