2023-24 Americans in the EU

From LA to Lund: The “Iran Challenge” from a (surprisingly) Swedish Perspective

Dr. Dalia Dassa Kaye is a 2023-2024 Fulbright Schuman scholar based at the Centre for Advanced Middle Eastern Studies at Lund University, Sweden and at the German Marshall Fund in Brussels, Belgium as a non-resident senior fellow. Dalia’s research compares American and European approaches to Iran beyond the nuclear agreement.  She is a senior fellow at the UCLA Burkle Center for International Relations and directs its global initiative for regional security architectures. Dalia was previously a senior political scientist at the RAND Corporation where she served as the Director of the Center for Middle East Public Policy. 

Q: Can you start by telling us a bit about the research you’ve been conducting?

My project explored shifting European perceptions and policies toward Iran at a time of great geopolitical flux globally and political change within Europe itself. For over two decades, Iran’s nuclear program has dominated Europe’s engagement with Iran. Now, with the virtual collapse of the Iran nuclear agreement (JCPOA) and Iran’s support for Russia’s war against Ukraine—and in the aftermath of the Mahsa Amini protests and the war in Gaza—Europe’s ties with Iran are fraying and Iran’s interest in Europe is declining. My research aimed to better understand these shifts and the future trajectory of European-Iranian relations, and its impact on transatlantic approaches toward Iran beyond the nuclear file. My research and analysis included extensive dialogues with European academics, think tank experts, and policymakers over the course of the Fulbright grant.

Q: In what way is this topic important to the transatlantic relationship?

The Iran challenge, including Iran’s expanding nuclear program as well as support for militant non-state groups across the Middle East, is a common concern for both Europe and the United States. The United States and Europe have worked closely on containing Iran’s nuclear program for over two decades, including active coordination through the Iran nuclear agreement of 2015. Iran is consistently a high priority issue in transatlantic dialogues, and unfortunately the Gaza war has only further intensified common concerns about Iran’s growing relationship with Russia and destabilizing activities throughout the Middle East region.

Q: What have you accomplished during your time in Europe? What can you tell us about the initial outcomes of your research?

The Gaza war overshadowed much of my grant period, and of course my research agenda, particularly given Iran’s role in the conflict was at the forefront of policy discussions. I wrote several Foreign Affairs articles during my grant period on the regional implications of the Gaza war.. I also participated in at least half a dozen workshops discussing Iran and regional affairs in different European capitals, maximizing my engagement with European policymakers and scholars. I also conducted dozens of separate research interviews for my project, including with European Union officials in Brussels. I will utilize these interviews and meetings to supplement secondary research to write another article specifically on Europe and Iran following the grant. 

Q: The Fulbright Schuman Program allows grantees to split their time between multiple countries, and you had originally intended to spend time in both Belgium and Sweden. How did you select your host countries, and how did this plan work out in practice? 

I had selected Sweden [as a host country] because of an excellent Middle East center at Lund University and a number of scholars in the country who are focused on Iran-related issues (and the country hosts a large Iranian diaspora). I also thought a national perspective would be a useful comparison to Brussels-based policymaking to better understand the diversity of positions within Europe on contentious foreign policy issues. I traveled to different European locations regularly for meetings and also had useful research trips to Brussels. But Sweden proved to be far more vibrant and interesting than I had expected. 

Q: Tell us about life in Lund! In what ways has life in Sweden surprised you, either for its similarities to or differences from your own culture?

Overall I loved living in Lund: it’s a wonderful university town (really a large village) filled with Swedish culture and cobblestone streets but also a vibrant international community. It’s about as different as Los Angeles, my hometown, as you can get: no one drives and you can walk or bike anywhere in about 10 minutes, including to many tempting pastry shops! I particularly enjoyed the Swedish lunch culture, with daily specials at reasonable prices and delicious food (and always a veggie option), much more than the American sandwich-at-your-desk culture. The local museums are also wonderful and the Lund Cathedral is a stunning focal point of the city. I popped in regularly for concerts and a great clock show.

One similarity that I wasn’t expecting was that the Swedish train system was not as well run and efficient as I would have envisioned for a Nordic country. The train system is of course superior to the U.S. given our public infrastructure challenges, but delays and cancellations were more common than I expected, and a common source of frustration to Swedes themselves. (“Replacement bus” became a dreaded word…) Otherwise the largely cashless society, clean cities, and great design (along with Denmark of course) fully met my expectations of what a Nordic country might be like. The people are not as outgoing as Americans, and certainly less confrontational (which can be good and bad, depending on the circumstances), but once you got to know people, they were happy to engage. 

Q: Sounds like a great experience. How did you spend your free time in Lund? Were you able to engage with your host community? 

The Swedes have a reputation for their love of nature, and I took full advantage of this by exploring local nature reserves and trails, our local botanical garden, and traveling up to the Swedish Lapland during winter break to see first hand the stunning arctic scenery and culture. The other way I engaged was through social gatherings with new Swedish friends and colleagues. I was fortunate to be invited to dinner parties and happy hours with interesting Swedish business executives as well as nonprofit leaders and scholars. These social occasions really helped me understand the nuances of Swedish culture as well as the differences across the Nordic states, which can be stark. I also learned a great deal about political developments and shifts underway across society, not just in Sweden but in the larger Nordic region. I picked up on nuances in Swedish culture and politics that simply would not have been possible without being immersed in the country and having these informal social exchanges with locals. 

Q: What has been your favorite “discovery” in your host country (or countries)?

Fika, of course! A great late morning tradition mixing delicious cinnamon buns (or a healthier cheese sandwich and fresh fruit as my university center offered weekly) with informal social engagement. The Swedish ‘pick and choose’ candy is also the best!

Q: Can you tell us the story of a particularly memorable moment from your time in Sweden?

When my family came to visit during winter break we decided to go full in on the chilly Swedish climate and head up north to the Swedish arctic. My kids really wanted the experience of sleeping on an ice bed at the famous ice hotel.  After exploring the amazing ice sculptures that are designed anew every year by artists from all over the world, I reluctantly agreed to one night in a family ice room, where you literally sleep on a block of ice. My family loved the experience, though I must admit that I only lasted until about 3 a.m. when I escaped to a bunk bed in the “warm room.” It was a cold but certainly memorable experience from my time in Sweden! 

The other memorable moment was having the opportunity to attend the Nobel prize ceremony in Stockholm–a great Fulbright perk. Watching the recognition of so many great minds up close was inspirational and a reminder of how knowledge can change the world for the better. The loud applause for the inventors of the Covid vaccine was particularly inspiring and a clear example of science literally saving lives. It was a moment of hope we all needed, particularly during a year of so much conflict and destruction.

Q: What will you do after your Fulbright grant? In what ways has your experience in Europe this year impacted your plans for the future? 

I plan to publish additional pieces related to my project and continue to engage European contacts I met throughout the grant. I also organized an expert workshop with my center director bringing experts from across Europe to Lund for a dialogue on Europe-Iran related issues. I envision my collaboration with the center director to continue beyond my fellowship and we have already spoken about the possibility of continuing a non-resident affiliation. 

Q: What misconceptions do you think other Americans may have about the European Union? To what extent has your own understanding of the EU and European identity changed during your time here?

I think many Americans do not have a good understanding of the EU and often dismiss the importance of Europe because of this lack of understanding. This is quite common in Washington policy circles. Spending time in Europe gives Americans an appreciation for the ways the EU impacts the world and its critical importance to development and stability over the longer-term, which is under serious challenge at the moment due to Russia’s war in Ukraine.

Q: What advice would you give to someone who is considering applying to the Fulbright Program?

I would strongly encourage colleagues to consider a Fulbright. It’s a unique opportunity to immerse yourself in a foreign culture and allow for engagement that’s simply not possible through short visits or one-off academic conferences. For Europe-based fellowships,I think there are also advantages to being based outside of Brussels to get a national perspective, with visits to Brussels to gain the EU vantage point as a comparison. Of course country selection should also be linked to the project content, but what’s most critical is finding a supportive host who is willing to integrate the Fulbright scholar and encourage interactions with the host’s community. I felt lucky to have such an experience in Lund at the university’s Middle East center, and I think it really made the difference in terms of the positive experience I had in Sweden.