The Iran I remember

My memories of US-Iran relations

The Islamic Republic of Iran is back in the news again—and not in a good way. 

Same old same old.

I’ve lived long enough to see American attitudes shift in regard to various countries. Seldom, over the course of a lifetime, does the image of any one nation remain exactly the same.

But one country—Iran—breaks the mold.

Russia and China

Throughout most of my childhood, Russia was the USSR, the Evil Empire. Then for a while in my early adulthood, there was a widely held hope that post-Soviet Russia would become a normal country. Now Russia is an Evil Empire again—-but this time, a czarist one.

Likewise, China. In 1979, when Deng Xiaoping had first come to power, most Americans believed that China was on the verge of becoming our new best friend in Asia. Those hopes have since been dashed. But at least we had that hopeful phase.

Iran: nothing but bad news since 1979

Not so with Iran. Throughout my living memory, Iran has always been a thorn in America’s side. No matter how calm other international matters were going, you could always be certain that the Islamic Republic of Iran was up to no good.

I was in the sixth grade in November 1979, when radical Iranian students overran the US embassy in Tehran and took fifty-two American diplomats hostage. That sorry drama continued for 444 days. They did not return home until January 1981. 

Anyone who was alive then, who remembers the Tehran hostage crisis, will tell you that it dominated the news and public debate. President Jimmy Carter tried, without success, to win the hostages’ freedom through diplomatic measures. Then, in early 1980, he tried—-and failed—to win their release with a military operation. The now mostly forgotten Operation Eagle Claw, in which American aircraft and personnel burned in the Iranian desert, remains one of our country’s most humiliating defeats. 

The Iranian radicals, from Khomeini on down, always bore a particular grudge against Jimmy Carter. They did not let the hostages leave Iran until Carter’s replacement, Ronald Reagan, had been sworn in. 

The Iranians played a pivotal role in ending Carter’s presidency, too. Many factors plagued Jimmy Carter during his single term in office: an energy crisis, a bad economy, a Soviet resurgence. The Iran hostage crisis, however, was possibly the one that hammered the final nail in the coffin of his presidency. Carter lost the White House in a landslide on Election Day 1980.

Anti-Iran memes of 1980

The early 1980s were less politically correct times. Multiculturalism as we know it today was but a glint in the eye of a few Ivy League professors. Throughout the Iran hostage crisis, it was perfectly okay to despise Iran.

No one referred to “memes” in that pre-Internet era. But there were memes nonetheless. One meme of the Iran hostage crisis was the image of Mickey Mouse flipping the bird, with the words “Hey Iran!” inscribed beneath.

And then there was the song “Bomb Iran”, by Vince Vance & the Valiants. Sung to the tune of the Beach Boys’ “Barbara Ann”, “Bomb Iran” got a lot of airplay in 1980. (The tune enjoyed a brief resurgence more than a quarter-century later, when John McCain was running for the White House.) 

A future for Iran?

I’ve known exactly four people from Iran. One of them I didn’t like. Three of them I was quite fond of. None of them, though, struck me as fundamentally flawed or insane. 

Iran does not need to be the international pariah it has become. On the contrary, before the Islamic Revolution of 1979, Iran was a steadily improving country. Some wags called it “the Japan of the Middle East”. 

Pre-revolutionary Iran was also a stalwart ally of the United States—and Israel. While never exactly filled with Americans, there was a civilian American presence in Iran during the 1970s.

Americans in pre-revolutionary Iran

One of my former coworkers was employed by Bell Helicopter. His company stationed him in Tehran from 1976 through 1978. When I discovered that he had been stationed in Iran, I buttonholed him and picked his brain. You don’t meet many Americans with firsthand experiences of that country.

My coworker loved the Iran that existed before the mullahs took over. He married an Iranian woman, who turned out to be a shrew (in his opinion, anyway). But she was no Islamic fanatic. 

Much of Iran, in fact, was quite modern and liberal during the 1970s. This suggests that Islam and fanaticism are not inextricable and inevitable companions. 

State-sponsored terrorism of all kinds

But there is something rotten about the current regime. Throughout the 1980s, Iran was the leading perpetrator of state-sponsored terrorism, often carried out against America and its allies. 

The individual incidents are too many to list here, but the one that most sticks out in my memory is the 1983 bombing of the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut. Iran funded and trained the suicide bombers who blew up the barracks, as Iran has funded and trained suicide bombers throughout the Middle East over the past 40 years. 

Iran has been no friend of literature, either. In 1989, the Ayatollah Khomeini decided that Salman Rushdie’s novel, The Satanic Verses, were blasphemous. Khomeini didn’t simply pan the book, or ban it in Iran. He issued a fatwa against the author, declaring that all faithful Muslims had an obligation to at least attempt his murder.

Some Muslims in Europe took the fatwa seriously. In 1989, two floors of a London hotel were destroyed when a bomb meant for Rushdie exploded prematurely, killing the would-be bomber. Bookstores throughout Europe were looted and burned, and the book’s Japanese translator was killed.

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After seeing the present government of Iran misbehave so badly, for so many years, I’d like to live to see regime change in that country. I hope it doesn’t take another 40 years. 

An end to the Islamic Republic of Iran—its replacement with something freer and more benevolent—would be good for the world. 

But most of all, it would be a blessing for the 82 million people of Iran. They have endured four decades in the long, bloody shadow of Khomeini. They have suffered tyranny under his mullahs. The people of Iran deserve much better.