“I was born in Iran on July 21, 1974. My family fled the country right before the revolution when I was four years old. We relocated to Sweden, not with the intent of staying. Everybody thought things would return to normalcy and never expected the type of Islamic Revolution that happened, nor that Saddam
Hussein would invade the country a year later.”
With the revolution turning an already authoritarian state to an even more repressive regime, Trita’s parents had no choice but to stay in Sweden.
“My family is from southern Iran: exactly where the invasion took place. The story of how we got to Sweden is perhaps a bit unusual. My father was a university professor and had been twice jailed for his criticism of the Shah.”
Once he was released from prison, Dr. Parsi received an offer to continue his research in Scandinavia. He moved his young family to Uppsala.
“I vividly remember the first day we came to Sweden in October 1978. By December, the winter was extremely cold and snowy. For the first time in my life, I saw snow outside my window – and it was like magic. The drifts were more than a meter high and my brother, Rouzbeh and I jumped out of our second-story window. It was like coming to a completely different planet from one of the hottest places on earth.”
Trita’s father’s name had been put on a list of people who would be executed on the spot if he were to return to Iran. He was accused of having collaborated with the Shah’s Secret Service. Trita says this was utterly false, and that his father had actually been tortured by the Secret Service. After arriving in Sweden, Dr. Parsi felt it was necessary to return to Iran to clear the family name, as he feared the revolutionaries would execute other family members. Trita is moved as he recounts the day his father left Sweden.
“I knew that I was saying goodbye to him forever. There was no guarantee of what would happen. I knew this – even at five. We had only just been away a couple of months and my mother couldn’t even speak the language; it was a very lonely and scary time.”
“My father returns to Iran and they do not execute him on the spot. Instead, they put him back in the same prison he had just been in months earlier when the Shah controlled it. He ended up sharing the cell with the very man who had been the head of that prison when my father was an inmate the year before. So, my father’s former prison ward was now his prison mate. The revolution executed this prison ward, but my father actually managed to clear his name. Those who were then controlling the jail were a bunch of 20-year-olds: many of whom were my father’s former students and knew that he was not sympathetic to the Shah.
They were able to get him released, so my father left Iran and has never returned.”
The trauma of coming to Sweden under those circumstances and the eight-year war between Iran and Iraq had a profound impact on both Trita and his brother, who now works in foreign policy at the Swedish Institute of International Affairs.
“My uncle had been a governor during this time, so there were legitimate fears of what could happen to the rest of the family. I think it shows something – particularly for those living in the US, where there is a very romanticized view of what a revolution is.”
“America is one of the only countries in the world that has had a successful revolution. Most are quite disastrous and extremely chaotic, as was the one that I lived through. There is this Western – particularly, American – expectation: the notion that, when a situation is bad in the country, why don’t people just rise up and do a revolution? Like it’s as easy as snapping your fingers.”
Trita says Sweden was a fantastic country in which to arrive. Everything was different and exciting. Children pick up the language very quickly, so he and his brother had no trouble adjusting. Trita’s parents did though. As a university professor with his research funded by the Shah government, which had fallen, Trita’s father no longer had a job.
“Sweden was not particularly globalized at the time, so there was no way my father could ever get a job at a university without speaking Swedish. So, it was a veritable struggle for him. He ended up working for several years at an archive, essentially sorting newspapers. With a PhD. This was very different from being a professor in history and sociology. Unfortunately,
Dad never worked as an academic again, which was the case for a lot of people at the time. Sweden was in its own isolated corner in northern Europe. A job market in a society that was structured to handle people arriving who may be extremely highly educated but, because they did not speak Swedish, could simply not blend into society. To truly understand that their career had ended at the age of 39 could not have been easy.”
Trita credits his mother with being the rock of the family. She was just 29 when she relocated, so she had an easier time: especially when it came to learning the language. She easily became part of the job market; in fact, not having a PhD was an advantage. She had more options, which made the adjustment easier.
“Mom ended up working as a Persian native language teacher in the Swedish school system. In Sweden, if you are not a native Swedish speaker, then you are entitled to one to two hours each week of schooling in your native language, for which the government pays. I think this is brilliant. This later became my father’s work as well: certainly, more suitable for him than just sorting newspapers.”
“Nevertheless, it was difficult for everyone because they both come from relatively big families. As a result of the revolution and the war, everyone split up: some left Iran; some stayed. Most were spread out in various countries throughout Europe. That type of family cohesion, which is so essential, had changed across all of these borders.”
Trita first studied at Uppsala University where he did a bachelor’s and a master’s in political science. He was very interested in also getting a degree in economics, so he applied to the Stockholm School of Economics in his third year. He did his last two years at SSE where he received his Master’s.
“Those two years were absolutely wonderful! One of my greatest hopes is that my kids will actually go back to Sweden to study because, as I’m currently teaching at Georgetown, I see the value of some of the best schools in the United States at the graduate level. At the under-graduate level though, the best schools in the world can be found in Sweden. I would prefer to see my kids study in Sweden and have the same opportunity as I did.”
Trita has not lived in Sweden now for two decades. Back when he arrived though, Iranians who came to Europe were known as the new immigrants.
“What does a multi-cultural society look like and how does it function? That debate continues today. When I grew up, there was a very clear divide: You were either Swedish or not Swedish.”
“And for those who were of a foreign background, there was a sense of rejection, which then caused a counter-rejection. People were cleaning out their original identities even though they did not know much about what they actually were.”
Trita always felt like an outsider. This was also the case once he started his studies at the Stockholm School of Economics.
In retrospect, he says it was partly imposed by society and was also a function of the choices he and others made. In the end, this feeling of being isolated became almost self-imposed.
“Coming to the United States was a little different because you’re talking about a society that has already been multi-cultural and multi-ethnic for several decades. It was easier to just blend in. But the more I stay here, the more I realize how strong my Swedish identity is. My wife is half-Swedish and half-Moroccan. We have interesting dinner conversations with our three children. My wife speaks Swedish with the kids, I speak Persian to them. My wife and I speak Persian and French together. And then we all speak English at school and at work.”
“We remain closely connected to our four cultures: Swedish, Persian, Moroccan, and now American.”
Trita explains his and his wife’s dark history.
“We met in karate class when she was 12 and I was 13. She beat up my best friend, which I didn’t take too well. We did not see each other again until we were about 20. Then, it was love at ‘second’ sight.”
“Her name is Amina. She also has a deep interest in the Middle East. When other teenagers did high school exchanges with students in the US, she decided to go to Egypt where she perfected her Arabic. Amina is a social scientist who works with educational issues in Africa and the Middle East.”
Trita had the opportunity to live in the US as a high school exchange student and then again as an intern at the Swedish UN Mission in New York. He also did an internship on Capitol Hill the year before. He has always had a deep interest in international relations and foreign policy.
“Particularly after its entrance into the EU in 1995, Sweden ceased to be the type of big foreign policy trade like it had been: for example, during the Cold War. Because of its neutrality and its own desire to send a message of strong moral leadership, Sweden ended up punching way above its weight. If you were really interested in having an impact on foreign policy, Stockholm was not the place to be... Washington was.”
Trita graduated from the Stockholm School of Economics in early 2000. He started working at Kreab: one of Stockholm’s biggest public affairs consultancies. A year later, he was given the opportunity to start a PhD at Johns Hopkins’ School for Advanced International Studies, a few blocks away from the White House.
“I jumped at that opportunity: not simply because I wanted to do a doctorate; because I also wanted to be seen and be where I would be able to have an impact on foreign affairs.”
Prior to completing his PhD, Trita established the National Iranian American Council (NIAC): an organization that gives the Iranian-American community a voice in Washington.
“From the outset, it wasn’t intended to be political, but because the community grew and the risk of war between the United States and Iran also grew during the George W. Bush administration, I ended up strongly pushing for diplomacy.”
“Elbows are pretty sharp in Washington, so we found ourselves in the middle of an extremely political fight. This gave us a lot of attention and prominence; it also turned us into a leader in this field because, at the time, very few were really open to taking the risk of pushing for diplomacy.”
Then Barack Obama comes in. And his platform is all about diplomacy and returning the United States toward greater focus and engagement.
“As a result, we ended up working really closely with the Obama administration on several of these issues. Once the administration chose to pursue diplomacy with Iran in a very serious way, we became Obama’s advisors, helping his administration negotiate the Iran Nuclear Deal.”
Trita’s book Losing an Enemy: Obama, Iran, and the Triumph of Diplomacy gives a first-hand account of this historic nuclear deal. This publication follows his first two award-winning books: Treacherous Alliance – The Secret Dealings of Israel, Iran and the US and A Single Roll of the Dice – Obama’s Diplomacy with Iran, which received great worldwide acclaim.
“We did what no one had done in that specific community but what plenty of people have done in others: ensuring we had a political voice. Since this is such a controversial issue, it ended up becoming more difficult than it would have in other cases. Nevertheless, we founded one of the largest organizations.”
After leading NIAC for 17 years, Trita stepped down in 2018, and allowed one of his deputies to take over. Trita says this was a great decision.
“The new organization I co-founded is called The Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft: named after former US Secretary of State, John Quincy Adams. The Quincy already got quite a lot of attention before we even launched because we managed to do something that no one else has done before: that is, to get George Soros from the left and Charles Koch from the right to come together and fund the organization.”
NIAC was more advocacy oriented, focusing on American-Iranian relations and on the Iranian-American community.
Quincy is a think tank that produces research and provides the intellectual pathway for policy change; its first paper deals with the US/China crisis rather than the Middle East. Trita credits growing up in Sweden with his peaceful approach to pushing for world order.
“I am Iranian. I am American. And I am also Swedish. I think my life would have been fundamentally different had I not been raised in Sweden.”
“I saw the world from the perspective of a small state whose global understanding is that in order to create security for itself, it had to help build institutions and create structures in the international system that would benefit – not big armies – but collaborative and creative diplomacy.”
Trita breathes peace into every word he speaks.
“Sweden has played an amazing role in creating the world order. Had it not been for Sweden, we would not have had the institutions that have created one of the most unprecedented periods of peace in human history.”
Text: Karyn McGettigan