Longtime UVa professor Ramazani, an expert on Iran, dies at 88

By Derek Quizon
Originally published in DailyProgress

R.K. Ramazani, the University of Virginia professor known as the “dean of Iranian foreign policy studies,” has died at age 88. Courtesy of Dan Addison/The University of Virginia R.K. Ramazani, who taught at the University of Virginia from 1953 until 1998, has died.

Ramazani, who taught at UVa from 1953 until 1998, passed away at the UVa Medical Center early Wednesday morning, less than 24 hours after suffering a fall in his house.

The Iran native and Ivy resident is best remembered as an expert on Iranian history and politics — especially the turbulent relationship between the U.S. and Iran.

His death comes about a year and a half after the United States reached a deal with the Iranian government over its nuclear program — a development that gave Ramazani great hope for the future.

He laid out his hopes in his final op­ed piece for The Daily Progress, published on Jan. 24: “It is reasonable to hope that, long after the current hostility has faded, there may be a new era of mutual engagement and amicable collaboration between the two nations,” Ramazani wrote. “Both the United States and Iran seek the defeat of ISIS and al­Qaida, the stabilization of Iraq, the ending of the Syrian civil war. These and other mutual interests are the common ground to be forged.”

Friends said it was a satisfying bookend to the life of Ramazani, which was turned upside down by the Iranian Revolution of 1979.

The revolution, which overthrew the U.S.­backed shah of Iran for a hard­line religious regime, was a difficult pill to swallow for Ramazani, described by former colleague William B. Quandt as a “secular moderate.”

“That was not the Iran he knew and hoped would be his alternate home,” said Quandt, a professor in the Woodrow Wilson Department of Politics at UVa. The rise of Ayatollah Khomeini — leader of the 1979 revolution — marked a new era of tensions between Iran and the U.S., which was deeply resented for its role in deposing democratically elected Premier Mohammad Mossadegh in favor of the shah in 1953.

Those tensions were highest in 1979, during the Iranian Hostage Crisis, but have flared up repeatedly over America’s role in the Middle East, its alliance with Israel and Iran’s nuclear program.

Through it all, Ramazani had faith the two sides could reach an understanding.

Brantly Womack, another one of Ramazani’s colleagues at UVa, said watching these ups and downs with Ramazani over the years was “like watching it in real time,” he said.

He wasn’t an apologist for the Iranian government, Womack said, but a mediator who rejected the notion that the two nations could not coexist peacefully.

“His life was dialogue among civilizations and he very much emphasized that,” Womack said. Ramazani escaped from Iran in 1951 as it was in the midst of a massive political struggle over its oil reserves. He came to the university shortly thereafter, Quandt said, and “immediately fell in love.” He began teaching classes on the politics of the Middle East just before receiving his doctorate.

He lived in Central Virginia for the rest of his life, settling in Ivy with his wife, Nesta. The couple had four children — including UVa English Professor Jahan Ramazani — and six grandchildren.

Jahan said he remembers his father’s “extraordinary drive and energy,” which allowed him to balance the work of analyzing complex political issues in the Middle East with the work of being a father, and then a grandfather.

“It was wonderful to see the blossoming of those parts of his personality — the humor, silliness and uncomplicated affection that a grandparent can have for a child,” Jahan Ramazani said. “I felt fortunate that my kids (now 15 and 19) grew up in the same town and so could bask in his and my mother’s love, while in the process developing a cross­generational sense of history and culture.”

The Ramazanis often invited students as guests at their Ivy home, Quandt said, and he was known as a generous teacher and mentor.  

Ramazani also was a mentor to many ambassadors to the Middle East, as well as many Iranian academics in the U.S. One of his protégés, Hooshang Amirahmadi, went on to become a professor at Rutgers University and president of the American Iranian Council.

“He was tremendously respected in the academic community and beyond,” Amirahmadi said. “[He was] extremely kind and generous.”

One of his students, Wilson Nathaniel Howell, entered the foreign service in 1965 and served as the U.S. ambassador to Kuwait during the Gulf War. Before taking Ramazani’s class, the Middle East was not Howell’s area of focus. “His course and our friendship had much to do with my subsequent Foreign Service specialization in the Arab world,” said Howell, who went on to become professor emeritus at UVa and retired in 2015. “He was an excellent teacher with a capacity to engage his students with the societies he was discussing,” Howell said.

Quandt remembers him as “kind of an old­style gentleman” who was always immaculately dressed and well­mannered. Several people who knew him remember that he had the rare combination of diplomacy and straightforwardness — he was polite but no­nonsense.

His decorated career at UVa included two terms as chairman of the politics department: from 1976 to 1982 and from 1992 to 1994. During the last stint, he hired Larry J. Sabato, who went on to become director of the UVa Center for Politics and one of the university’s most prominent faculty members.

Among the many roles Ramazani played was as a contributor to The Daily Progress opinion pages. Anita Shelburne, editorial page editor, said she remembers him as intellectually gifted, yet “one of the most genuinely humble people I’ve ever known.” “[He was] truly a kind man and a pleasure to work with,” Shelburne said. “I’ll miss him deeply.”

He survived by his wife, Nesta; four children: Vaheed, David, Jahan and Sima; and six cherished grandchildren: Ariana, Allegra, and Annika Fiets; Gabriel and Cyrus Rody­Ramazani; and Anthony Ramazani.