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Revolution Iran Redux

© 2009 by H.B. Koplowitz

When I was in college in the 1970s, some Persian friends, and others I interviewed for the school newspaper, convinced me the Shah of Iran was bad. They taught me about the CIA coup over a democratically elected socialist that put the Shah in power in the 1950s, and SAVAK, the ruthless, CIA-trained security force that propped up his dictatorship. Somehow it didn't occur to them, or me, that if it weren't for the Shah's efforts to modernize their country, including student exchange programs, and his close relationship with the United States, we wouldn't be having that conversation.

From the Iranians I met, admittedly a small sampling, I also got a sense of the passion and intensity of the Middle Eastern personality, and their penchant for conspiracy theories. Some of my friends said they were democrats and others said they were communists, but none that I met were Islamic fundamentalists -- the women didn't wear veils and the men looked like lounge lizards. In other words, they tended to blend in with other American college kids in the '70s, and I liked them. But they were very serious about their politics, more serious than I was when I was protesting the Vietnam War.

They used many of the same tactics as American protest movements, and like the antiwar movement, there were all shades of Shah haters, from pacifists to militants. As a former hippie, I was both sympathetic and indulgent to their seemingly stuck in the '60s vision of a utopian Iran. Eventually I lost touch with my Iranian friends, but I was rooting for the Iranian "students" who took to the streets of Tehran to demand death to the Shah, right up until the moment in 1979 that they stormed the U.S. Embassy and took Americans hostage, bringing down not only the Shah, but the presidency of Jimmy Carter.

What happened next took me totally by surprise. Some guy I'd never heard of, with beady eyes and a turban, swooped out of France and turned Iran into a repressive, West-hating, Jew-baiting, Islamic "republic," something I couldn't imagine any of my bar-hopping, free-thinking, seriously political Iranian college friends had in mind. They had been, to use another '60s term, "co-opted." Big-time.

As they were 30 years ago, Iranians today are whipped up into a frenzy of righteous indignation against their government, and as in 1979, it's unclear who would seize control of the revolution if they did topple their supreme leader, or what they would do if they did. In between their chants of death to the dictator, it would be heartening to hear a few stanzas of "no more nukes." Along with twits and tubes, martyrs and riots, how about some peace and freedom folk songs, stripping of veils and toking of bongs, along with a constitutional convention and a bill of rights? A compact of equality among devout and secular, clans and ethnics, men and women.

A few years ago, I was at a fundraiser for a hospital in Israel, and many of the tables had been purchased by members of the large and prosperous Iranian Jewish community in Los Angeles, many of whom had fled their homeland because of the revolution. I happened to be sitting next to an older Iranian woman, and trying to make conversation, I asked her what life had been like under the Shah. To my surprise, she said "not bad."

Drawing on my dim memories of my Iranian college friends, I told her I thought there had been a lot of political prisoners and that SAVAK spied on everyone.

"SAVAK?" she sniffed, starting to get annoyed with me. "SAVAK was all that protected us from the crazy fundamentalists."

Live and learn. Because I remember what happened in 1979 -- and what happened to the American antiwar movement, for that matter -- watching what is going on in Iran today fills me with dread as well as hope. I used to think there could be nothing worse than the Shah. Now I know it's naive to think there could be nothing worse than an Islamic republic.

It's possible Iranians will get their revolution right this time. But with half the population under 30, let's hope they don't get fooled again.
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