Revolution Iran Redux
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
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.