On November 9, 1996, historians and anthropologists gathered for a one-day symposium at the University of Michigan, entitled Old Neighbors, New Perspectives: Armenia and Iran in Modern Times. The purpose of the symposium was to examine the political, social, and cultural ties which have linked Armenia and Iran over the last several centuries. As conference organizer Kevork Bardakjian — director of Michigan's Armenian Studies Program — noted, though Armenia's links with Iran go back to the earliest times, their relationship has continued to develop in the modern and contemporary periods. The symposium considered the relationship between these two old neighbors in light of previously unexplored materials and provided new perspectives on this relationship as it has developed into the modern era.

    During the morning session, chaired by Kathryn Babayan (Near Eastern Studies), participants considered Armenia's historical relationship with Iran from the 14th through the 20th centuries. George Bournoutian, (History, Iona College), opened the discussion by providing a historical account of the relationship of the Eastern Armenian leadership with the Iranian world. He contended that according to Armenian and Iranian sources — and contrary to popular historical accounts — the medieval Armenian nobles, as well as the church and military hierarchy, played a prominent role as leaders of the Armenian people from the medieval to the modern era.

    Following his remarks, Ina McCabe, (History, Bennington College), considered the Armenian presence in the Persian capital of Isphahan and its consequences on Safavid foreign policy. She asserted that Armenians, far from facilitating the Safavids' relationship with Europe — as traditional historiographical accounts suggest — actually prevented the Safavids from making concessions or capitualations to the Europeans and their trading companies. Lastly, she argued that rather than opening Iran to diplomatic ties with eager anti-Ottoman European courts and the papacy, the presence of Apostolic Armenians in Iran soured ties with Catholic Europe and the Pope and added to Safavid isolationism and its mistrust of European intentions.

    Aram Arkun, assistant director of the Krikor and Clara Zohrab Information Center in New York, described a series of riots directed against Armenians in late 19th-century Iran and placed them within the context of contemporary Iranian- Armenian relations. He analyzed the improvements in the status of Armenians in Iran in this period as a result of the supportive policies of the Qajar shahs, the repeated intervention of European powers and missionaries, and the development of greater Armenian educational and economic ties with Europe. Yet Iranian resentment, as well as a developing economic crisis and a rise in both Armenian and Iranian nationalistic sentiment, led to increased tensions. The arrival of new Armenian refugees in Iran from the Ottoman Empire increased these tensions, ultimately leading to an anti-Armenian riot. Unlike in the Ottoman Empire, however, these riots were stopped and the perpetrators punished before they could evolve into full-scale massacres.

    Vincent Lima, editor of Armenian Forum, considered the transformation of Iranian-Armenian communities after the 1979 revolution. He suggested that the rise of the Islamic militant movement and its subsequent take-over of the government changed how the large Armenian population viewed itself. Previously well-integrated into both state and society, the Armenian population greatly diminished immediately following the revolution, as many fled the country for safe-haven abroad. Those who remained, however, turned increasingly toward internal communal affairs and away from the public sphere, ultimately strengthening the ties which held the population together.

    The afternoon session, chaired by Juan Cole (History), focused on the contemporary period. Stephanie Platz, a program officer in the Program on Peace and International Cooperation at the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, opened the discussion with a paper that considered the impact of the rapid de-industrialization of Armenia following the Azerbaijani blockade of supply routes and the break-up of the Soviet Union. During this period of "demodernization," when transportation and communication systems collapsed and unemployment rose to unprecedented highs, traditional familial networks also suffered. Unable to travel, telephone, or even obtain local newspapers, families became increasingly isolated from one another causing kinship bonds to break down. According to Dr. Platz, the changes in daily habits and practices — such as no longer being able to fulfill long-held traditions of hospitality — changed how contemporary Armenians understood their history and even how they conceived of their "Armenianness."

    Similarly, Nora Dudwick, an anthropologist at the World Bank, considered how recent changes, and particularly the war with neighboring Azerbaijan over the contested region of Nagorno-Karabagh, has affected Armenian national identity. Dr. Dudwick suggested that region and social group shape how individuals understand themselves and their relationship to the Azerbaijani conflict. Those who live in or on the border of Azerbaijan, consider their Armenian identity in terms of local, daily relations with their neighbors, while those who live further from the border, particularly those transplanted from former regions of the Ottoman Empire, interpret the conflict in the context of past wars fought against the Turks.

    Following these two talks, Aram Arkun read remarks sent by Seyed Kazem Sajjadpour of the Institute for Political and International Studies in Teheran, currently working for Iran's Mission to the United Nations. Dr. Sajjadpour considered Iran's response to the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Outlining Iran's mediating role in the conflict, he highlighted the various economic and security issues at stake for Iran. By remaining relatively neutral and by deepening its economic relationship with Armenia, Iran has expanded stability in the region.

    Following the afternoon session, conference participants engaged in a lively round-table discussion with audience members, fromboth the University and local Armenian communities.

    The conference was held as part of the annual Alex & Marie Manoogian Conference series. Sponsors included the Armenian Studies Program, the Center for Russian and East European Studies, the Center for Middle Eastern and North African Studies, the International Institute, and the Alex and Marie Manoogian Cultural Fund.

    Maud Mandel is a graduate student in History.