ADD COMMENT ON KAPUSCINSKI'S BOOK TO THIS
US Prof. talks of his
pre-Revolution Iran experience
Mon, 11 Jan 2010
Professor Marvin Zonis has spent at least 60 years
studying the volatile mix of Islam, terrorism and the
Middle East. He is the former head of the Center for
Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Chicago. He
studied Islam in Iraq in the beginning of 1964, and has
travelled extensively throughout other parts of the
He hitchhiked through Afghanistan in the early 60s and
arrived in Iran in 1963, right after the fall out of the
white revolution, during the time when Ayatollah Khomeini
was arrested and exiled.
In an exclusive interview with Press TV's Lion and
Eagle program, Zonis explains his interesting
memories, including his meetings with the Shah, and many
other personalities of the Pahlvi regime.
Press TV: Professor, thank you very much. It is a
pleasure to finally sit down with you. You've been to
Iran. When did you first go to Iran, and what was the
impression you got from the country and the society and
from the politics?
Prof. Zonis: I got to Iran in May of 1963. I had
just come to Iran from the Pacific so I had entered Iran
from Afghanistan, and I had actually hitchhiked across
northern Pakistan and Afghanistan into Iran you
could do that in those days. It was a marvelous
But the most amazing thing is that a few days after I
arrived, I had managed to get an appointment with the
Minister of Information of Iran, whose office was down
near the Bazaar, because I was seeking permission from
him to do my research for my PHD thesis.
Indeed, the day that I went down there, was the day after
the night when Ayatollah Khomeini was first arrested in
June of 1963, and I was in a taxi going south towards the
Bazaar of Tehran and all of a sudden streams of cars were
coming north in the opposite direction.
People were standing on the running boards of these cars
and carrying bloodied T-shirts and flags. I didn't know
what was going on then. I got down to the bazaar and
there was the army shooting at people who were protesting
the arrest of Ayatollah Khomeini.
So my introduction to Iran was really one of tremendous
violence, and the beginning of the drama in which
Ayatollah Khomeini played such a central role from 1963
onwards to the Iranian Revolution.
Press TV: And did you have any idea that this was
the sort of atmosphere that you were going to get into or
were you not that educated about Iran at that time?
Prof. Zonis: I knew very little about Iran, except
what I could read in the books, and what those books said
was all the same thing, which was that Iran is like the
bumblebee, which is to say scientifically the bumblebee
can not fly but somehow it manages to do that.
And all these books about Iran said the same thing about
the Shah's system, which is that somehow it should not
work and it should have been overthrown a long time ago,
and I actually went to Iran to try and figure out how
come the Shah's regime was as stable as it was and that
it had lasted for so long and all of a sudden I end up in
the middle of this political instability.
Press TV: Who was the Minister of Information at
Prof. Zonis: I honestly don't remember.
Press TV: And during your meeting with him, did
this issue come up?
Prof. Zonis: But I never had the meeting with the
Minister of Information. I never had the meeting because
everything was so chaotic at the bazaar that I stood
around and watched as long as I could and then got out of
there when I thought that things were getting out of hand.
Press TV: And you left the country?
Prof. Zonis: No I left my home in a hotel, because
I had not yet found an apartment to live in.
Press TV: So you lived in Iran for a time?
Prof. Zonis: I lived in Iran from the end of May
1963 until the late summer of 1965, almost 1966. And I
spent the first year in Iran, learning to be fluent in
Persian, because I knew that my research that I
was going to do for my PHD thesis on the Shah's
political system and how it worked had to be done in
Persian. And it took me about a year to really feel
comfortable getting Persian under my belt and I had
started studying that of course, probably in the winter
of 1961. I had studied it at great length in the United
So I spent a year learning it in Iran, talking to as many
people as I could about the Iranian system and how it
worked and why it didn't work and who was important and
And then after that year, I set out on the mainstream of
my project, which was to interview the political elite of
Iran, the most powerful individuals in Iran, under the
Press TV: Do you remember some of these people off
the top o your head?
Prof. Zonis: Well, let me just tell you an
anecdote. Before I could do this research I decided that
I had better get the permission of the Shah to do this
research because, for sure, if I started talking to some
of his ministers or confidants, he is going to hear about
it and at that time it was not clear that kind of
interviewing was very welcome in Iran.
And so I sent a letter to the Shah and asked him for
permission. Of course I heard nothing back. So then I
sent him another letter after a few weeks. I sent it to
the Royal Court, his Imperial Majesty
back. I did not know how to proceed, when all of a sudden
out of the blue, I get a letter from General Hassan
Pakravan, and then I get a telephone call from General
Hassan Pakravan. He was the director of Savak, the secret
police of Iran at the time.
And Gen. Pakravan says to me, I understand that you
want to do this research project, I think that should
come and talk to me about the research project.
So there I am, a kid in graduate school, getting called
before the fearsome General Hassan Pakravan. So, I was
really nervous. But I showed up at the headquarters of
Savak and I met him and I talked all about my project and
why I wanted to do it.
And at the end of our meeting it was really about
an hour he says to me, you know, this is a
decision that I can not make, only his majesty can make
this decision. I am going to see him right now for my
weekly meeting and I will tell him about this and we'll
see if he wants to meet with you and talk with you.
So naturally I hear nothing, and then about month I get a
call from the Royal Court, and I am told that his Majesty
would like to grant me a private interview to learn more
about my project.
Now I am the graduate student kid who has an interview
with His Majesty, and I am really nervous about this, you
know, I was so excited.
And so indeed I had a private meeting with the Shah, it
was supposed to last about 15 minutes, but it lasted for
45 minutes. He wanted to know everything that I was going
to do and why I was going to do it.
I told him I wanted to understand how the system worked,
and why it had been stable and who was in favor and who
And he says, well this sounds terrific; of course you
should do this project. And I say, that is
marvelous, thank your majesty. And then I said to
my self, you know what, he says to me you can do this
project, how would anybody else know that?
And so I turned to the Shah and I said, your
majesty, would you give me a letter giving me Royal
permission to do this project?
He said that of course, I will take care of that.
So, he served me tea and we had pistachios and cookies
and we talked and talked and finally he stood up and I
realized that the time for the interview had come to an
He was sitting in easy chairs and he went back behind his
desk and so I thanked him and I bowed and backed up to go
out of the room and I got to the door and I was so
nervous because I had been holding it together the
whole time that I could not open the door.
So I stood there pulling and pushing, and nothing and I
cannot get of his office. So gets out from behind his
desk and he comes around and he goes out to the door and
he opens the door and he lets me out.
That was great and sure enough the Minister of Courts
says, wait a minute! And I sat down and he
said his majesty has told me to give you a letter,
and I got this letter with seal and the stamp and
the Imperial Court glued on it and that is when I
launched my project.
Press TV: And this project I guess once you
spoke with the Shah, you spoke with many high-ranking
Prof. Zonis Well, I had spent time before
in that year when I was learning Persian trying to
identify who were the most important people in Iran.
And of course they weren't all officials of the Shah's
regime. There were many people who were or could have
been considered as opposition candidates; were clerics,
there were Mullahs, who were certainly more powerful but
who weren't in the system. They weren't necessarily an
opposition but they weren't necessarily in favor, but
they were obviously able to sway huge numbers of people.
There also were newspaper editor, intellectuals, and etc.
And so I began to interview these people and what I found
out very quickly was that in those days, before there was
really anybody else doing this kind of research in Iran,
people had three different views of me.
Some people looked at me and said, this guy is a CIA
agent. Other people looked at me and said, this guy must
be working for The New York Times, he must be a
journalist. And another group said this guy must have
been sent by the Shah to find out what is really going on
in this country.
Well it turns out that the best thing that people could
think about me, from my point of view, was that I was a
CIA agent. That was the best thing.
Press TV: Why?
Prof. Zonis: Well, first, if they thought that I
worked for the Shah, then they were going to be very
nervous, because they knew I was going to call the Shah
that minute and say, this guy said that about his majesty.
So that was not good.
If they thought I was a journalist with the New York
Times, it was not good either. Because, then they would,
oh, I will tell this kid something and then, sure
enough, my name will be in The New York Times the
next day, quoted.
The best thing would have been [for them to think] that I
was a CIA agent. Because then I could find out all these
very important information about Iran and then I would
call back and tell the President of the Unites States
about Iran and president would know how to make things
better in Iran by telling Shah what to do.
So that would have turned out to be a good thing. It
would have been secret and no one would have heard about
it, except the president would call up the Shah and
everything would get better.
And it turns out that everybody in Iran thinks everybody
is a CIA agent, when they thought that about me it was a
good thing. Turns out that I was not one, but that was ok.
Press TV: One of the many interesting things that
struck when we spoke was that you said there were many
important people in opposition, including the clergy, who
could draw huge numbers of support from the people.
I have spoken to Americans who were in the field within
the government at the time and it seems that the actual
American political apparatus was clueless about this. Do
you think there was any truth to that?
Prof. Zonis Unfortunately, there is a great deal
of truth to the fact that the American political
apparatus was clueless about the opposition figures in
There is a very good reason for that. What happened when
American foreign service personnel or indeed CIA agents
went out and talked to opposition figures,
example back a group of the opposition who were members
of the National Front they were the second
National Front, the followers of Mohammad Mosaddeq, who
kind of reorganized the National Front after Ali Amini,
at the time when Amini was the prime minister in the
And they still existed as a force that was in opposition
to the Shah. They were not obviously pro-Khomeini at the
time. Well, when the agents went to speak to these people,
it turns out that the Shah immediately heard about it
through his own contacts and agents and he would call in
the American ambassador and he would say why are
your people talking to my opposition.
The American ambassador would say, well your
majesty, we want to know everything that is going on in
Iran. And the Shah would say, I am in charge
of this country, you want to know about what is going on
in this country ask me, but I will not have your people
running around talking to my opposition.
And because he was the Shah and he was our guy, the
American government backed its personnel off from talking
to these people, and so they just didn't know what was
Press TV: Until when?
Prof. Zonis: How about from the middle to the end
of the  Revolution that they found out about it. I
mean, I think people did not know who Khomeini was.
People did not know who Bazargan was the first
secular prime minister for the revolution after the
ouster of the Shah's man. So I think that the people in
the American government did not know for a very long time.
Press TV: Interestingly enough, time after time,
interview after interview with different people,
officials, we hear the same thing. And I am sure that
many Iranians watching this around time are going to have
a very hard time believing that this American, this
magnificent political system, this super power, seems
time after time to have this information gap about
Why is that? How does this system maintain itself and its
status around the world when it is so misinformed in key
Prof. Zonis: I have written a paper, called "Conspiracy
Thinking in the Middle East," in which I write a
great deal about Middle Easterners way of seeing in terms
of conspiracies. But one of the reasons that the
revolution was natal is that perception of the Iranian
weakness. And that explains Iran standing up to the
United States today; because they are trying so hard to
get over that sense that the United States can do
anything it wants, and one of the slogans of the
revolution I remember was "The United States Can't
The second way that I would answer this question of how
the Unites States could be so ill informed is, let me
tell you about 9/11/2001 when the two planes went into
the World Trade Center and 3,000 Americans were killed.
It turns out that we know now from the 9/11 commission
that different parts of the American government knew lots
and lots about what was going to happen.
However, different parts of the American government, and
remember there are 16 different intelligence agencies,
knew different pieces of the puzzle, but each
intelligence agency kept its own information to itself,
because it didn't want to share with anybody and so the
pieces were never put together, and the puzzle was never
That is one of the reasons why the United States didn't
prevent the 9/11 from happening
What the 9/11
commission did was revise the entire structure in which
all 16 now share information into something called the
National Counter Terrorism Center.
Well there people like myself who understood the power of
the [Iranian] opposition. I was not in the government and
no one in the government ever asked me. And believe it or
not I can give you lots of examples of American
government officials who were fired because the Shah
believed they were trying to learn about his opposition,
fired by the American government.
Press TV Can you name a few?
Prof. Zonis Yes, Bill Miller. The most important
guy, and you could still interview him, because he is
still alive and lives outside of Washington DC, his name
was G. William Miler. When I got to Iran in May of 1963,
Bill Miller was a young Foreign Service Officer, he was
not in the CIA, really was in the State Department. He
had just joined the government service, he had graduated
and his first job was in Iran.
So of course he was a bout the same age that I was,
because I was a gradate student we became friends. And in
fact, a lot of Bill Miller's friends were young
intellectuals who were around in Tehran at the time and
who were our age too
Well, who did they turn out to
A lot of the young intellectual in Tehran in 1963 ended
up being members of the National Front. So Bill Miller's
social friends were these young people
the National Front.
Bill Miller was called in by the American ambassador and
was told to end this friendship with these National Front
guys. Eventually, Bill miller left the Foreign Service.
He got a job in the Peace Corpse, and became the Deputy
Director of the Peace Corpse for the Middle East, so Bill
spent all this time travelling around the Tunisia,
Morocco, Egypt, all these countries that had members of
the US Peace Corpse. Well, Iran had members of the Peace
Corpse and Bill occasionally went back to Iran.
And of course when he got back to Iran, he decided to get
back with his old buddies. So he called up these guys who
were not so young any more,
and were still
sympathetic to the National Front.
And he had dinner with these guys,
while he was in
Tehran to visit the Peace Corpse. He got fired from his
job as the Deputy Director. Not in the least because the
Shah had heard about it and protested against his
association with his opposition.
He is the most glaring example of a guy I know who paid a
price for hanging out with the opposition.
Press TV: Now it seems that the United States was
very concerned appeasing the Shah, or at least giving him
a sense of security. However, the Shah is always very
weary and fearful of Americans after 1953.
Why is that? Is it because different administrations have
different approaches or was that something in his nature?
Prof. Zonis I believe that the secret to
understanding the Shah is the fact that the Shah was a
very weak personality, who had a very low sense of self-worth
and self-esteem. He was not a powerful character.
And the result of that was that he was, partially for
good reasons and partially for not so good reasons,
internally fearful over being overthrown.
I mean, one has to remember that his father was
overthrown by foreign powers. One has to remember that he
was the subject of an assassination attempt, in which the
bullets actually entered his body. That would make one
very fearful of future assassination attempts, that was
One has to remember that in 1953 the United States
overthrew Mosaddeq, with the cooperation of the British,
not quite clear what the role f the CIA was, and what the
role of the British was. But all that put aside, it
brought the Shah back to power and so they were able to
get rid of Mosaddeq, they probably were able to get rid
of the Shah.
And he was always concerned about the fact that in fact,
he was not sufficiently important to America, that he
would be guaranteed to be kept in power.
Things began to change, when Nixon and Kissinger were in
power as president and National Security advisor and then
Secretary of the United State.