Charlie Naas: The Quiet Diplomat

by Michael Metrinko

[EDITOR’S NOTE: It saddens us to report that Charles Naas, an Iran specialist par excellence and a LobeLog contributor since 2013, passed away August 18 at the age of 92. We asked Michael Metrinko, one of his former colleagues in the Foreign Service, Michael Metrinko, to write a remembrance of Charlie. We will miss him.]

The first time I met Charlie Naas was in Tabriz, Iran, when he visited me at the American Consulate there. It was early 1978, and he had recently arrived to take his position as Deputy Chief of Mission at the Embassy. In those pre-internet days, Tabriz was at the distant end of the communications trail. I had no idea of his background or what kind of boss he would be, and I was already in deep water with the Embassy for my contrarian views about Iran’s political future. Over the course of the next few days he asked a thousand questions, showing that he was really interested in hearing from me as a way to arrive at mutual understanding, and not in simply repeating any standard line. What I came to realize over the ensuing months, as the Iranian Revolution unfolded, and then over the many years of our friendship, was that Charlie was as close to being Socrates in his approach to life and to his profession as any American I was ever likely to meet. His questions and suggestions helped focus and refine my own thinking and led me to view the changes in Iran with a far more analytical eye.

Today’s inner-Washington Beltway conferences and symposiums, and our computer and television screens at home, are filled with political pundits and ex-diplomats who produce op-eds and give their opinions loudly on every possible topic. Charlie was an old school professional diplomat at the other end of the spectrum–a quiet, thoughtful person who always seemed more interested in learning than lecturing. This made him the quintessential teacher and the perfect sounding board. The hospitality in his home, and a couple hours of quiet discussion with him over whisky and cigarettes, were the diplomatic equivalent of serious post-graduate research in Middle Eastern and South Asian regional affairs. He could weave the peoples and politics of Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan, Syria, Israel, and Pakistan together in a way that the most gifted Persian carpet maker would envy. He had a prodigious memory for people and places and a clear affection for the cultural and social complexities of other societies.

Charlie was as comfortable dealing with shop keepers, waiters, and students–or very young and headstrong Foreign Service Officers–as he was with major figures on the world stage. He treated all of them with the same good humor and good manners, and did this in very tumultuous and dangerous places and times. The wise among them benefited greatly from his wisdom and kindness, and he will be greatly missed.

May he rest in peace.

Michael Metrinko is a retired Foreign Service Officer with extensive experience in the Islamic World. He has also been a Peace Corps volunteer, a military adviser and a private contractor, serving in Poland, Iran, Turkey, Israel, Syria, and–post-9/11–in Yemen, Iraq, Afghanistan and at the Army War College.

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