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US Scholar's Planned Iranian Burial in Limbo

  • Maryam Manzoori
  • Golnaz Esfandiari

FILE - Harvard University's Richard Frye, Aga Khan Professor of Iranian Studies (photo: Harvard University).

FILE - Harvard University's Richard Frye, Aga Khan Professor of Iranian Studies (photo: Harvard University).

The burial of a prominent American scholar who wanted to be laid to rest in the central Iranian city of Isfahan remains in limbo amid a backlash from a small but influential group of hard-liners.

Richard Frye, a Harvard professor who dedicated his career to studying Iran’s ancient culture and language, died last month in Boston at 94 and his body is waiting to be transferred to the land he loved.

In his will, Frye had asked to be interred at a mausoleum on the banks of the Zayandeh River, near Isfahan, the former capital of Persian Empire and, in his own words, “the cultural center of Iran.”

But Kazem Mousavi-Bojnourdi, director of the Center for the Great Islamic Encyclopedia, a Tehran-based research institute on Iranian and Islamic culture, told Iran’s ISNA news agency Wednesday he had yet to receive responses to letters sent to Iran’s president, foreign minister and the local government in Isfahan regarding Frye’s request.

“I have asked Ali Akbar Velayati, the supreme leader’s close consultant, to inform us if he disagrees with transfer of the body. But if he agrees, he should mediate and direct the opposing group not to politicize this totally cultural matter,” Mousavi-Bojnourdi told ISNA.

Mousavi-Bojnourdi, whom Frye had personally asked to execute his will, said Frye had trained many Iran specialists and “we owe him [the honor of his request].”

Hard-line pushback

A local cleric who opposes the planned interment, however, had other ideas.

"The people of Isfahan will not allow authorities to bury the body of a CIA spy in the city," Mohammad Taghi Rahbar, the city's prayer leader, said of Frye’s burial plans during the weekly political sermon.

In a statement released earlier this month, Frye’s wife, Eden Naby, acknowledged he had worked for the Office of Strategic Services, an American intelligence agency, during World War II.

She said Frye had carried out “cryptographic and interview work” in Afghanistan and Turkey and monitored communications between Germany and Japan, The New York Times reported.

Naby Frye said her husband returned to Harvard after the war and that he loved Iran. “And no, he was never ever paid by the CIA,” she said in her statement.

Dozens of hard-liners in Isfahan protested against Frye’s burial plans on April 10, with some spray-painting slogans on the mausoleum, where two other American Iranologists – Arthur Pope and Phyllis Ackerman, his wife – have already been laid to rest.

The demonstration followed attacks on the deceased scholar in the media, including the influential Kayhan daily, which often carries the views of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.

Lawmaker Ahmad Salek called on Iranian President Hassan Rouhani not to allow Frye to be buried in the Islamic republic.

The attacks appear to emanate from a group of conservative clerics and commanders of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards opposed to the recent thaw in U.S.-Iran relations and the ongoing talks between Washington and Tehran.

Iranian journalist Isa Saharkhiz said the government does not have a plan to confront the small group of hard liners.

“Rouhani knows very well [they] won’t miss an opportunity not to let him work,” he told VOA in an interview.

Revered figure

Frye, sometimes referred to as “dean of the world’s Iranologists,” was admired even by some of Iran’s most conservative, anti-American leaders.

In 2010, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, then Iran’s president, approved Frye’s burial plan and reportedly gave him the keys to a traditional house with a courtyard garden in Isfahan.

A prodigious scholar, Frye spent more than 70 years studying Iran and helped establish the Center for Middle East Studies at Harvard University, one of the first Iranian studies programs in the U.S.

A prominent Iranian linguist, Ali Akbar Dehkhoda, gave Frye the title “Irandoost,”or, “friend of Iran,” which he used when signing his papers.

Iran’s reformist foreign minister, Javad Zarif, paid public tribute to Frye on Twitter a day after the scholar's death.

"Deeply saddened by passing of Prof Richard Frye: true friend & scholar of #Iran. His legacy as giant will forever live on. God rest his soul," Zarif tweeted on March 28.

Zarif and other government officials have not commented publicly on the controversy over Frye's possible burial in Iran.

“I am not surprised by his [burial wishes] because he worked about 70 years on Iranian history and culture,” said John Limbert, a former U.S. diplomat and ex-American hostage in Iran.

“It was [Frye] who encouraged me to enter diplomacy when I was his student, about 40 years ago. He believed [America] needed more people focused on history and civilization in our diplomatic system,” Limbert said.

While the issue of Frye’s burial continues to play out, Tajikistan has volunteered a resting place for the American scholar. Frye’s wife was quoted by Iran’s Ghanoon newspaper as saying “if Iran decides not to comply with the will, [he] will be transferred to Dushanbe.”

Maryam Manzoori reported from Washington for VOA's Persian service and Golnaz Esfandiari reported from Prague for Radio Free Europe

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