Hassan Doe (a pseudonym) doesn't like the Iranian government. When he was last in Tehran, in 2005, he urged friends, family members and people he met on the street to vote against Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. He didn't particularly like the other candidate either, but he foresaw terrible things for his country if Ahmadinejad were elected president. Doe's fears have been realized; he views Iran's administration as ineffective, repressive and corrupt.
But, Doe says, "the most horrible thing that could happen is war between the United States and Iran."
Should this come to pass, as some pundits now say is inevitable, Doe, 28, who has lived in Madison for the past five years pursuing a Ph.D. in biophysics, would feel helpless. "I cannot do anything," he says, "so I'd just have to stay here and watch it."
Doe's family members, all of whom still live in Tehran, are also worried. In 1980, they lost everything when their hometown of Abadan was razed at the beginning of the Iran-Iraq War. Now the threat of war looms again.
In a conversation last year - well before the Bush administration ramped up its rhetoric against Iraq - Doe says his father expressed fear that degrading international relations could lead to a U.S. attack.
These concerns are shared by other Iranians in Madison. According to International Student Services, there are only about 10 nationals from Iran attending the UW-Madison. Both Iranian nationals and Iranian Americans at the UW have trouble estimating the size of the local Iranian community, but say it is relatively small.
"The thought of war is extremely upsetting," says Laila Salimi, an Iranian American born in Washington, D.C. The founder and president of the UW-Madison Iranian Student Association, which has about 30 members, Salimi stresses the need for open dialogue between Washington and Tehran. "I definitely think there needs to be discussion."
The White House has repeatedly accused Iran of seeking to develop a nuclear arsenal and supplying Shiite militias in Iraq with weapons that kill U.S. troops. Iran denies both claims.
In October, President Bush said: "If you're interested in avoiding World War III, it seems like you ought to be interested in preventing [Iran] from having the knowledge necessary to make a nuclear weapon."
Despite this, Sara Thurston-Gonzalez, UW-Madison's interim director of International Student Services, says there are no restrictions on what Iranian students can study here - whether it's biotoxins or nuclear physics.
The Department of Homeland Security has kept closer tabs on international students since 2003, under the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System, which seeks to ensure that "only legitimate foreign students or exchange visitors gain entry to the United States." Thurston-Gonzalez says that if federal authorities were to seek extra information on a student (like library materials or coursework), the university would first seek legal counsel.
Although there is no law in place restricting what he studies, Doe doubts he would have been granted a visa to come to the UW to study nuclear physics.
And while Doe has never felt discriminated against by fellow Madison residents, he has endured hardships at the hands of the U.S. State Department, which considers his homeland a "state sponsor of terrorism."
As an Iranian citizen, Doe can obtain only a single-entry visa. And because there is no U.S. embassy in Iran, he must go to neighboring countries like the United Arab Emirates or Turkey to apply. The subsequent background checks are so time-consuming, and the results so unpredictable, that in five years Doe has returned home to see his family only once, in the summer of 2005.
On that trip, Doe managed to get his student visa reapproved in just six weeks; the first time he applied it took six months, and he was interviewed and fingerprinted when he arrived at O'Hare Airport. Doe's mother, who wants to come visit him in Madison, has had her visa application denied.
This difficult visa process frustrates Doe, especially since no Iranians were involved in 9/11 or subsequent attacks in Britain and Spain. Doe says his friends from Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, both nations where known terrorists have originated, have had little trouble getting visas.
As for claims that Iran endangers the U.S. and the world, Doe doesn't buy it. "I don't like the way human rights are in Iran," he says, "but I don't see Iran as being a threat to other nations."
Others share Doe's skepticism regarding the Bush administration's charges. Fareed Zakaria, the editor of Newsweek International, recently noted:
"Iran has an economy the size of Finland's and an annual defense budget of around $4.8 billion. It has not invaded a country since the late 18th century. The United States has a GDP that is 68 times larger and defense expenditures that are 110 times greater. Israel and [nearly] every Arab country...are quietly or actively allied against Iran. And yet we are to believe that Tehran is about to overturn the international system and replace it with an Islamo-fascist order? What planet are we on?"
The irony is that U.S. aggression would likely make Iran more dangerous. Gary Sick, a professor at Columbia University and former White House aide during the Iran hostage crisis, made this point in a recent lecture at the UW-Madison. He argued that if the U.S. launched an attack on Iran, it would cause Iran's internal dissidents to temporarily drop their grudges and take up arms to defend the homeland - similar to how Americans rallied around Bush directly after the World Trade Center attacks.
Doe echoes Sick's argument, but wouldn't count himself among the ranks of those who would defend Iran.
Salimi, whose extended family mostly resides in Tehran, is hesitant to say how she would react if the U.S. were to attack Iran. "I would definitely be inclined to protest," she says, "but protests receive criticism and may have a negative effect when they appear to be unorganized and the people to be uninformed." Salimi would prefer to organize events aimed at educating people here.
While both Doe and Salimi hold on to what they feel are slim hopes for a diplomatic resolution, others are more cynical. An Iranian American student who asked not to be named says he feels that talks of diplomacy are "mere charades," and that it is only a matter of time before the White House fabricates a reason to "trample Tehran."
Doe is not quite sure how the U.S. should move forward in engaging Iran. He's not a political science major, he jokes.
"I don't know how, but war is not the answer."