John Tirman, CIS executive director and scholar, dies at 72

John Tirman, CIS executive director and scholar, dies at 72

An expert on US-Iran relations and human security, Tirman was a thoughtful and prolific—yet always modest—colleague and friend.

August 22, 2022 | Center for International Studies
John Tirman
August 21, 2022

The Center shares with deep sadness that our valued colleague and dear friend, John Tirman, passed away on the morning of August 19, 2022, after suffering cardiac arrest.
Since 2004, Tirman served as the executive director of and principal research scientist at the MIT 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 spearheaded several projects on US-Iran relations, and convened conferences and published on the regional dimension of the Iraq War, the role of terrorism in upsetting diplomatic relations, and the challenges of political instability in the Gulf. He also wrote extensively on the human costs of war to civilian populations in war zones and about forced migration.
Tirman coauthored and edited more than fifteen 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). 
Earlier work included: “Women, Migration, and Conflict: Breaking a Deadly Cycle” (Springer, 2009); a special post-9/11 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 important critique of strategic defense; and “Spoils of War: The Human Cost of America's Arms Trade” (1997).
In addition, he published more than 100 articles in periodicals such as The Nation, Boston Globe, New York Times, Washington Post, Esquire, Wall Street Journal, and Boston Review.
“John was an exceptionally able and reliable partner in the leadership of CIS.  Apart from managing a large swath of administrative responsibilities, he sustained a steady and prolific agenda of research and publishing. The Center and the larger intellectual community benefitted immeasurably from John’s commitment to explore the intersection of human security and international affairs—what he referred to as ‘the consequences of war for the innocent people caught up in conflict.’  What was there not to admire in this fine public intellectual?” shared Richard Samuels, director of CIS and Ford International Professor of Political Science.
“John was a good friend, capable administrator and fine scholar. Most significantly, he was the conscience of our Center, with an intense commitment to human rights, justice and truth. John walked the walk with hard headed assessments of the civilian costs of war. John supported those who had the guts to reach across lines of ethnic and religious conflict. John brought new scholarship to CIS by inviting senior practitioners to MIT through the Robert E Wilhelm Fellowship Program. John fostered reporting on and by people in the front lines through his work with the Institute for War Peace Reporting. He will be sorely missed,” said Kenneth Oye, director of the CIS Program on Emerging Technologies and professor of political science and of data systems and society.
"For women faculty in CIS like me, his support was particularly critical—he cared deeply that everyone was at the table and had a voice. He had an outsized influence in making the Center an outstanding place for talk that led to new thinking, for talk that meant people cared deeply about their ideas and how they affected the world as a whole," said Elizabeth Wood, MIT professor of history and co-director of the MIT-Eurasia Program.     
Anat Biletzki, a CIS research affiliate and co-founding director with Tirman of the Center’s Human Rights and Technology Program, said, “working with John on the Human Rights and Technology program meant putting together MIT’s strengths in technology (and amazing students centered on technology) with the call for morality that must 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 uphold 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, a leading funder of work to prevent nuclear war and promote non-violent resolution of conflict. In 1999–2000, He was Fulbright Senior Scholar in Cyprus and produced an educational website on the conflict. He has been a trustee of International Alert, Mother Jones magazine, the Institute for War & Peace Reporting, and the Center for Contemporary Art at Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.
“John’s early support through the Winston Foundation was crucial to the National Security Archive's work on Iran. He later brought together a wonderful group to launch a full-scale project on the rocky history of US-Iran relations. His love of international affairs, his deep passion for exploring and disseminating knowledge, especially on basic human subjects like casualties of war, his leadership and initiative, his warm and generous friendship and encouragement, and over these last months his dignity in facing serious health issues have touched many of us permanently,” said Malcolm Byrne, a CIS research affiliate and a co-author with Tirman on his latest book, “Republics of Myth.” Byrne is the deputy director and research director of the National Security Archive at George Washington University.
“It's not an exaggeration in the least to say that I partly owe my academic career and life trajectory to him. He was a mentor, generous benefactor, intellectual resource, and a kind, dear friend. I will miss his erudition, the warmth of his presence, and his acerbic charm,” said Hussein Banai, a CIS research affiliate and a co-author with Tirman and Byrne, on the book, “Republics of Myth.” Banai is associate professor at the Hamilton Lugar School of Global and International Studies at Indiana University Bloomington.
Tirman studied at Indiana University (BA, 1972) and received his doctorate from Boston University. His mentors included Howard Zinn, Frances Fox Piven, Murray Levin, and Alasdair MacIntyr.

"As engaged and passionate as he was about his research, John brought this same dedication as a father to his cherished daughter Coco, and to so many other outside interests that he shared with us, including his love for travel," said Nike Tirman, his former wife and mother to Coco Tirman.  

The Center and his family will host a memorial event in his honor. Please contact Michelle English at if you would like to submit a personal tribute and to stay apprised of the forthcoming activity.