How America used banjo diplomacy to soothe Iran

Owensboro, Kentucky, is best known for its barbecue, bourbon and bluegrass – not to mention native son Johnny Depp. Every year, the town hosts food and music festivals. But in May 2009, a different sort of attraction arrived: the Obama administration quietly brought in a group of Iranian musicians to learn about American folk music. 

It was a small diplomatic gesture, but one the White House hoped would help ease tensions between the US and Iran, two longtime foes, as the international community tries to close negotiations on a deal limiting the Middle Eastern country's nuclear programme. It wasn't without risk. Hardliners on both sides often view any dialogue with suspicion, and in the lead-up to the Iranians' visit to the town's International Bluegrass Museum, American security officials swore the staff to secrecy; if word leaked, some worried that protests might erupt in the US or Iran.

On that festive afternoon in May, however, the only thing that erupted was applause, recalls Gabrielle Gray, then the museum's executive director. As a five-piece American bluegrass string band performed, some of the Iranians joined in. Sarah Ahmadi, a fully veiled singer, beat a large Persian tambourine, called a daf. "Music," Gray says, "is the sweetest diplomatic language."

Cultural exchanges between Washington and Tehran have largely been kept out of the spotlight. But for over the past 17 years, Iranian athletes, scientists and artists have quietly arrived in the US for cultural programmes funded by the State Department. A leaked State Department document shows that, last year, 61 Iranians quietly visited the US on such excursions. Small groups of Americans have travelled to Iran as well, sharing ideas and even collaborating in fields such as environmental protection, astronomy and health care.

"These exchanges are just as powerful as any weapon system we sell to the Arab world, if not more," says retired Ambassador Richard LeBaron, now a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, a Washington-based think tank. "As the [Iranian] conservatives argue against the [nuclear] accord, the build-up of civil society in Iran through exchanges creates a constituency that can push back against them."

As a nuclear agreement looms, private organisations are lining up more exchanges, says Jennifer Clinton, president of Global Ties US, which helps administer international exchange programmes. Yet some experts say the growth of these exchanges could remain limited. American lawmakers, they say, would need to lift sanctions that rule out any exchanges with military or economic applications – a prospect that seems far off. Other experts aren't convinced the Obama administration fully appreciates the potential of person-to-person diplomacy to help pave the way for the US and Iran to restore full diplomatic relations.

If the administration needs convincing, it might consider an email sent by an Iranian musician to a band member in Owensboro after visiting Kentucky. "Dear friend," she wrote. "This is Sara Ahmadi, the player of an Iranian percussion daf who had a chance of being in the US about two months ago. I hope you still remember me. I think when I was there, I had the best time of my life."