Are We Hostages to Hollywood History?
Ben Affleck's new film, Argo, hit theaters today. It tells the tale of six American diplomats who, having escaped the besieged Embassy in Tehran in late 1979 and taken shelter at the home of the Canadian ambassador Ken Taylor, were successfully smuggled out of Iran in a daring Hollywood-produced CIA operation under the guise of being a Canadian film crew.
From the movie trailer, one can tell a great many things. The story is fascinating, the plot suspenseful and action-packed. Yet there are worrying signs that the events depicted will present a rather decontextualized and myopic perspective of Iranian actions in the wake of their revolution.
"The actions of Iran have shocked the civilized world," President Jimmy Carter declared two weeks after the embassy's occupation during a November 28, 1979 press conference. This was coming from the leader of the nation whose operatives orchestrated a coup d'etat 26 years earlier to overthrow the Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh for the crime of nationalizing his country's oil industry and which funded and supported the brutal Pahlavi dictatorship for the next quarter century. Civilized, indeed.
A video of Carter speaking those very words opens Argo's trailer which is replete with sinister music, angry bearded mobs, clenched fists pumping the air, sounds of gunfire, glaring portraits of Ayatollah Khomeini and plenty of hand-wringing, hapless, innocent Americans and the concerned, humanitarian heroes of Tinsel Town and the Central Intelligence Agency who saved them.
The mastermind behind the clandestine mission featured in the film is CIA operative Tony Mendez, portrayed by Affleck himself. In a short clip of the movie shown on The Daily Show, Mendez is described as an "exfil[tration] spec[ialist]" who "got a lot of the Shah's people out after the fall." What a hero.
The issue is not that hostage-taking is legitimate or moral or that amazing true stories shouldn't be made into big budget movies. It's not and they should be. The issue here is context. Without it, Manichean views of the world - with good guys and bad guys neatly identified - continue to prevail. At a time of especially heightened tension between Iran, the United States, and now Canada, films like Argo - with its narrative of American victimhood and Middle Eastern rage - certainly do favors.
I have not seen this film. I could be wrong about all this. Argo may very well include a nuanced and sophisticated exploration of the causes behind the Iranian Revolution and U.S. government decisions leading up to the hostage crisis, but then again, it might not.
In an interview at the Toronto Film Festival, Affleck said, "While the [action portrayed in the] movie is 30 years old, it really is still relevant. Both in the sense that it's about the unintended consequences of revolution and in the sense that we're dealing with the exact same issues now than we were then."
Earlier this week, Affleck joined blowhard ignoramus Bill O'Reilly on Fox News to discuss the film. In describing Argo, Affleck said, "You know, it was such a great story. For one thing, it's a thriller. It's actually comedy with the Hollywood satire. It's a complicated CIA movie, it's a political movie. And it's all true."
In a thrillingly complicated comical twist, about thirty seconds later, the star of Surviving Christmas and Reindeer Games contradicted himself completely: "To me, I made a movie that my friends who are Democrats and my friends who are Republicans can both watch. It's not a political movie."
Affleck also spent much of his time praising the U.S. intelligence and foreign service agents, including those who actively worked against the popular revolution that overthrew the Pahlavi monarchy. "[T]his is really a tribute to the folks and our clan that's in services, and diplomats in the foreign service who are risking their lives over there, tragically seeing examples of that very recently. And folks who are -- what they give up to serve us and to serve our country." He added, "I've been to the CIA. I met General David Petraeus. These are extraordinary honorable people at the CIA. Make no mistake about it."
O'Reilly summed it up: "This is a Valentine from Ben Affleck to the Intelligence Community," he declared.
Affleck also demonstrated a dizzying fealty to alarmist misinformation over the Iranian nuclear program. If the "Islamist regime," he warned, "got a bomb, I think everybody thinks that would be trouble." Affleck then proceeded to opine that "Israel is not entirely capable of whacking them to the extent in which they need to be whacked." Read that again.
He continued, "And I wouldn't outsource U.S. foreign policy to any other government...However, we have to have a line beyond which we say this is not acceptable in Iran." It didn't take much for O'Reilly to draw out what his Fox News audience most wanted to hear. "I wouldn't oppose military action," Affleck obliged.
Considering its filmmaker's perspective, there's a good chance Argo may not present a particularly erudite understanding of the events of Autumn 1979, despite the fact that the film itself opens with a quick review of Iranian history and the revolution.
With this in mind, there is some vital context that might - I repeat, might - be missing from Argo which every theatergoer should know in order to better contextualize what they'll be watching this weekend:
Tyranny and Terror Under the Shah, Bankrolled by the U.S.
For most Americans, the history of Iranian-U.S. relations began on November 4, 1979, the day revolutionary students seized control of the American Embassy in Tehran. According to the American narrative, one November morning - out of the blue - some crazy Iranian fanatics seized the U.S. Embassy in Tehran and held dozens of innocent Americans hostage for 444 days because they were mean and hated Americans for no reason.
Here's some of what's missing:
The United States of America backed, armed and supported the tyrannical rule of Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the Shah of Iran, for more than 25 years,
As late as 1977, President Jimmy Carter, speaking at a New Years Eve state dinner, called the Shah's Iran "an island of stability" in an otherwise turbulent Middle East. Carter said this at a time when in Iran, under the Shah, "dissent was ruthlessly suppressed, in part by the use of torture in the dungeons of SAVAK, the [American and Israeli-trained] secret police," Time magazine reported, adding:
The depth of its commitment to the Shah apparently blinded Washington to the growing discontent. U.S. policymakers wanted to believe that their investment was buying stability and friendship; they trusted what they heard from the monarch, who dismissed all opposition as 'the blah-blahs of armchair critics.'
Such commitment to the belief in the Shah's "stability" and inevitable longevity was evidenced in many U.S. intelligence assessments at the time. For example, as Jeffrey T. Richelson recalls in Wizards of Langley: "A sixty-page CIA study completed in August 1977, Iran in the 1980s, had asserted that 'there will be no radical change in Iranian political behavior in the near future' and that 'the Shah will be an active participant in the Iranian life well into the 1980s.'
Another CIA report from mid-1978 and entitled "Iran After the Shah", affirmed that "Iran is not in a revolutionary or even a 'prerevolutionary' situation."
As Time pointed out in its January 7, 1980 report:
Even after the revolution began, U.S. officials were convinced that 'there is no alternative to the Shah.' Carter took time out from the Camp David summit in September 1978 to phone the Iranian monarch and assure him of Washington's continued support.
Popular street demonstrations against the Shah's rule became frequent throughout Iran in 1978 (as was the killing of protesters by government forces) and, eventually, many cities were placed under martial law. During a peaceful demonstration in Tehran on September 8, 1978, government security forces opened fire on unarmed protesters, killing and wounding hundreds.
Nevertheless, that very month, the U.S. State Department expressed its confidence that the Shah would retain his control over Iran, though perhaps without "the same position of unquestioned authority he formerly enjoyed."
At the same time that nationwide strikes spread throughout bazaars, banks, the oil and gas industry, newspapers, customs and post offices, mining and transportation sectors, as well as most universities and high schools, an "Intelligence Assessment" released by the Defense Intelligence Agency declared that the Shah "is expected to remain actively in power over the next ten years."
On October 27, 1978, as the revolution surged, the CIA issued another report, this one suggesting that "the political situation [in Iran] is unlikely to be clarified at least until late next year when the Shah, the Cabinet, and the new parliament that is scheduled to be elected in June begin to interact on the political scene."
Just a few months later, in the face of a massive popular uprising representing the end of millennia of monarchy in Iran, the Shah and his wife Farah fled Iran in early 1979, never to return. They flew to Egypt, where they received a warm welcome by Anwar Sadat.
Following the Shah's departure, the transitional Iranian government immediately cut ties with two countries: Apartheid South Africa and the State of Israel, both nations founded on the violent dispossession, forced displacement, and institutionalized discrimination against an indigenous population.
Despite the leading role it had played in propping up the Shah's dictatorship for so long, Iran did not break off relations with the United States in the hopes of ushering in a new diplomatic relationship based on mutual respect.
Catalyzing the Crisis
Later that year, in October 1979, the Shah sought medical treatment in the United States for his worsening cancer, the interim government of Iran warned the U.S. against admitting the Shah as it wished for the deposed dictator to face trial and justice in Iran for his crimes against the Iranian people. When asked whether it would be problematic if the Shah's young children to enter the United States for schooling, Iran's secular Prime Minister, Mehdi Barzargan, responded that such would not create any difficulties, but still "reiterated his warning about the dangers of admitting the shah himself."
President Carter had to make a decision and asked the advice of his closest advisers. "He went around the room, and most of us said, 'Let him in.'" recalls Vice President Walter Mondale. "And he said, 'And if [the Iranians] take our employees in our embassy hostage, then what would be your advice?' And the room just fell dead. No one had an answer to that. Turns out, we never did."
It is rumored, however, that Secretary of State Cyrus Vance, Deputy Secretary of State Warren Christopher, and Undersecretary of State David Newsom all tried to hedge their bets and prevent the Shah's admission to the U.S. in the hopes that it would help mend relations with the new transitional government in Tehran.
In favor of admission, on the other hand, were National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski, Chase Bank chairman David Rockefeller, former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, and former World Bank president John J. McCloy, who had served as Assistant Secretary of War during World War II and U.S. High Commissioner for Germany, who were collectively dubbed "influential friends of the Shah" by Brzezinski himself. Apparently, Brzezinski personally "felt strongly that at stake were [the United State’s] traditional commitment to asylum and our loyalty to a friend. To compromise those principles would be to pay an extraordinarily high price not only in terms of self-esteem but also in our standing among our allies…."
In response to such lobbying by the Shah's good buddies, President Carter acquiesced to the Shah's demands on October 21, 1979. The very next day, Pahlavi and his family arrived in New York City on October 22, 1979 aboard Rockefeller's private jet.
Reporting in The New York Times in May 1981 following the Shah's death and state funeral in Egypt, Dr. Lawrence K. Altman wrote that, from this decision "flowed a chain of events that dramatically reshaped recent American history and led, all too inevitably, to the 444 days of the hostage crisis."
Henry Precht, the senior Iranian task-force officer at the State Department, who was then in Iran, is quoted in Altman's article as saying that "the initial reaction of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and the Iranians was ''exceptionally controlled.'' Precht added, however, "But one had the feeling that the Iranians, always suspicious, now sensed that they had indeed been duped and that the Shah had come to the United States not for medical treatment but to set up counterrevolutionary headquarters." In response, Altman reveals, a group of Iranian students met "in a small mountain village above Teheran to determine what action they would take to vent their fury at the Shah's admission to the United States."
Following the seizure of the Embassy and the taking of hostages, a reporter asked Carter why he had reversed his previous position and permitted the Shah to enter the U.S. when "medical treatment was available elsewhere [and] you had been warned by our chargé that the Americans might be endangered in Tehran." Carter replied that he has made "the right decision" and had "no regrets about it nor apologies to make." He said:
"The decision that I made, personally and without pressure from anyone, to carry out the principles of our country, to provide for the means of giving the Shah necessary medical assistance to save his life, was proper."
Carter's humanitarian mission to save Iranian lives was apparently limited to that of a single corrupt despot, a puppet dictator that served Washington's hegemonic designs in the Middle East for decades. The lives of Iranian civilians who suffered under the Shah's rule and American largesse, however, had not been considered worth saving.
Decades of Torture and Repression
The Shah's Organisation of Intelligence and National Security, known by its Farsi acronym SAVAK, acted as the dictator's personal secret police force, was tasked with suppressing dissent and opposition to the monarchy. Created in 1957 with the help of American and Israeli intelligence agents, the SAVAK grew in size and brutality and, as journalist Marsha Cohen points out, included "thousands of informers, censorship, arbitrary arrest and imprisonment, and widespread torture and assassination of political opponents. A censorship office monitored journalists, academics and writers, and kept a watchful eye on students. The penalty for possession of forbidden books included interrogation, torture and long term imprisonment."
In 1976, according to Amnesty International, the Shah's Iran had the "highest rate of death penalties in the world, no valid system of civilian courts and a history of torture which is beyond belief." The report concluded, "No country in the world has a worse record in human rights than Iran." The number of political prisoners detained at any given point was reportedly "anything between 25,000 and 100,000."
The same year, renowned Iranian poet and author Reza Baraheni wrote in New York Review of Books, "The CIA re-created the monarchy, built up the SAVAK and trained all its prominent members, and stood by the Shah and his secret police as their powerful ally. Iran became the police state it is now."
Thousands of men and women have been summarily executed during the last twenty-three years. More than 300,000 people have been in and out of prison during the last nineteen years of the existence of SAVAK; an average of 1,500 people are arrested every month. In one instance alone, American-trained counterinsurgency troops of the Iranian Army and SAVAK killed more than 6,000 people on June 5, 1963.
In another article, Baraheni wrote that "[c]orruption is so widespread that threats of jailing, even shooting, cannot solve the problem, because at the heart of corruption are the Shah himself and the royal family."
The Associated Press also ran a story about the abusive, and sometimes lethal, treatment of prisoners by the SAVAK as reported by the Red Cross, which had gained access to "5,000 inmates in 37 jails and prisons" over three separate visits to Iran between March 1977 and February 1978.
Both the United States and Israel played a large role in the SAVAK's activities. As Robert Fisk points out in his book The Great War For Civilisation, "A permanent secret US mission was attached to Savak headquarters."
Jesse Leaf, a former high-level CIA analyst in Iran until his resignation in 1973, revealed years later "that the CIA sent an operative to teach interrogation methods to SAVAK" in seminars that "were based on German torture techniques from World War II." While no Americans admitted to witnessing torture, Leaf recalled "seeing and being told of people who were there seeing the rooms and being told of torture. And I know that the torture rooms were toured and it was all paid for by the USA." When asked why none of the American agents protested such brutality, Leaf explained, "Why should we protest? We were on their side, remember?"
"Methods of interrogation" often used by SAVAK, writes Fisk, "included - apart from the conventional electric wires attached to genitals, beating on the soles of feet and nail extraction---rape and 'cooking,' the latter a self-explanatory form of suffering in which the victim was strapped to a bed of wire that was then electrified to become a red-hot toaster...They recorded that the inmates had been beaten, burned with cigarettes and chemicals, tortured with electrodes, raped, sodomised with bottles and boiling eggs. Interrogators forced electric cables into the uterus of female prisoners. The Red Cross report named 124 prisoners who had died under torture."
According to Iranian scholar R.K. Ramazani, "Mossad was totally identified with the Shah's CIA-created SAVAK. This was the principal instrument of the regime's repressive measures, which included physically punishing religious and secular political dissidents by electric shock, tearing out of fingernails and toenails, rape, and genital torture."
The Mossad connection was confirmed earlier this year by CBS News' Dan Raviv and Israeli journalist Yossi Melman in their book Spies Against Armageddon, in which they reveal, "Israeli intelligence trained Savak, the Shah's brutal secret police and espionage service. As part of the compensation, the Shah allowed the Mossad to operate on his soil as a base for recruiting agents in Iraq and other countries. Iran even provided documentation to enhance the Israelis' cover stories."
In early January 1980, an Associated Press report noted that the "Iranian militants...holding some 50 Americans hostage in the U.S. Embassy in Tehran...say they will not release them until Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi is returned to Iran to stand trial on charges of corruption and other crimes - including the reported torture." The article continued, "The Iranian government has demanded an international hearing of its grievances against the shah and his former government."
When asked about these demands by the press, President Carter replied:
I don't know of any international forum within which charges have ever been brought against a deposed leader who has left his country. There have been instances of changing governments down through the centuries in history, and I don't know of any instance where such a leader, who left his country after his government fell, has been tried in an international court or in an international forum...
But as I said earlier, I don't think there's any forum that will listen to the Iranians make any sort of claim, justified or not, as long as they hold against their will and abuse the hostages, in complete contravention to every international law and every precept or every commitment or principle of humankind.
Within three weeks of the Embassy takeover, about a dozen women and African-Americans were released by the Iranian students in what Khomeini called an act of solidarity with oppressed minority groups in the U.S. Later, a sick hostage was also released. None of the hostages were killed.
Open Hands and Iron Fists
The remaining 52 American hostages were released upon the inauguration of President Ronald Reagan in January 1981, in accordance with the Algiers Accord, an agreement signed by both Iran and the United States.
Shortly after the hostage-taking, President Carter imposed sanctions upon Iran and had frozen billions of dollars of Iranian government assets in an act that one U.S. official described as "economic and political warfare." The Accord assured Iran that all assets would be returned; to date, the U.S. has never complied with this agreement.
The Accord also affirms, as its primary point, that the "United States pledges that it is and from now on will be the policy of the United States not to intervene, directly or indirectly, politically or militarily, in Iran's internal affairs."
Since then, not only did the U.S. government renege on this promise two years later when it again imposed sanctions on Iran, it has continued to violate the agreement through relentless and inhumane economic warfare, drone surveillance, covert operations, support for Iranian terrorist groups, and cyber attacks, not to mention the sporadic murder of Iranian civilians.
In March 2009, President Obama delivered a Nowruz message to Iranians and their government in which he declared that his new "administration is now committed to diplomacy that addresses the full range of issues before us, and to pursuing constructive ties among the United States, Iran and the international community" and affirmed that the "process will not be advanced by threats." Just nine days before this message, however, Obama had announced the extension of economic sanctions on Iran imposed by President Clinton in March 1995 and were set to expire.
Subsequently, Obama has imposed ever more brutal sanctions on the Iranian people, increased arms sales to Iran's Middle East neighbors, substantially built-up America's own armaments and warship presence in the Persian Gulf and Indian Ocean, expanded covert operations in the region (and in Iran specifically), and has consistently maintained the aggressive posture that "all options are on the table" when it comes to dealing with Iran, code for the willingness of the American executive to commit the supreme international crime of launching a voluntary war.
Nevertheless, this weekend, moviegoers will be treated to a full dose of Western diplomats running scared from angry Middle Eastern mobs, unwitting victims of seemingly irrational rage. Even though Argo's audience will obviously be rooting for the daring rescue to succeed, it's still essential to understand what all those Iranians might have been so upset about.
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