Although there is political tension between the United States and Iran, the bond of friendship between American and Iranian citizens remains strong, particularly in Utah. 

A graduation ceremony of Utah State University in 1915 marked the commencement of a momentous journey of friendship for the university, Utah’s citizens and those of Persia (modern-day Iran).

The Khan boys

In 1912, John Widtsoe (1872-1952), who was the president of Utah State University at the time, encountered Mirza Ali Gholi Khan, a young diplomat representing the Shah of Persia (Iran), at an international dry-farming congress in Alberta, Canada. Known for his accomplishments in the fields of science, literature and education, Widtsoe and Gholi Khan kept in contact through correspondence until Widtsoe eventually invited him to give the commencement address at Utah State University in 1915.

Gholi Khan began his speech with a sense of grace and elegance. Instead of giving a traditional inspirational talk for the students, he spoke about the remarkable likeness between Iran and Utah — both lands are rich with desert, high mountains, wide plateaus and salt lakes. He told the students that his trip from Salt Lake City to Logan felt as though he was back in Iran. This fostered a strong bond with Widtsoe and Utah. Afterwards, he wrote a letter to Widtsoe proposing that he send four of his nephews to Utah State University, making them the first Iranians to study at USU. Locals had a nickname for them — they called them the “Khan boys.” One of the “Khan boys,” Mohammad Amin Khan, returned to Iran after graduation, and became the president of an agricultural college established by Utah State University in the 1960s.

Iran protesters turn to silent defiance rather than riots that erupted in the country months ago
Opinion: Poisoned schoolgirls, jailed journalists. The fight against censorship in Iran continues

‘What can America do to help Iran?’

In 1941, a Utah expert named L.M. Windsor was granted a meeting with the young Mohammad Reza Shah in San Francisco. Vivian Meek from the Deseret News accompanied Windsor in this encounter. Windsor wrote a memo, “What Can America Do to Help Iran?”, calling on the United States to build on its amity with the Iranian people. 

When President Harry S. Truman announced his Point Four program for peace in 1948, he appointed another Utah State University president, Franklin Harris. Harris had gone to Iran in 1939 when he was president of Brigham Young University and later became president of Utah State University. He called on Professor H.L. Welsh to send a team of Utah State agricultural experts to Iran. They helped establish experimental farms, provided training to local farmers, and worked on developing new irrigation techniques suited to Iran’s arid climate. 

The exchange of knowledge that ensued between Iran and Utah State University encouraged hundreds of Iranian students to join the university. Among them was Ardeshir Zahedi, the Iranian ambassador to the U.S., Cuba, Mexico, the Bahamas and Venezuela. Married to Princess Shahnaz, daughter of the shah, Zahedi obtained an agricultural degree from USU in 1950.

In 1960, Utah State University President Daryl Chase granted Ambassador Zahedi an honorary doctorate as an expression of gratitude. In turn, Zahedi came back to present Chase with the Order of the Crown, given to him by His Imperial Majesty the Shah of Iran. In his address to the graduating class, Zahedi expressed that he had found Utah to be like a second home. 

Exchanges and bonds of friendship

During the 1970s, Utah universities maintained a robust bond with Iran. Teams of experts and professors from Utah State established exchange programs with the University of Tehran, and helped found the agricultural college in Karaj, Iran. Under this program, Iranian students were given the opportunity to study in the United States, while American students were sent to Tehran to learn Persian, art and architecture. Utah State has one of the largest alumni classes in the United States. Some of them have shown their appreciation by making large donations to the university. Doctors and nurses from the University of Utah helped Iranian doctors with their rural health clinics, and faculty and advisers from Brigham Young University helped with improving education and teaching. 

Prior to the 1979 Iranian Revolution that disrupted these connections, there were around 3,000 Iranian students studying in various Utah universities, the U.S. Peace Corps for Iran held its training sessions in Logan, and hundreds of Utah residents lived and worked in Iran. The Church of Jesus Chris of Latter-Day Saints had an Institute in Tehran devoted to inter-faith studies and encouraged Brigham Young University to build a teachers’ education college in Iran.

Iran, Saudi Arabia agree to diplomatic ties after 7 years of tension
The uncertain status of Iran’s morality police

Even though the Iranian revolution of 1979 disrupted the political connections between Utah and Iran, it did not sever the people-to-people connections between Utah and Iran.

Many Iranian students stayed in Utah and brought their family members. Utahns who had experienced life in Iran maintained their connections to the Iranian culture and traditions by observing its holidays with Iranian friends, as well as helping them settle into their new environment and secure employment. It is not difficult to find a Utahn today whose parents or a relative lived and worked in Iran. Some have prominent television anchor positions, lead major corporations or teach at universities. Some held senior administrative positions at universities in Utah. 

Because of what transpired in 1915 in Logan, Utah is home to 10,000 Iranians that includes dozens of Iranian professors, Iranian businessmen, professionals and public servants. The Utah legislature adopted a resolution Bonds of Friendship with Iran, and Utah’s congressional delegation is very supportive of strengthening bonds of friendship with the Iranian people.

People like John Widtsoe, Mirza Gholi Khan and Franklin Harris serve as inspiring examples for how to turn friendship into an engine of prosperity and goodwill for both Utahns and Iranians. We desperately require more people of their caliber in the modern world.

 Bahman Baktiari is the executive director of the Baskerville Institute.