“Our history of Iran starts in about 1979.”
Rick Steves is best known for his popular travel series on PBS, Rick Steves’ Europe. I have envied Rick as he makes his way through medieval castles and biergartens and art museums. I was pleasantly surprised this past winter when I flipped on the television and there was Rick Steves. In…Iran?
There was Rick Steves, boldly going where few Americans dare to go, frolicking around the ruins of ancient Persia, laughing with university students, visiting lush valleys, and eating food so succulent you could taste it through your television. Steves showed us that behind strange titles like the Supreme Leader and behind what many of us view as a tantrum-throwing Ahmadinejad and a nuclear program, there is a bold culture and a friendly populace within the Axis of Evil. Yes, it’s true, Virginia, actual humans live in Iran.
Still, sinister elements remain. And the contentious relationship between Iran and the United States continues to engender fear on both sides. Dr. Haleh Esfandiari, an Iranian who also holds an American passport, reminds us of what happens to ordinary citizens who get caught between these two great nations. Her most recent book, My Prison, My Home: One Woman’s Story of Captivity in Iran, (HarperCollins, 2009) tells the horrifying ordeal of a woman falsely accused of colluding with the United States to overthrow the Iranian government. This unfounded accusation would land her in solitary confinement in the dreaded Evin Prison for 105 days.
Dr. Esfandiari is traveling to the Tehran airport on New Year’s Eve to return to her husband, child, and grandchildren back in the United States. On route, her passports and belongings are stolen, and she returns to her mother’s house and begins the arduous task of replacing her paperwork so she can leave the country. But over the next few months, she meets with hurdle after hurdle from the Iranian bureaucracy. She is ordered to report to the Intelligence Ministry day after day and is subjected to questions about her marriage to a Jewish man, her work with the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, and her former work on various newspapers in Iran. The interrogation scenes remind me of a McCarthy hearing or a famous Kafka story. After months of paranoid questioning, she is arrested and taken to Evin Prison.
Through her work with the Wilson Center, Dr. Esfandiari was guilty of nothing more than bringing intellectuals together to bridge the very gap in communication and understanding that led to her arrest in the first place. She herself recognizes this:
When I returned to Iran in December of 2006, I did not realize I was walking into the heart of a storm. It was fueled by long-standing animosity between Tehran and Washington, an ineffective and ultimately harmful program of democracy promotion that contributed to my detention and that of many others, and an iron determination by Iran’s security services to squash all American plans regarding the Islamic Republic” (121).
Now before we go name-calling and call the Americans the moral victors in the Iran-US fight, let’s look back at Iran’s history before 1979. When the shah came to power in 1941, it was an ally of the West. During the Cold War, Iran looked to the United States for protection against the Soviet Union.
But 1953 changed all that. In 1953, during the oil nationalization crisis, the shah was losing power. It was only through a coup manufactured by the CIA and British intelligence that the shah was able to retain power. The Iranians never forgot this. The shah was consistently viewed by some of his own people as a puppet of the United States. The powerful Ayatollah Khomeini continually reminded his fellow Iranians of this and in 1979, the monarchy was overthrown.
Then, on November 4, 1979, the students of Tehran’s universities stormed the American embassy and took 60 hostages and held 52 of them for 444 days.
And during the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s, the US supported Iraq and its leader Saddam Hussein.
If we cannot forgive Iran for kidnapping our diplomats and imprisoning intellectuals like Esfandiari, then maybe we can understand, just a little better, why they might be paranoid. Maybe. Maybe not.About the Author: Tracey's interests in history range from the ancient Greeks to the medieval monks to the women of the American West. She holds a B.A. in History, Math/Philosophy, and the Classics. When not writing, editing, or teaching, she's out exploring, via her mountain bike, the Anasazi ruins in and around her home state of Colorado.