SALISBURY — Firoozeh Kashani-Sabet saw the 1979 revolution firsthand.
She was a schoolgirl at the time, watching American television shows and going to a school located in a part of Tehran where protests erupted.
She came to the United States in 1981 at “a touchy moment” — the end of the hostage crisis.
Enrolled at The Hotchkiss School, she recalled, “I was never insulted for being Iranian.”
Kashani-Sabet, now a history professor at the University of Pennsylvania, spoke at the Salisbury School on Friday, April 15, as part of the Salisbury Forum lecture series.
Speaking so rapidly that the audience had to ask her to slow down, Kashani-Sabet gave an overview of Iran’s history from the end of World War II, the short-lived Pahlavi dynasty and how the country’s internal affairs were mixed up with Cold War foreign policy and the lingering effects of colonialism.
U.S. missed the signs
She said the American government, preoccupied with the USSR, did not pick up on “the tremors of Islamic unrest.”
As Islamic agitation increased in the late 1940s, the American ambassador described it as “minor discourtesies.”
In Iran there was an uneasy equilibrium between the Western-oriented shah and supporters of the regime, and religious conservatives.
Kashani-Sabet said that the Americans did not pay attention to internal Iranian politics, and failed to understand the sense of territorial vulnerability.
“The 1950s were a curious contrast between violence and tranquility.”
Under prime minister Mohammad Mosaddegh, in power from 1951 to 1953, the Iranian parliament nationalized the assets of the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company.
This led to an American- and British-engineered coup in 1953. The coup strengthened the shah’s power as constitutional monarch.
But as the shah’s grip tightetend, the unrest mounted. In 1957, the secret police, SAVAK, was formed, with American help, to deal with dissidents.
At the same time, American cultural influence increased. In 1958 the first television station in the Middle East went on the air in Tehran, with a heavy dose of American programming.
“I grew up watching Sesame Street,” Kashani-Sabet said. “We had ‘Charlie’s Angels,’ and Lee Majors and Farrah Fawcett honeymooned in Iran.”
By 1962 SAVAK had 24,000 members. In the 1960s, Marxist parties were outlawed.
There were political prisoners, although not as many as some accounts suggest. Kashini-Sabet said between 3,000 and 4,000 is an accurate figure.
“In reality, Iran was pretty good on due process in the early 1970s.”
“Going back to the 1950s, there were clear inklings that a significant swath of the population had ideas about social reality” that were informed by religion.
The unraveling begins
Growing up, Kashani-Sabet said it was understood that one was not to “say anything bad about the shah or his family.”
In 1971, the American embassy noted in a report that Iranian youth was increasingly religious and increasingly critical of the U.S. and its role in Iranian affairs.
“I don’t know what happened to this report,” she said. “It doesn’t get mentioned a lot.”
Unrest was centered in the universities. Students were arrested, and by 1975 Iran was officially a one-party state.
The catalyst for the end of the shah’s reign was the Aug. 19, 1978, Cinema Rex fire in Abadan.
Controversy about the arson fire continues to this day, with the death toll —Kashani-Sabet cited 377, with reservations — still disputed.
The secret police were blamed — although it is possible, she said, that Islamists may have set the blaze.
In any event, the fire was seared into the minds of the populace. “Any Iranian living at the time recalls this.”
The fire gave the opposition considerable momentum — especially since it occurred on the 25th anniversary of the 1953 coup.
“Black Friday,” Sept. 8, 1978, saw a demonstration in Zhaleh Square (where Kashani-Sabet’s school was located) put down in a bloody manner.
She said the death toll was under 100, but the number of casualties grew in subsequent retellings to “hundreds of lives.”
“It changed the tenor of the revolution.”
The shah left the country in January 1979, and the monarchy was dissolved officially by February 1979.
With the radicals ascendant, the revolution reached the boiling point on Nov. 4, 1979, when students took over the U.S. Embassy and the opposition “coalesced around [Ayatollah] Khomenei,” the Shiite cleric.
The shah was in the U.S. for medical treatment, and the hostages were held for 444 days.
Kashani-Sabet said the embassy takeover and the fall of the shah “was seen as a bookend to the Mosaddegh affair.”
Seeking greater clarity
Today, Iran remains a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma, she said (borrowing from Winston Churchill). The recent nuclear deal offers “the possibility of a less contentious relationship,” she said, as well as a “path to a Middle East realignment.”
During the question period, Kashani-Sabet was asked the difference between an Iranian and a Persian.
“Persian” refers to an ethnic group, she replied, while “Iran” is a land mass.
Asked about Iran’s ambitions after the nuclear deal, Kashani-Sabet said the image of Iran as a regional power is “fairly recent” and connected to the development of nuclear energy and weapons.
“But Iran has been the victim of territorial encroachment” going back to 1907, and “Iran has staunch opposition from Arab countries.”
Are relations between the U.S. and Iran improving? Will the recent nuclear agreement help?
Kashani-Sabet said she is “cautiously optimistic” about the agreement, and that relations are somewhat improved — although much depends on how the influence of the “hardliners” is countered.
“The reformers are louder and more visible — but they are not free.”