Not many people from the West visit Iran these days, but not long ago quite a few of us were – and were warmly welcomed by Iran. Even though women entering the country had to be covered in either a long coat called a manteau, plus head scarf, or a chador from top of head to foot, they felt that the experience was worth the nuisance. And, at least, nobody knew what they wore underneath – if anything. (It can be very hot in Iran.)
Riding into Tehran from the airport, Westerners often were surprised to see that perhaps half of the drivers in cars were women. Women even were cab drivers (for female customers). “More than fifty percent of college graduates are women,” Iranians often boast. “And more than half of the doctors.” Westerners 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 that no one can miss is 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, in whatever grandiose grotesque configurations, can a human being gaze upon before the eyes glaze over?
The sad fact, of course, was that all this over-the-top 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 revolution overthrew the shah.” After all, it was Marie Antoinette’s notorious diamond necklace that was the last straw leading to the French Revolution.
The archeology museum was more interesting, since history here reaches back to the beginnings of civilization. As we wandered among massive Persian statues, bronzes from Luristan, and carvings from Susa and Persepolis, groups of students rushed up, chattering excitedly. The high school girls, clad like nuns in black manteaus (often with blue jeans peaking out underneath) were always the most eager. In fact, all across Iran, clusters of school girls and sometimes male students, smiled, practiced their English, and eagerly welcomed their country’s foreign guests.
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!”
American visitors often are driven past the huge walled complex of the former United States Embassy in Tehran. The grounds are overgrown and the buildings, glimpsed over the walls, are crumbling. We were told that the buildings 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 MI5 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, only four months after Operation Ajax, befriending the just-installed Mohammed Reza Shah Pahlavi, which infuriated Iranian students. 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 – networking with student movements in the West -- had grown enormously, protesting American involvement in Vietnam, U.S. support for the shah, and CIA activities in third world countries. The Iranian students had hoped that Robert Kennedy, who had shown himself to be concerned about the Iranian people, would become the U.S. president, but were disappointed, we heard, when the shah’s friend, Nixon, moved into the White House.
Their 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 chauffered guests.
“And in the towns around Persepolis, people were dying from polluted drinking water.”
In May 1972, Nixon returned to Iran, promising the shah that the U.S. would sell him weapons. The large protests during his visit showed how much the 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. They spent hours doing it.”
From the patched-together documents, we were told, 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 supposedly working against the Iranian government. Despite a rescue attempt, they remained in the compound for 444 days.
Visitors to Iran discover that although much of the cause for the Islamic revolution was economic, as well as a reaction against the westernized excesses of the shah, the people today are serious about their religion. Nowhere is this more evident than at the holy complex in Mashad, where 20 million pilgrims come to pray every year. Properly covered, leaving behind cameras, purses, and shoes, non-Muslims may visit the great shrine, although not enter the holy sanctuary. We saw scores of Iranian families who had made the pilgrimage, all deeply moved to be in this place honoring the Imam Reza, who was martyred there in the year 823. And because they were so profoundly affected, we found that we were moved, as well.
Everywhere, people stared openly at foreigners, not with hostility but with surprise and curiosity. At another shrine, a group of boys followed us, trying out their few words of 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, smiling and calling, "Goodbye! Goodbye!"
Driving across the country, visitors often see large monuments and statues of young soldiers and huge billboards displaying portraits of young men. Frequently, we saw large 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 friendly. I remember, as we walked through one local bazaar, how people called out “Hello!” and wanted to know where we were from. One man asked our guide if we were Moslem. When he was told no, he asked then why the women were covered up.
"To show respect," our guide replied.
"Ah," the man smiled. "Good."
I’m not a historian, but I’m curious and interested and I look, listen, and remember. The Iranian people, we often were told, have strong feelings about their history and especially about the events of recent decades, but they deeply want to be friends with the people of the United States. Someday, they still hope, it may happen. This is just one reason why we need informed, experienced leaders who understand the history and can use this knowledge and understanding to craft intelligent, far-reaching strategies for the future.
Bruce Douglas Reeves, author of DELPHINE, winner of the Clay Reynolds Novella Competition, Published by Texas Review Press, available from University Press Books, Amazon, and Barnes & Noble.