When I started college at the University of Montana, I didn’t know the Middle East from the Midwest. My international experience consisted of a single visit to Canada with my grandparents when I was 12. My worldview was embarrassingly narrow. So, when I learned that I was required to take a course on Middle Eastern history, I panicked.
My panic stemmed from fear that the content would be so boring and irrelevant to my life as a homegrown-and-never-going-to-leave Montanan that I would fail the course. Then the professor walked into the class and launched into the most passionate, articulate and fascinating lecture I had ever experienced. He was so passionate that he paced, wrote words with dramatic flair and was drenched with sweat at the end of every lecture. The professor’s name was Dr. Mehrdad Kia.
Dr. Kia was raised in Iran and provided a perspective on the Middle East that was understandable, relatable and revealed a highly complicated culture entirely foreign to most Americans. Dr. Kia warned us that the Iranian government had a habit of forcing Iranians to the streets in protest of anti-government actions, and in false celebration of government-backed initiatives. The course gave me needed perspective, and a great appreciation for the freedoms we have as Americans.
Twenty-five years later, when Qasem Soleimani was killed, I wondered what Dr. Kia’s perspective was. Much to my pleasant surprise, I turned on Aaron Flint’s Montana Talks radio program and heard Dr. Kia’s voice. Flint’s interview of Dr. Kia was compelling; Dr. Kia confirmed that news outlets reporting Iranian protests over Soleimani’s death were being duped by the Iranian government. He reported that Soleimani was a murderous thug and his death was warranted and praised by most Iranians. He expected the Iranian government to respond but did not expect the response to be as catastrophic or sophisticated as some news outlets and pundits predicted. He characterized Soleimani as a critical Iranian intelligence and strategy asset, and without him Iran is left flat-footed without an ongoing and effective anti-democracy and United States antagonist strategy.
The bumbling response from Iran to the killing, including the tragic and impulsive takedown of the Tehran plane coupled with fervent denials, a weak admission and justification that “the Americans made us trigger happy,” follows precisely the Iranian government script Dr. Kia taught me 25 years ago. As a “trust but verify” American, Dr. Kia’s expertise and perspective provided the verification I needed in justifying the Soleimani killing. I regret that I graduated college without informing Dr. Kia of his impact on my worldview and education; I am a better and more informed person for his influence, and Montana is lucky that he chose to practice his profession here.
Tammi Fisher is an attorney and former mayor of Kalispell.