We Go to “Argo”


Tehran, at the feet of the Alborz Mountains


My wife and I went to see Argo last night.


We really enjoyed it.  Largely, of course, because it keeps you on the edge of your seat, even if you already know what the eventual outcome will be.  Mobs are, simply, terrifying.


Also because it brought back memories.  They did a really good job, for instance, of making “Tehran” look like the real Tehran — which actually does look very much as if it’s backed up against the Wasatch Range — and of reproducing the area around the ill-fated U.S. embassy there.  (It’s now a school, with anti-American art and slogans all over it.  I’d offer my personal photos, but I don’t have any; I was very nearly arrested.)  And it was fun to see the Shah, whom I met only once (while he was in exile in Egypt and I was serving as private history tutor to his daughter, Princess Farahnaz Pahlavi) — we briefly discussed World War One, and the horrors of war in general — and to see a reference to The Love Boat, which was (I’m not making this up) the Pahlavis’ favorite TV show.


I thought that the film might have gone just a bit overboard, though, in trying to paint the United States as responsible for the tortures and oppressions of the Shah’s SAVAK.  (Ben Affleck’s politics tilt distinctly leftward.)  My sense, from my one relatively brief conversation with him but, even more so, from conversations with his daughter and from having read a fair amount about him, was that even the Shah himself may not have known the extent of SAVAK’s cruelties — which, by the way, don’t look quite so bad when compared with the massive bloodletting of the early Islamic Republic and its continuing political repression — and that he was, really, too weak a ruler, in the end, which may even be to say perhaps too gentle a man (personally), to have survived as a head of state in the very tough neighborhood of the Middle East.  He was, it must not be forgotten, confronted by real communists, who were supported by the Soviet Union, and by real Islamic extremists, who genuinely sought (and ultimately achieved) his overthrow.


The 1953 British- and American-engineered coup that overthrew Mohammad Mossadegh and put Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi back on the throne also needs to be understood in context — though such understanding may or may not provide adequate justification for it.  Mossadegh irritated the British by nationalizing the Iranian oil industry, but he was also — and this goes unmentioned in Argo’s prologue — accumulating considerable quasi-dictatorial power (via emergency decrees).  Moreover, there was fear that he would ally himself against the United Kingdom and the United States with a very ambitious and assertive Soviet Union that, like the czars before the Bolshevik Revolution, was constantly seeking a warm water port for its navy.  Stalin had just died, but his successors were carrying on with his expansionist program.  The Soviets had seized control of eastern Europe after 1945, detonated an atomic bomb in 1949, and, roughly a week before the coup against Mossadegh, exploded their first hydrogen bomb.  The People’s Republic of China had been proclaimed in 1949, and the Korean War had ended only in July 1953.


It’s easy, from this remove in time, for some to laugh at the “inordinate fear of Communism” that many Americans felt in the early 1950s, but they had a real basis for it, and scores of millions of people were actually executed by Communist regimes.  Writers like Whittaker Chambers (d. 1961), himself a former spy for the Soviet Union, believed that the West was doomed, fated to fall to the disciplined and relentless forces of Communism.  “If you want a vision of the future,” wrote George Orwell (d. 1950), “imagine a boot stamping on a human face — forever.”  Even Henry Kissinger, relatively late in the Cold War, saw his mission as, essentially, managing the decline of the West.  The American policy of “containment” sought to prevent Communism from expanding — and oppressing, and killing — more than it already had.  Or, at least, to slow it down.  And the possibility that the Soviets would gain control of Iran, and gain access to the ports and warm waters of the Persian Gulf and the Indian Ocean, was understandably terrifying to many strategic thinkers.  The coup against Mossadegh has to be understood against that backdrop.


Posted from Orlando, Florida.



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  • Strategoi

    I just read the book. It was exciting (and more interesting than most people think), but not nearly as exciting as the movie makes it out to be. Also, thank you for providing some very good context on the Mossadegh (sorry I spelled it wrong), the shah & SAVAK, and the recent formation of Iran as a nation state, relatively speaking. Every history book that I’ve read portrays that history between the US & Iran as bad blood long before the Revolution. Thanks for telling me the truth. Also, have you thought of explaining the Ottomans in context? I am currently researching the Balkans, and I am getting the distinct impression that EVERYBODY is lying to some degree to another as to the repressions of all the other sides. I can’t say the Ottomans, the Croats, Serbs, Bosniaks, & etc are good after reading what they do to each other. I’d rather say they are morally ambivalent.

  • Lucy Mcgee

    “Blowback” is a CIA term first used in March 1954 in a recently declassified report on the 1953 operation to overthrow the government of Mohammed Mossadegh in Iran. It is a metaphor for the unintended consequences of the US government’s international activities that have been kept secret from the American people. The CIA’s fears that there might ultimately be some blowback from its egregious interference in the affairs of Iran were well founded. Installing the Shah in power brought twenty-five years of tyranny and repression to the Iranian people and elicited the Ayatollah Khomeini’s revolution. The staff of the American embassy in Teheran was held hostage for more than a year. This misguided “covert operation” of the US government helped convince many capable people throughout the Islamic world that the United States was an implacable enemy. -Chalmers Johnson, 2001