Ben Affleck’s Argo Is Misleading about Iranian History

Ben Affleck’s Argo Is Misleading about Iranian History October 9, 2014

Kaveh Mousavi is an Iranian ex-Muslim blogger. Today his blog On the Margin of Error has officially arrived on the Atheist Channel on Patheos. To introduce him to the channel, I invited him to guest post for a week. Here is his final post.

While Ben Affleck was acting as the defender of Muslims, as he got himself involved in a debate with Sam Harris and Bill Maher, and I talked about that recently I was frequently reminded of his movie Argo, how it had offended me as an Iranian when I watched it back in 2012, and how funny it was to see him on the other side of the fence about offending a Muslim majority nation. It involves a very dark era in my country’s history, the Iranian takeover of the American embassy in Tehran and the holding of some Americans hostage 444 days. Ultimately, I was very annoyed by Affleck’s handling of that era, and I think it grossly misrepresented Iranians in that era.

Before going to that movie, let me stress that I wholeheartedly condemn the hostage taking. The actions not only broke the international law and were unethical but also harmed the Iranian nation a lot. Iranians have since suffered greatly from the absence of formal relationship between our two countries, and amending relations with the USA has become one of the sharpest dividing lines between reformists and fundamentalists.

But ultimately the movie is very misleading about the facts.

In Ben Affleck’s movie, Iranians are very xenophobic towards Americans. In the most offensive scene of the film, the Americans are walking through the bazaar and the Iranians are assaulting them, shouting “death to America” at them, and they have to get away from a sea of an angry mob. Also all the security personnel and soldiers treat Americans with hatred and bigotry. Iranians here look like the exact stereotype of the savage anti-Western, or the “wild eyed radical” as a Western scholar of Iran aptly called it on my Facebook wall. The only “good” Iranian in the movie, thrown in there for “balance”, is literally a servant of the Canadian (Western) family, and she is quiet and obedient, and she helps the Americans escape. Whether the filmmakers intended the movie to be like this or not, the fact is that it seems all Iranians who were revolutionaries are pictured as stereotypically evil and hateful, and the revolutionary generation are pictured as hateful radicals. But examining the realities of the Iranian society at the time shows that the real picture is immensely more complex.

There are many facts about the hostage takings which might surprise you. All of the hostage takers are now actually reformists and strong supporters of amending relations with the West. They were a bunch of idealistic students who took it upon themselves to do so. The Iranian regime at the time was not aware that this was going to happen. The fundamentalists were initially against hostage taking. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad – Iran’s former president whom I’m sure you know – was among the students negotiating the hostage taking and he was strongly against it, and said that we should storm the Soviet embassy. And when the students stormed the embassy, Khomeini was initially against the students. According to the liberal Ibrahim Yazdi, the foreign minister of the time (and a man whose word you should trust), Khomeini told Yazdi “go and kick these students out”. But then, Khomeini realized that this provides a very opportune moment for him to seize more power and to eliminate liberals within his regime (the revolution was a coalition of Islamists, communists, and liberals united under the leadership of Khomeini). The students didn’t plan to keep hostages more than a few hours, but now with Islamists suddenly supporting them, and Khomeini himself calling it a “second revolution”, what was meant as a small protest by a group of idealistic naïve students developed into a monster that changed the Iranian history for the worse forever.

The American Embassy was accused of orchestrating the downfall of the regime. Because of the anti-Imperialist fervor of the time, and because of the mindset of Iranians and their memories (foreign powers had removed the democratically elected and popular democrat Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh in a coup and had brought both the deposed Shah and his father to power in different coups). Most Iranians were convinced that another similar coup was defeated. They dubbed the Embassy “The American Spy Den”. However, since then the secret documents within the Embassy have been revealed to the public. The historian Mark J. Gasiorowski proves, in his seminal and very important article on the hostage taking, by providing links to the actual documents of the Embassy, that the Americans had decided to make no effort to overthrow the regime and instead empower Khomeini’s Prime Minister, Mehdi Bazargan, who was a liberal politician and a very moderate and tolerant Muslim and his allies, and to make sure that they would not be eliminated by the radicals within the regime. There are many instances of the enemies of that regime going to the CIA and the Embassy to provide them with money and support but the Embassy had refused to do so. They even warned Iran of some violent extremists and the fact that Saddam Hussein was planning to invade Iran.

On the day that the Embassy was stormed, Bazargan’s government formally resigned, as they now could see that they could no longer function, and the liberal moderate wing of the regime was eliminated from power. The radicals began using the documents within the Embassy selectively. They did not reveal to the Iranian people that the Embassy didn’t plan to overthrow the regime, but they claimed falsely that the Embassy was attempting to stage another coup. They released some documents revealing that some officials of Bazargan’s government were “spying” for the CIA, while the truth is that they were just engaging in diplomatic negotiations. One was executed and one spent 26 years in prison for the simple crime of doing his job. They also released documents regarding all those opposition members turning to CIA for help, and many of them were summarily executed. However although Ayatollah Beheshti, one of the regime’s highest officials, had contacted and negotiated with Americans more than anyone, they didn’t release any documents about him.

So Iranians weren’t supportive of hostage takers simply because they hated Americans or were biased against them. Iranians have always loved Hollywood and would accept a Hollywood crew with open arms. They are very hospitable towards westerners (although sadly xenophobia is rampant when it comes to Afghan immigrants). The reason they supported the hostage taking was that they really thought – and were misled by the reactionary forces within the government – that the Embassy was really trying to overthrow the regime. And this was a regime which had come to power during a popular revolution, and just a few months prior it had received 98% of people’s votes in a free referendum, and people loved Khomeini immensely and revered him as a saint.

Iranians are not a perfect nation and made many mistakes at that time. Irrational hatred of the west was not one of their flaws though.

We have lots of problems. Anyone regularly reading my blog can attest to the fact that I acknowledge this more than anyone. However, if you take a country and make it look like a hellhole and destroy the entire nuance and make them look ten times more backward than they are, you are not presenting a critique of tyranny. You are making an entire nation look like barbarians. Argo makes Iran look very bad, but the situation in Iran was rarely as bad as it is depicted in the film, except for, possibly, under the worst years of Ahmadinejad.

Most Iranians – I’m sure – chuckled a bit when Affleck was driving in his taxi and there were corpses hanging from nooses just chilling in crowded streets. Not that we don’t have public executions. That issue is a major problem for our countries, but the film makes it look like Tehran is a dystopian city. The truth is much more complex than that, and while we acknowledge our problems, we don’t appreciate being shown worse than we are either.

Most ironically of all, the era that film took place in was actually a relatively very free era. Yes, many executions were carried out and many of them were completely unjust, and yes people sadly supported those executions because they were the officials of the deposed regime, but apart from that Iran was at its freest at that time. We even refer to that era as “The Spring of Freedom”. Iran had freedom of speech and freedom of press, and communists and Islamists and atheists and Muslims openly debated each other on the TV shows. Of course the mandatory hijab was being introduced, and Islamists were trying to put pressure on secular and liberal books, and alcohol was banned, but certainly Iran was never freer before or after that time. A little after this crisis the first presidential election would be held and it would be the freest presidential election in Iranian history.

The ball of oppression got rolling after the hostage taking and took some years before Iran was no longer a free country. So Affleck’s image of Iran at that time is completely misleading.

This is a guest post by Kaveh Mousavi. Unless otherwise noted, Camels With Hammers guest posts are not subject to editing for either content or style beyond minor corrections, so guest contributors speak for themselves and not for me (Daniel Fincke). To be considered at all, posts must conform to The Camels With Hammers Civility Pledge and I must see enough intellectual merit in their opinions to choose to publish them, but no further endorsement is implied. For more of Kaveh’s perspective you can find him regularly at On the Margin of Error on Patheos’s Atheism Channel starting today. Below are links to his previous guest posts here at Camels With Hammers, each one responding to a question I had for him:

7 Ways Westerners Can Help Ex-Muslims

What Kind of Minority is an Ex-Muslim in Iran

Iran: The Uncertain Nation

Maher, Harris, Affleck, Aslan, Kristof: An Atheist Reformist Iranian’s View

If you would like to submit an article for consideration because you think it would be in keeping with the interests or general philosophy of this blog, please write me at camelswithhammers@gmail.com

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