Before the 1979 revolution in Iran, the country's ties to American higher education were extensive. Thousands of Iranian students enrolled at American colleges. And American researchers maintained numerous long-term projects in Iran, studying its archaeology, history, faiths, and languages.
For 25 years after the revolution, ties between academics in the two countries were negligible. In the last year, however, contacts have started to resume. The presidents of Oberlin College, the University of California at Davis, and the American University in Cairo all went to Iran to discuss exchange efforts in the last year -- and their visits are believed to be the first by American college presidents since 1979.
In another first since '79, Tufts University sent a group of students to Iran, and is hoping to send another delegation soon. Oberlin, following up on its president's visit, is in negotiations to send a student quartet to visit the leading music conservatory in Iran -- a trip that would have both cultural and political significance because hostility to Western music in Iran is still strong in some religious quarters.
These and other efforts are happening despite the immense challenges of organizing exchanges with a country with which the U.S. has no diplomatic relations and a recent history of considerable hostility. Some of the initial trips took years to arrange, and took place only after initial attempts were aborted due to visa difficulties, tensions in the region or poor communication.
And organizers say that they fear any worsening of tensions could lead to last-minute cancellations. But they say that the initial efforts have been so successful that they are determined to expand them.
"What is starting to happen is quite extraordinary," said Sherman Teichman, director of the Institute for Global Leadership, at Tufts. "We're not trying to make policy or do anything official. This is about intellectual engagement."
Enthusiasm is also high in Iran. "Iranian academics would like to expand their exchanges with all accredited universities around the world, especially with the top American universities, where many of our professors have received their degrees," said Alireza Anushiravani, head of the Office of International Relations at Shiraz University, in an e-mail interview. "American universities are among the best in the world."
Not so long ago, it would have been difficult or impossible for an Iranian academic leader to publicly praise American institutions in that way. But despite that change in attitude, there is no official American backing for the exchange efforts and international educators say that most foundations are also nervous about supporting these programs. So a few groups and colleges are moving ahead, largely on their own.
The Search for Common Ground,  a nongovernment organization that promotes international conflict resolution, has been focused on Iran for several years. The group sponsored a wrestling exchange in 1998 that was the first American delegation to visit Iran officially since the revolution there. And the group spent several years organizing the trip that included the presidents of Oberlin and American University in Cairo.
Rebecca Larson, program manager for the organization's U.S.-Iran efforts, said the trip was designed to have the American presidents meet with officials at several Iranian universities and to identify possible ways for academic relationships to grow. "We want to eventually promote some larger exchanges, but for now, it's very important that we got presidents over there. It's important for them to see it, and to picture what it would be like to have their students participating in programs there," Larson said.
Nancy Dye, the president of Oberlin, said that in all of her meetings in Iran, she was moved by the desire of academics there for more contact with students and professors from the United States. When she met music educators at the University of Tehran, she said it became clear that Oberlin -- with its noted music conservatory -- would be "the perfect institution" to set up an exchange.
Dye's idea is to send a student quartet from Oberlin to perform at universities in Iran, and to then invite an Iranian group to come to the Ohio college. Students are signed up for the project, and the lengthy visa process is the main obstacle, but Dye hopes to see the visit take place this fall. "It's very slow work, but very important work," Dye said. "We are trying to create a path, which currently does not exist, for more traffic between Iran and the United States in higher education."
Once trips are actually arranged, organizers report that they have no difficulties in Iran and are received with great hospitality. Teichman, of Tufts, said that students on his university's "precedent setting" trip  toured many sites, had many meaningful discussions with Iranians, and were treated well throughout.
Women who travel in Iran need to alter their dress, of course. "Everyone asks me if I wore a hijab, and the answer is, of course. If you are a woman and you want to go to Iran, you wear a hijab," Dye said. She added that none of the officials she met were hesitant to deal with a woman who was a college president, and that she met many university administrators (although not any presidents) who are women.
Teichman said that the Tufts student group included a Jewish student and an Armenian student. Detailed biographies of students were provided to Iranian officials in advance of the trip, and the students were treated with the same respect as others in the program.
Faculty contacts are growing as well. George F. McLean, a professor of philosophy at the Catholic University of America, was one of the first American academics to start a regular relationship with an Iranian university. He has been giving periodic lectures at Mofid University, in Qum, since 1998. But in a breakthrough beyond his visits to Iran, he was able to host nine scholars and clerics from Iran in a visit at Catholic last month. He stressed that the discussions did not avoid "the hard issues -- we talked about Islam and political order."
For some of the American colleges returning to Iran, extensive relationships predate the Iranian revolution. For many years before 1979, Iran was the top provider of foreign students at the University of California at Davis. The agriculture, engineering, and economics program at Davis were particularly popular, and alumni of those programs hold prominent positions in many academic departments in Iran.
Bill Lacy, vice provost for university outreach and international programs at Davis, said that interest in Iran has remained strong over the years because of those connections, and because of the involvement of active alumni from Iran who stayed in California. Last year's trip by Larry Vanderhoef, Davis's chancellor, was designed to build on those ties.
As the chancellor recounted in a diary  of the trip, Davis first attempted to invite the president of the University of Tehran to visit Davis, and when a visa was denied, "we decided then that we would take UC Davis to Iran."
Since the trip, the university has followed up. An Iranian cleric will be visiting Davis this summer to participate in a course on Islam. And this week, Shirin Ebadi, an Iranian civil rights leader and winner of the 2003 Nobel Peace Prize, is visiting Davis.
The growth in contacts between the United States and Iran has been especially important to the American Institute of Iranian Studies,  a group that was founded in 1967 and that until 1979 maintained a research center and hostel in Tehran for visiting American students and scholars, helped those visitors in their dealings with the American government, and offered a range of fellowships for those scholars.
After the Iranian revolution, the institute shifted its fellowships to support work about Iran, but the work was all conducted in the United States. In the past few years, the institute has started offering fellowships once again for work in Iran. Currently the institute is offering fellowships for Ph.D. students to do language study in Iran in the summer, for senior professors to make brief trips to the country to conduct research and for a junior professor to spend a few months on a research project.
The institute has helped a few Iranian scholars visit the United States, and is working to bring four prominent Iranian archaeologists this summer to a major conference, the International Congress of Assyriology and Near Eastern Archaeology,  which is being held in July at the University of Chicago.
Erica Ehrenberg, executive director of the institute, said that all of these efforts remain fragile. "There is theory and there is practice," she said. "You can plan everything and then end up with visa problems."
But she said that the trends are encouraging -- and she is thrilled that more colleges are getting involved in Iran. "One of the really great things is that you have this increased interest and activity among American colleges and there is also growing interest and support in Iran," Ehrenberg said. "Clearly the Iranians are keeping the door open."
Larger exchange organizations are also watching the openings with interest. Mark G. Pomar, president of the International Research and Exchange Board,  said that larger organizations like his have to put Iran programming "on a board burner" until relations between the U.S. and Iran stabilize. As a result, he said that the efforts of colleges like Oberlin and Tufts are "fantastic" in that they build the knowledge base in the United States for an era when larger efforts can start.
Pomar traveled to Iran on the trip organized by the Search for Common Ground, to prepare for that day. "We're going to be in the second wave," he said.