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tearing the rag off the bush again
Teheran Revolution: Remembering American History PDF E-mail
In 2009 the world watches crowds in the streets of Teheran. Reporters searching for perspective remind us that it’s been thirty years—since the revolution of 1978-1979--since so many people have taken to the streets of Teheran. At the same time some American politicians have apparently developed amnesia about Persian-American history. There are calls, by some, for America to talk loudly about supporting democracy in Iran, forgetting that our history in Iran means Iranians would see such talk as hypocritical.

No one in America, not even President Obama, speaks frankly about the details of America’s history in Iran or why that history has left such an abiding rage towards America in Iran.

I was fortunate enough to be on the streets of Teheran in the fall of 1978, one of the few Americans who witnessed firsthand the popular rage that lead to the birth of the Islamic Republic of Iran. I walked the length of what was then called Pahlavi Street, crossing Teheran from North to South, on November 4, 1978. One year later American embassy officials were seized as hostages, on November 4, 1979. They were taken hostage in 1979 to commemorate the events that happened one year earlier. While the world remembers the taking of the hostages at the end of the Iranian revolution I recall a day of rage, a year earlier. In 2009 the world watches crowds in the streets of Teheran. Reporters searching for perspective remind us that it’s been thirty years—since the revolution of 1978-1979--since so many people have taken to the streets of Teheran. At the same time some American politicians have apparently developed amnesia about Persian-American history. There are calls, by some, for America to talk loudly about supporting democracy in Iran, forgetting that our history in Iran means Iranians would see such talk as hypocritical.

No one in America, not even President Obama, speaks frankly about the details of America’s history in Iran or why that history has left such an abiding rage towards America in Iran.

I was fortunate enough to be on the streets of Teheran in the fall of 1978, one of the few Americans who witnessed firsthand the popular rage that lead to the birth of the Islamic Republic of Iran. I walked the length of what was then called Pahlavi Street, crossing Teheran from North to South, on November 4, 1978. One year later American embassy officials were seized as hostages, on November 4, 1979. They were taken hostage in 1979 to commemorate the events that happened one year earlier. While the world remembers the taking of the hostages at the end of the Iranian revolution I recall a day of rage, a year earlier.

I was set to leave Teheran on a train towards the Afghan border. To catch the train I had to make my way across Teheran--North to South--on the longest boulevard in the Middle East, on Pahlavi Street; today’s Valiasr Street. It’s the one you see on your TV screens these days, the one filled with 500,000 Iranians protesting a rigged election. On November 4, 1978 it was so clogged with traffic that I gave up on a taxi and began to walk.

Pahlavi Street was lined with banks, offices, cinemas, and liquor stores: on November 4, protests lead to riots and every cinema hall and liquor store was looted or burned, and so were most banks. The police and firemen sent to stop the protestors were driven off by the size of the crowd that gathered; driven off by people’s willingness to risk their lives, and by their focused rage.

The revolution began early in 1978, just after President Jimmy Carter made a visit to Iran. Large color photographs depicting the Shah and Carter arm in arm had been pasted on buildings and signboards in January. They made it look  like the Shah was trumpeting his American support.  In the fall of 1978 these posters were still there: peeling, defaced, painted over, but still there; reminders at every corner of America’s history in Iran from 1953 to 1978.    

From a distance I spotted pillars of smoke rising in the sky. Helicopters hovered over the city center. The sound of sporadic gunfire grew louder. Walking closer I realized that to reach the station I had no option except to go through the center of the unrest.

Soon there were gutted buildings and traffic disappeared. I left the sidewalk and joined the crowds in the center of the street streaming towards the unrest. A few people looked at me, most just with curiosity.

A group of young men came up. We began to chat as we strolled—in the shade of the tall poplars that line the boulevard—toward the sound of gunfire. They wanted to know where I was going. I explained about the train. They agreed that there was no choice but to walk through the city center. I asked why people were attacking cinemas, banks and liquor stores. These things were un-Islamic, they said, and most were owned by the Shah or his friends. The people of Iran were angry because the Shah had stolen the national wealth in the form of oil, sold it to the Americans, and then used it to buy weapons to oppress the people of Iran. They were furious at this evil loop and determined to end it. I explained that many American’s were angry that our government supported the Shah.

This—what shall I call it, this laying of our cards on the table—took place in a few minutes and then the one guy who spoke English asked what was an awkward question that day.

 “Where are you from?”

We were passing by a poster of the Shah and Carter. I grabbed him, turned him around with me, held him in the same embrace that Jimmy held the Shah in, and began to walk backwards with him down Pahalvi Street. In a spontaneous performance for my new friends, I danced a little jig and sang a ditty inspired by God Bless America in a thick southern accent.
 “I am from America.
 Me and Jimmy Carter
 We is best buddies
We all just love the Shah!”
To my new friends’ credit they laughed, even as some of them looked around nervously. As I turned back and rejoined the line of young men, the translator spoke to me in French, “Do you speak French?” he asked.

I replied in broken French, “Yes, a little.”

“Good, my American friend. Today it is better for you, and us, if you do not speak English. We will take you to the train station. If someone asks, say you are French. We believe you when you say that many Americans are friends of the people of Iran. And many Persians are also friends of Americans no matter what crazy things our governments do. But many have been hurt by the Shah and they blame America, even they blame every American.”

Making our way south we stopped to watch a crowd lobbing rocks through the plate glass windows of a movie theater, then to watch a crowd breaking bottles in a liquor store. We stood at the edge of a crowd as it mounted an attack on a bank.

There were several times when my Persian friends hustled me away from rampaging mobs we saw on the street. I caught a glimpse of recognition from the leader of one such group and then instant rage in his eyes before I was hustled off in another direction.

After I saw that glance of incendiary rage a few times I asked, why.

“What has America, what has my government done to make people this angry?”

From that moment they were on a mission. They showed me.

They found a police car in the middle of the street on fire and asked, “You see that police car? Where was it made?”

“It’s a Chevrolet,” I said. It looked like standard issue white squad car from LAPD. “It was probably made in the USA,” I concluded.

 They continued their strange hunt in the streets of riot torn Teheran. They found a shot gun left in the street, beside the uniform of the policeman who had melted into the crowds.

They gathered around the shotgun in a circle, at the center of an intersection. A frenzied group was attacking buildings a block away. My protectors enveloped me within a circle of their own bodies. The translator, in the center with me picked up the gun as the rest of our gang blocked view from every direction. He pointed at the tiny script on the black metal near the stock of the shotgun.

“Read that, what does it say,” he said in English.

“It says, REMINGTON, Made in USA.”

We moved on till the way was blocked by a passing mob. We squatted behind a dumpster that had been pulled into the street, waiting for them to pass. One guy, who could not speak English, asked for a translation of a story about his sister. She was a university student who had been arrested by the Shah’s secret police, Savak. While in their custody she was tortured with an electric cattle prod. He cried as he tried to tell me where they had stuck the cattle prod. And then the question was asked again, in closing. “Where was that cattle prod made? Do you know?” We were holding hands as that question hung there. I had the sense to look into his eyes, and remain silent.

Before they left me at the train station they asked me not to forget what I had seen, and in parting they told me to study what my government had done, more carefully, beginning with how the CIA overthrew Iran’s elected government in 1953. They were convinced, and they convinced me, that America and Britain interfered in Iran’s affairs to obtain cheap oil without any concern for the development of democracy there.

Persian anger with the Shah in 1978 was explosive but it was inextricably interwoven with anger at America because our government sold him the tools used to oppress the people of Iran. That was the history I was shown on the streets of Teheran. It wasn’t abstract. Young men who probably saved my life pointed this out to me. Anyone who underestimates Persian rage at what the Government of the United States did in Iran from 1953 to 1979 is a fool. It is this history, and Persian rage about it, that dictates why our government must take every possible step to keep our fingerprints off of what is unfolding in Iran.

Americans who feel the urge to tell Iranians what they should do, will better serve democracy in Iran, and in America if they would reflect sincerely on our history in Iran as we watch Iranians decide their own future. There may come a time when the friendship that flourishes between Persians and Americans can flourish between our two states. But that time is not now. Our credentials as defenders of democracy, at least in Iran, have been sullied by our own actions. Iranians have not forgotten that and Americans would be foolish to do so.

Thomas Laird is a journalist and author who was based in Asia for thirty years. He now divides his time between Asia and New Orleans. His most recent book, The Story of Tibet: Conversations with the Dalai Lama, has been published in fourteen languages.
 
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