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US professors travel to Iran to discuss Occupy Wall Street movement

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Fordham University professor Heather Gautney speaks at an Occupy Wall Street conference in Tehran last week. (Photo by Glenn Kaplan, courtesy of Heather Gautney)

The Occupy Wall Street movement may be losing its spotlight in the United States, but it's gaining attention in Iran, where a handful of American professors recently traveled to attend a conference focusing on the anti-capitalist protests.

"The discourse (in Iran) seems to be veering from 'Down with America!' to 'Down with the 1 Percent!'" said Heather Gautney, a self-described "Occupy Wall Street activist" and a sociology professor at Fordham University in New York. "In my view, this is quite a welcome development, and speaks to Iranians' affection for Americans despite all the political conflict."

Gautney was one of four U.S. professors last week to attend the two-day conference at Tehran University, in a country whose people -- despite any possible dissatisfaction -- are not in a position to take to the streets, as she described it. Consequently, she said, Iranian professors and students view the Occupy movement as "an object of study," not something to emulate anytime soon.

When she and the other professors were first invited to the conference, they were worried about the organizers' motivations, Gautney admitted. But after seeing a list of about 30 questions that would be posed to them, "it seemed like a very legitimate kind of project," she said.

In particular, organizers wanted to hear the professors speak about: What is the significance of the movement? How did it come about? Who are the protagonists? What are the goals?

"I got the sense that they were trying to confirm impressions that they had, confirm things that they had read in the press, in part so that they could integrate into their own and also into their classroom," Gautney said.

Nevertheless, government-controlled media in Iran didn't miss an opportunity to highlight the American professors' presence in Tehran. In an English-language report posted online, Iran's PressTV offered this headline from the conference: "Experts: Occupy Wall Street likely to topple US administration."

But no one in the report, including the American professors, said any such thing.

Two weeks earlier, Iran's PressTV posted a report from another Occupy Wall Street conference in Tehran, during which American religious activists said the Occupy movement "will redesign the world order."

A man identified as Imam Abdul Alim Musa from the Masjid al-Islam mosque in Washington said Occupy activists "feel that all of us are part of the 99 percent" and "are against one government killing scientists, engineers, peaceful people," referring to the recent assassination of an Iranian scientist working on Iran's nuclear program.

"So they are naturally against Zionism," Musa said in the report, provided to Fox News by the Washington-based Middle East Media Research Institute. "The monster today is global Zionism."

In the United States, some critics of the Occupy movement have pointed to several videos from protests featuring what the critics describe as anti-Semitic language.

Gautney said she would "vehemently disagree" with any such comments, saying the only enemy of Occupy Wall Street is inequality.

"I find (the imam's) claim quite disturbing and an awful attempt to use (the movement) as a pawn in religious conflicts of which is it not at all a part," she said.

As for the conference she attended, Gautney acknowledged a few presentations were "highly rhetorical," including one mentioning "the imperialism" of Europeans dating back to the days of Christopher Columbus. And, she said, "time and time again" Iranians asked if the Occupy movement is a signal "that there are problems with the liberal, democratic" system.

But she indicated she disagreed with any sentiments suggesting the demise of the U.S. government.

"I don't think any of us think that Occupy Wall Street is signaling the death of capitalism," she said. "(But) we certainly can see that it is signaling some problems in the system. ... We have a deeply unequal social and political system, and part of that is due to severe power inequalities."

Still, even when Gautney disagreed with some of the statements made at the conference, she wasn't always comfortable voicing her opinion.

"I felt my role there was to maintain my positions as representing the movement," she said. "To come into another country and start advising them on how to do things -- especially (since) I have no education in Islamic history, I have no real understanding of the society -- it would have been foolish and irresponsible. I didn't see my role as one of taking up the fight, spreading the Occupy Wall Street to Iran."

What's more, voicing some of her opinions could have been dangerous.

"You don't know what the level of control is, so you don't want to go places where you could get yourself into trouble," she said. "There's no U.S. Embassy there. There's no support mechanism. So I didn't feel like I had the freedom of speech to veer away from my ... talk about the movement."

Asked why she would attend a conference at which she couldn't speak her mind, Gautney said, "What you can do is give them real information about the movement."

She said one "misperception" among Iranians is that that U.S. media coverage of the Occupy movement "was very negative," and that news outlets " failed to report on a lot of what had been going on."

"We had an opposite impression," Gautney said of herself and her fellow activists. "From within the U.S., it was up and down, but for the most part there was a lot of positive reporting and a lot of media presence."

So, she said, she was able to "correct" a "complete misperception of what's going on."

In addition, Gautney was able to answer Iranians' questions about life in the United States, whom she described as "incredibly curious about American society."

In particular, Gautney said, Iranians were interested in the "mechanisms" of the U.S. economic crisis, including debt and the housing market's collapse. At the same time, many female students asked her questions such as: What does it mean to be a single parent? Do women have abortions? And, Why are so many teenage girls having children?

Conversations about the Iranian regime were "limited" because, in Gautney's assessment, Iranians "have to tow a line there" and "weren't really turning (the) lens inward."

In addition, she said United Nations sanctions against Iran are "really hitting the poor and middle-class people" and undercutting opportunities for uprising from within.

"It sort of positions people against the West rather than allowing them to find spaces of dissent within their own country," Gautney said. "It sort of unifies the country, and it gives them something to unify around."