John Tirman, an MIT scholar of political theory and an expert on US-Iran relations and human security, died on the morning of August 19 after suffering cardiac arrest. He was 72 years old.
Since 2004, Tirman has served as Executive Director and Principal Investigator of MIT’s Center for International Studies (CIS). During this time, he was a prolific and thoughtful—but always modest—leader of many of the center’s initiatives.
He led several projects on US-Iran relations, convened conferences and published on the regional dimension of the Iraq war, the role of terrorism in altering diplomatic relations, and the challenges of political instability in the Persian Gulf. He also wrote extensively on the human costs of war for civilian populations in war zones and on forced migration.
Tirman co-authored and edited more than 15 books on international affairs, including, most recently, “Republics of Myth: National Narratives and the US-Iran Conflict” (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2022), “Dream Chasers: Immigration and the American Backlash” (MIT Press, 2015) and “The Deaths of Others: The Fate of Civilians in America’s Wars” (Oxford University Press, 2011).
Previous works included: “Women, Migration and Conflict: Breaking a Deadly Cycle” (Springer, 2009); a post-9/11 special series jointly organized by The New Press and the Social Science Research Council, “The Maze of Fear: Security and Migration After 9/11”; “The Fallacy of Star Wars” (1984), the first major critique of strategic defense; and “Spoils of War: The Human Cost of the US Arms Trade” (1997).
In addition, he published more than 100 articles in periodicals such as The Nation, The Boston Globe, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Esquire, The Wall Street Journal and Boston Review.
“John was an exceptionally capable and reliable partner in the leadership of CIS,” shares Richard Samuels, Director of CIS and Ford International Professor of Political Science. “Apart from handling a great deal of administrative responsibilities, he maintained a constant and prolific agenda of research and publication. The Center and the wider intellectual community benefited immeasurably from John’s commitment to exploring the intersection of human security and international affairs, what he called “the consequences of war for innocent people caught up in conflict “. What was there not to admire in this great public intellectual?
“John was a good friend, an able administrator, and a fine scholar. Most significantly, he was the conscience of our center, with an intense commitment to human rights, justice, and truth,” says Kenneth Oye, director of the CIS Program on Emerging Technologies and professor of political science and data systems and society. “John walked with hard-headed assessments of the civilian costs of war. John supported those who had the courage to cross the lines of ethnic and religious conflict. John brought new scholarship to the CIS by inviting senior professionals to MIT through the Robert E Wilhelm Fellowships John supported truth tellers by helping to bring courageous journalists from conflict zones to MIT through the Neuffer Program and by encouraging frontline reporting through the Institute for War Peace Reporting. will be greatly missed.”
“For female CIS professors like myself, her support was especially critical: she cared deeply about everyone being at the table and having a voice,” says Elizabeth Wood, MIT professor of history and co-director of the MIT- Eurasia “He had an outsized influence in making the center a great place to talk that led to new thinking, because people cared deeply about his ideas and how they affected the wider world.”
Anat Biletzki, a CIS research affiliate and co-founding director with Tirman of the center’s Human Rights and Technology Program, says, “working with John on the Human Rights and Technology program meant bringing together MIT’s strengths in technology (and students ) with a call to a morality that should never be ignored, especially in technology. The strength of that combination received, in John’s hands, a focus of modest excellence that we must continue to hold in his memory. I think of him as the paradigm of Hannah Arendt’s concept of “radical goodness.” Biletzki is the Albert Schweitzer Professor of Philosophy at Quinnipiac University.
Before coming to MIT in 2004, Tirman was program director of the Social Science Research Council. From 1986 to 1999, he was executive director of the Winston Foundation for World Peace, one of the main funders of work to prevent nuclear war and promote nonviolent conflict resolution. From 1999 to 2000, he was a Fulbright Senior Scholar in Cyprus and produced an educational website about the conflict. He has been a trustee of International Alert, Mother Jones magazine, the Institute for War and Peace Reporting and the Center for Contemporary Art at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore.
“John’s early support through the Winston Foundation was crucial to the National Security Archive’s work on Iran. He later assembled a wonderful group to launch a large-scale project on the rocky history of the relations between the United States and Iran.His love of international affairs, his deep passion for exploring and spreading knowledge, especially about basic human issues such as victims of war, his leadership and initiative, his friendship and encouragement warm and generous, and during these last few months his dignity in facing serious health problems. have touched many of us permanently,” says Malcolm Byrne, a CIS research affiliate and co-author with Tirman of his latest book, ” Republics of Myth”. Byrne is the deputy director and director of research at the National Security Archive at George Washington University.
“It’s no exaggeration to say that I partly owe my academic career and life trajectory to him,” says CIS Research Fellow Hussein Banai, co-author with Tirman and Byrne on “Republics of Myth” and associate professor. at the Hamilton Lugar School of Global and International Studies at Indiana University Bloomington. “He was a mentor, a generous benefactor, an intellectual resource and a kind and dear friend. I will miss his erudition, the warmth of his presence and his acerbic charm”.
Tirman attended Indiana University, graduating with a BA in 1972. He received his Ph.D. from Boston University. Among his mentors were Howard Zinn, Frances Fox Piven, Murray Levin and Alasdair MacIntyr.
“As committed and passionate as he was to his research, John brought that same dedication as a father to our beloved daughter Coco and to so many other outside interests he shared with us, including his love of travel,” says Nike Tirman . his former wife and mother of Coco Tirman.
The center and Tirman’s family will host a memorial event in his honor. Please contact Michelle English if you would like to send a personal tribute and be kept up to date with the next activity.