Twenty years after the events portrayed in the movie “Argo,” I set foot in Tehran for the first time and began almost a month of exploring the complex, sometimes surprising, country of Iran. We were experienced travelers who had visited many countries, including Turkey, Syria, and Jordan in the Middle East, but nothing, it seemed, was simple. Some of what we saw bothered us, but many experiences turned out to be as encouraging as they were thought provoking.
Riding into Tehran from the airport, we were surprised to see that perhaps half of the drivers in cars were women. “More than fifty percent of college graduates are women,” Iranians often boast. “And more than half of the doctors.” We also discovered that every hotel room provided a Koran, a prayer rug, and a small prayer stone on which to place the forehead while praying, and on every room ceiling an arrow indicated the direction of Mecca.
One place in Tehran we couldn’t miss was the State Jewels Museum – a vivid introduction to the life style of the late shah and Pahlavi family. The jewel collection of the deposed shah and his fun-loving relatives fills many steel-walled rooms in a bank basement. The spectacle is beyond impressive. How many crowns and scepters, dishes, pieces of furniture, chests, necklaces, bracelets, and other royal paraphernalia all encrusted with masses of diamonds and rubies and emeralds and other precious stones, can a human being need? All of this magnificence came out of the flesh and blood of the Iranian people. As we trudged past the huge glass cases, we couldn’t help thinking, “No wonder the people overthrew the shah.”
Later, as we wandered among massive Persian statues and carvings from Susa and Persepolis in the Archeology Museum, groups of students rushed up to us, chattering excitedly. The high school girls, clad like nuns in long black coats (often with blue jeans peaking out underneath) were always the most eager. All across Iran, clusters of school girls and boys smiled, practiced their English, and welcomed us.
The museum guide pointed out that it once held considerably more treasures, but many were smuggled out by the Pahlavi rulers before they fled the country. “Our national heritage,” he said, still indignant years later, “stolen by the shah and his family and now in private collections and museums around the world!”
We saw the huge walled complex of the former United States Embassy. The grounds were overgrown and the buildings, glimpsed over the walls, crumbling. We were told that they were being kept for when the American delegation returns to Iran, but most likely they’d have to be torn down and replaced if a U.S. ambassador ever did come back.
What about the student occupation of the embassy and the Americans held hostage? Iranians feel that the stage was set years before. Mohammed Mosaddegh, democratically elected Prime Minister of Iran in 1951, was overthrown in 1953 by a coup d’etat labeled Operation Ajax, orchestrated by the British M15 and the United States CIA, under Director Alan Dulles, brother of Secretary of State John Foster Dulles. Why? Because, we were told, Mosadegh had nationalized the Iranian oil industry, which had been under British control since 1913.
Richard Nixon, when he was Eisenhower’s vice president, visited Tehran in December 1953, four months after Operation Ajax, befriending the just-installed Mohammed Reza Shah Pahlavi. When Nixon was given an honorary degree at Tehran University, students staged a massive demonstration. The shah ordered his troops to open fire. Three students were killed, many wounded, several hundred arrested. This caused such resentment in the country that the day has been remembered ever since as “Student Day.”
By 1969, although the shah had worked to consolidate his power, the Iranian student movement had grown, protesting American involvement in Vietnam, U.S. support for the shah, and CIA activities in third world countries. We also discovered that much of the cause for the Islamic revolution was economic. Anger was flamed by the shah’s lavish lifestyle amid the wretched living conditions throughout the country.
In October, 1971, in a multi-day extravaganza at ancient Persepolis, said to cost as much as $200 million, the shah celebrated the 2,500 anniversary of the Persian empire, and – ignoring the long Islamic history of Iran – claimed that his throne descended from Cyrus the Great. A fabulous Golden City of luxurious tents was set up for the 600 invited dignitaries amidst gardens of trees and plants flown in from France. Catering was provided by Maxim’s de Paris and 250 red Mercedes-Benz limos chauffeured guests.
“And in the towns around Persepolis, people were dying from polluted drinking water.”
Nixon returned to Iran in May 1972, promising the shah that the U.S. would sell him weapons. The protests during the visit showed how much resistance to the shah’s regime was growing. By the fall of 1978, it was clear that he couldn’t survive and in January 1979, he fled. In November that year, a student demonstration outside the embassy against U.S. policies provoked U.S. Marines to shoot in the air, probably hoping to disperse the students. Instead, they climbed the compound wall and broke into the embassy. The guards shot and injured a number of students and embassy staff began shredding documents. The students discovered those shredded documents and pieced them together.
From the patched-together documents, they discovered that the CIA and British MI5 were encouraging anti-Islamic revolution activities. The reaction around Iran was shock and anger. Ayatollah Khomenei declared “These are not diplomats with diplomatic privileges and rights, but CIA agents working against our government.” Women and staff with no authority for policy were released, but 52 were held as CIA agents and spies. Despite a rescue attempt, they remained in the compound for 444 days. Six others, as portrayed in “Argo,” escaped to the Canadian embassy and eventually were spirited out of the country.
Everywhere, people stared openly at us, not with hostility but with surprise and curiosity. At one shrine we visited, a group of boys followed us, trying out their English. One boy about ten began showing me his English class workbook. Proudly turning the pages, he pointed to where he had filled in the blanks in the various lessons. Later, walking through the gardens, fifteen or twenty boys came up, one of them pulling out his notebook and ballpoint pen, and making writing motions. I printed, “Hello from the U.S.A,” and signed it. He read it, grinning broadly. Crowds of children and some adults waved as we left, calling, “Goodbye! Goodbye!”
Driving across the country, we saw monuments and statues of young soldiers and billboards with portraits of young men. Frequently, we passed murals of young men on the sides of buildings. All of these are tributes to local men who died during the eight-year war with Iraq.
“Iran fought alone against Saddam Hussein,” they told us. “And he was using weapons provided by and paid for by the West.” In all of Iran, some 800,000 people were killed by bombardments, sixty-five percent civilians.
One man told of the repeated early morning bombings of Tehran, often several times a night, when he had to run with his family down four floors to the underground shelter. One night, when he was downstairs with his wife as the bombing began, he ran up to get the children, discovering that his four year old son had dressed his two year old brother and, sobbing the whole time, was trying to take the two year old down to the shelter. Many families lost members, he said, as many as four or five in one family. He knew one family that lost eleven members in one bombing raid.
However, all the time we were in Iran, people were kind and friendly. I remember, as we walked through one local bazaar, people called out “Hello!” and wanted to know where we were from. The Iranian people, we were told, have strong feelings about their history and especially about events of recent decades, but deeply want to be friends with the people of the United States. Someday, they still hope, it may happen.
Bruce Douglas Reeves, author of DELPHINE, winner of the Clay Reynolds Novella Competition, published by Texas Review Press.
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