THE BLOG

With Food as a Common Denominator, an American Is Welcomed in Iran

02/10/2014 15:15 BST | Updated 02/12/2014 10:59 GMT

On August 26th of this year, two days after his daughter's wedding in a seacoast town near The English Channel, former Ambassador Kenneth Quinn (Cambodia/Clinton/1996-99), walked into an auditorium in Karaj, Iran, an hour's drive north of Tehran, and addressed more than four hundred scientists at the Agricultural Biotechnology Research Institute of Iran. He received thunderous applause and a standing ovation, led by the Minister of Agriculture, Mahmoud Hajjati.

What prompted the Iranians to seek out my friend and colleague, who is President of the World Food Prize Foundation, was their determination to honor an American hero: Dr. Norman Borlaug, a plant pathologist who repeatedly crossbred wheat in the 1960s until he had created "miracle wheat" that substantially increased the amount harvested. This increased crop production saved the lives and improved the nutrition of millions in South Asia, and the Middle East, not least of who were Iranians. Quinn's hosts understood the connection between Borlaug and him, and knew that only he could deliver the gravitas they wanted.

Ambassador Quinn's adventure in Iran began in mid-July when he opened an email from the ABRI, inviting him to speak at a ceremony to commemorate what would have been Dr. Borlaug's 100th birthday. While there is no restriction about booking a flight from the U.S. to Iran, in order to enter the country, Ken and his wife, Le Son, would need visas. As July turned to August and the Quinn household became busy with wedding arrangements, they awaited news that the visa request from the Institute had passed the stress test of Iran's supreme power holders. It wasn't until they were leaving for the airport that word came that the visas had been approved. Ken Quinn flew over the heartland of America heading to England, imagining the possibilities of what a handshake in Iran might produce.

Historical Reflections

He reflected on the role Iowans have played so many times in modern history, by bridging seemingly insurmountable political gaps while using food and agriculture as the basis on which to forge bonds that seemed impossible.

We here in England, and on the Continent, remember well the efforts by Iowan Herbert Hoover, who achieved international acclaim for organizing massive food distribution schemes that fed millions of war victims throughout Europe, before, during, and after the U.S. entered World War I. And, then after World War II, Iowa farmers sent livestock to Japan to help replenish their depleted flocks of farm animals. 

In 1959, at the height of the depths of the Cold War, the world looked on in astonishment as an Iowa farmer and entrepreneur hosted Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev on his way from Moscow to Washington, DC. Khrushchev had met Roswell Garst several years earlier when Garst embarked on a trip to sell Iowa grown corn seeds in Eastern Europe during a time when it was locked in the clutches of the Soviets. Khrushchev, a farmer before he tried his hand at dictating, enjoyed Garst's crude humor and homespun mannerisms. They bonded.

Khrushchev also recognized the value to the Soviet people of adopting American farming techniques, as well as it superior seeds that produced eye-popping harvests in the U.S. while millions of Soviets starved to death. Garst welcomed the Russian to his farm with open arms; pictures of them examining enormous ears of corn made the front page of newspapers throughout the world, above the fold.

That meeting in Iowa brought together an American and a Russian as brothers in humanity, overlooking their cultural, political, and national differences, and choosing rather to recognize their shared experience as farmers, whose end game always is to feed people. That widely publicized visit catalyzed an ongoing series of interactions between the U.S. and the Soviet Union at a time when political leaders of both countries could not otherwise find a platform on which they could stand together without catapulting into confrontations.

An epochal presentation

Having left for England with only a few minutes notice that the visas had been approved, Ken had only two days to prepare his remarks after the visas were actually affixed to his passport. He shuttled from one post-wedding event to the next, jotting notes in between appearances, and searching for flights to Tehran. His assistant in Des Moines, Crystal Harris, began transcribing emailed notes, while, at the same time, digging out slides until after midnight. Eventually, there was simply no more time to polish the speech or practice giving it. Ken Quinn was about to enter Iran with the army he had, rather than the army he would have loved to have.

Since there was no way to transmit the final draft while he was en route, Crystal emailed it to the Iranians who assembled the speech, prepared the slides, and handed it to Ambassador Quinn when he arrived in the middle of the night on the day of the event. With two hours of sleep, his epochal presentation was compelling as his speech hit all the right notes.

For a diplomat as accomplished as Ken, making his hosts feel appreciated and honored for having invited him to extoll the qualities of Norman Borlaug, was standard fare; that part he could have called in. But, he knew he needed a takeaway; a reference point that would resonate across the Iranian landscape, across Continental Europe and the UK, and hopefully all the way across the Atlantic Ocean to the leadership of his own government.

He recalled to the Iranians a moment that Dr. Borlaug had shared with him of his experiences in receiving the Nobel Peace Prize. Dr. Borlaug said that a fellow laureate had commented "people who can stand together and cheer for the same accomplishments can live together in peace." Ambassador Quinn pointed out that they all were standing together to cheer for Norman Borlaug, whose life's work meant so much to Iranians whose diet relied heavily on wheat and rice. He suggested that if they could stand together and cheer at this moment, others could do the same.

It was that moment at which Ken received thunderous applause and a standing ovation. A cleric representing the Ayatollah rushed to him as he descended the dais and extended his hand along with enthusiastic exclamations of approval.

Standing together

Ken challenged his Iranian colleagues to fulfill Dr. Borlaug's long held dream of discovering the genetic configuration of rice seeds that are able to resist what is known in the world of agronomy as "rust", and to transplant that genetic structure to wheat, which repeatedly suffers debilitating cycles of rust. The rust ruins the crop and impoverished people across the world suffer malnutrition, stunting, chronic hunger, and starvation because of it.

And, then, ever the diplomat, he invited the Iranians to select one of their own, along with a handful of students, to send to Des Moines, Iowa in October to participate in the week long events surrounding the presentation of the World Food Prize. The World Food Prize was Norman Borlaug's answer to the Nobel Prize, which does not recognize achievements in agriculture. As Chairman of the World Food Prize Foundation for the past 15 years, Ken Quinn has masterminded an expansion of its influence in the salons of government, science, academe, and in the rows that farmer's walk as they try to produce enough to feed a growing and hungry world.

Farmers have little to cheer about; politicians even less. But, when an American can evoke an explosion of applause from Iran's most elite agricultural researchers at the suggestion that all of mankind is capable of standing together to address common challenges, the possibilities for a more peaceful world becomes limitless.