Name: Dr Roham Alvandi, Assistant Professor of International History
Role in admissions: Undergraduate Admissions Tutor
What is your field of history?
My main interest is the international history of Iran and the wider Middle East. As a student, I was fascinated by the struggle of ideas and material power that gripped the Middle East in the era of decolonisation and the Cold War. My particular area of interest is Iran’s international history during the reign of its last Shah or emperor, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi (1941-1979). I’m interested in not only how the Cold War impacted Iran’s state and society, but also how Iranian actors like the Shah shaped the course of the global struggle between the United States and the Soviet Union. My first book, Nixon, Kissinger, and the Shah: The United States and Iran in the Cold War, is a study of US-Iran relations during the 1970s. It examines the Shah’s partnership with U.S. President Richard Nixon and his adviser, Henry Kissinger, at a time of superpower détente, Watergate, the Vietnam War, and rising oil prices. I’ve just started work on my second book, which will be a broader history of Iran’s Cold War from the 1940s to the 1980s, including Iran’s relations with the Soviet Union, the People’s Republic of China, and the Communist countries of Central and Eastern Europe. My interest in the Cold War in the Middle East also encompasses a variety of broader topics like neutrality and non-alignment in the Third World, the role intelligence and covert action in international history, and international nuclear history.
How did you first become interested in this subject?
I was born in Iran in the midst of a revolution, so history and politics have had a profound impact on my life and have always held a particular fascination for me. After reading Government as an undergraduate at the University of Sydney, I studied at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, in the hope of pursuing a diplomatic career. I was lucky enough to get a job on the strategic planning staff in the office of UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, where I learnt a great deal about how diplomacy works in practice, but also realised that being a bureaucrat was not for me. I decided to pursue my graduate studies at Oxford, where I read for my MPhil and DPhil degrees. Studying International History has not only given me the opportunity to indulge my own curiosity about Iran and the Middle East, but also the chance to share that interest with colleagues and students from all over the world.
Why is it important to take an international perspective in studying history?
All history is, in a sense, international history. No single state, society, group or individual at any point in human history has been untouched by global movements of commerce, conquest, disease, religion, ideology, migration, diplomacy, or technology. The question is simply whether we treat the ‘international’ aspects of any historical inquiry as the subject or the context of our research. Here at LSE, we focus more explicitly on ‘international’ history as the subject of our research than our colleagues at other institutions might do. By looking across and beyond borders, we not only find it easier to draw connections and parallels between our diverse areas of research, we also tend to encourage more ambitious thinking on the part of our students when it comes to the geographical breadth and depth of their own learning.
Do you study history in order to understand the present?
Yes, what’s past is prologue. Trying to understand the present without any understanding of history is like trying to live your life without your memories. But we also have a tendency to use historical analogies to make sense of the present, which can be fraught with danger. History can help us to simplify a very complex world. But we should do so with deep humility about the limits of our historical interpretations. History is an art, not a science. The best reason to study history is, quite simply, because it’s fun. The diversity, complexity, and absurdity of the human past never ceases to amaze me. Historians are not oracles, able to predict the future. They do, however, aspire to faculties of critical judgement – the ability to weigh evidence and construct arguments – which is absolutely vital for making sense of the complexity that life confronts us with.
What should a prospective student in International History at the LSE be reading?
Anything that inspires them to ask questions about the past. My best students are voracious readers and they read very widely. After all, you never know where your best ideas are going to come from. But, we all have to start somewhere so here are some suggestions. I am happy to correspond with anyone who wishes to read more on a particular subject:
For an understanding of what exactly it is that historians do and why it is important try, Ludmilla Jordanova, History in Practice (2000), or Richard J. Evans, In Defence of History (2001). In terms of leading works in global history, I would also recommend Christopher Bayly, The Birth of the Modern World (2004) or Eric Hobsbawm’s trilogy, The Age of Revolution: Europe: 1789–1848 (1962), The Age of Capital: 1848–1875 (1975), and The Age of Empire: 1875–1914 (1987). There are many excellent histories of empire, which are, of course, also works of international or global history, including Dominic Lieven, Empire: The Russian Empire and its Rivals (2000), and John Darwin, After Tamerlane: The Global History of Empire (2007), or Jane Burbank and Frederick Cooper, Empires in World History: Power and the Politics of Difference (2010). On the international history of decolonisation, I would recommend Erez Manella, The Wilsonian Moment: Self-Determination and the International Origins of Anticolonial Nationalism (2007), or Matthew Connolly, A Diplomatic Revolution: Algeria’s Fight for Independence and the Origins of the Post-Cold War Era (2002). If you are interested in the Cold War, I would recommend Melvyn Leffler, For the Soul of Mankind: The United States, the Soviet Union, and the Cold War (2007), Odd Arne Westad, The Global Cold War: Third World Interventions and the Making of Our Times (2006), and Lorenz Luthi, The Sino-Soviet Split: The Cold War in the Communist World (2008).
Would you be happy for prospective students to be in touch with you?
Yes, of course.