Alumni Spotlight: Daniel Khalessi

Daniel Khalessi, International Relations '13, reflects on his time as an undergraduate student at Stanford. He was the first student to receive a Certificate in Iranian Studies. 

Daniel recently became the first Iranian-American and first Muslim President of the Stanford Law Review. Read more. 

Tell us about your time at Stanford:

What makes Stanford special is its commitment to preparing students for jobs that do not yet exist. This philosophy has driven Stanford since its founding on the Pacific rim in 1891 to its pivotal role in shaping the entrepreneurial ecosystem of Silicon Valley of tomorrow. By “jobs,” I refer not just to roles and titles, but to challenges. The courses, professors, and experiences I was fortunate to have at Stanford challenged me to consider how global tectonics have been changing and to think creatively, critically, and practically about how to tackle complex problems emerging from these changes. One such challenge is the future of U.S.-Iran relations. Fusing history, politics, economics, and cultural analysis, the Hamid and Christina Moghadam Program in Iranian Studies taught me to stretch my imagination to consider ways to have an impact on U.S.-Iran relations and U.S. foreign policy more broadly.

How did your certificate and coursework in Iranian studies shape your understanding of the world and prepare you for your next steps?

The Stanford Iranian Studies Program was a major centerpiece of my undergraduate career and opened doors that I had not even considered. I am grateful to the program for providing me with an opportunity for deep introspection into my goals, aspirations, and the meaning of being an American of Iranian descent. The program expanded my curiosity about the world. My interest in combining intellectual curiosity with practical purpose led me to intern for the Office of Ambassador Susan Rice at the U.S. Mission to the United Nations and the U.S. Department of Treasury’s Middle East and North Africa Office during my junior year at Stanford.

What is your favorite Iranian Studies-related story or experience?

My favorite Iranian Studies courses were “U.S. Relations in Iran” and “The Politics of Modern Iran,” which were both taught by Professor Abbas Milani, who has been a tremendous mentor to me. Dr. Milani’s courses were interdisciplinary in nature and forced me to consider the interaction between history, politics, economics, philosophy, geography, foreign relations, culture, emotion, law, and strategy when analyzing specific events in Iranian history. Thinking and working across disciplines has defined my trajectory since graduating Stanford.

Can you share any helpful advice for current Iranian Studies students?

Many issues concerning U.S.-Iran relations are frequently the subject of some of the most heated debates in policy and academic circles. The study of U.S.-Iran relations is thus, in part, the study of managing conflicting—and often diametrically opposed—perspectives. The most productive way to engage in these debates is to try first to understand where the other side is coming from and then to formulate the best version of their argument before demonstrating why they are wrong.

Tell us about your professional journey after leaving Stanford:

The Iranian Studies Program served as a launching pad for my academic and professional career. After graduating Stanford, I received an M.A. in Global Affairs from Yale and an M.A. in Economics at Peking University as a Yenching Scholar. At Yale, I traveled the Silk Road for a research project on Central Asia. For the past two years, I worked as a Research Associate at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, where I focused on U.S. grand strategy toward China and managed the day-to-day research activities of the Avoiding Great Power War Project. Most recently, I moved back home to begin my J.D. at Stanford Law School.