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USC Dornsife alum shapes foreign policy on international stage

Professor plays key role in Iran

Mahmood Sariolghalam
Mahmood Sariolghalam, a specialist in Middle Eastern politics, recently returned from this year’s annual meeting of the World Economic Forum.

A quick lesson in Farsi: Sariolghalam, literally, means “quick pen.”

Apt nomenclature for a devoted academic who has written more than 68 articles and 11 books in English, Farsi and Arabic.

Mahmood Sariolghalam, who earned his doctorate in international relations at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences in 1987, is a scholar and specialist in Middle East politics as well as Iranian foreign policy and political culture.

A professor of international relations in the School of Economics and Political Science at Shahid Beheshti University (formerly Iran National University) in Tehran, he has played an important role in shaping the theoretical foundations of the new outward-looking orientation in Iran today.

Sariolghalam recently returned from this year’s annual meeting of the World Economic Forum in Switzerland themed “The Reshaping of the World: Consequences for Society, Politics and Business.” Members gathered to develop insights and actions required to respond to current and emerging challenges related to the political, economic, social and technological forces that transform society.

While there, he participated in a “Global Security Context and Nuclear Security” panel, the latter at the invitation of the Netherlands’ Prime Minister Mark Rutte. As a panelist, Sariolghalam offered his analysis of Iran’s domestic and foreign policy priorities, and Iran’s role in the Persian Gulf.

“As a student of Iranian politics, I think the Rouhani presidency is perhaps the only opportunity for Iranians to lift themselves economically and engage with the international community,” he said. “The most important contribution of this presidency is that it is ‘global-sensitive.’ And Iran’s economy is going to be a focal point over the next four years.”

Sariolghalam said the major challenge Iran faces in its foreign policy is relations with Saudi Arabia. The two countries currently have little connection, and as long as compromise does not exist between them, he believes that little progress can be expected in the Middle East in terms of major issues in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon; Palestine; Persian Gulf security; and improvements in the Iranian nuclear negotiations.

“The sooner we engage Saudi Arabia, the sooner many of these issues will be resolved.”

Sariolghalam was a graduate student at the School of International Relations from 1981 to 1987, a period he calls “transformational.” He remembers details right down to his favorite study cubicle in Leavey Library and the countless hours he spent there.

“The preparation for the doctoral qualifying exams was an intellectual and academic marathon,” he said. “With no exaggeration, I studied for almost 18 hours a day for nine months.”

He noted James Rosenau, Jerry Bender, John Odell and Steven Lamy as the professors who most influenced his thinking and habits.

“I studied with some of the most outstanding academics worldwide in political science and international relations,” he said. “The seriousness of the program, the extent and diversity of the literature, the encouragement to attend professional conferences and the instructors’ frame of mind produced an energy, motivation and purpose in me that was beyond belief.”

When Sariolghalam left Iran in 1974 to attend University High School in Santa Monica, Calif., he promised his parents he would return home to serve Iran. This he has done, having worked and taught there for 26 years, but it certainly hasn’t kept him off the international stage.

He has traveled to 114 countries and attended 534 conferences, including 10 World Economic Forum-related conferences in Europe, Jordan, Egypt and Australia.

Sariolghalam noted that one unique feature of American education is its emphasis on influencing policy. Through his public speaking and being an active member of the conference circuit in Iran, he has tried to draw attention to economic privatization, pluralism, civil society and international trade.

“I have cultivated much opposition but have stood firm and determined to bring Iran back to the community of prosperous and relevant states.”

One major politician focused on such ideas is President Rouhani, who was elected in 2013. According to Sariolghalam, in the first five months the new president’s government has worked on changing Iran’s image, focused on opening trade and encouraged a more tolerant society.

“There are many obstacles ahead and Rouhani will confront colossal challenges, yet public support and pressures of globalization will come to his aid. I am gratified that among many Iranian academics and professionals, I also have an opportunity to serve my country’s national interests,” Sariolghalam said. “I will always remain indebted to the quality of education I received at USC.”

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