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 region.

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 experience.

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 the time?

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 States.

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 who wasn't.

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 Shah's system.

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….heard nothing 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 was against.

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 end.

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 Iranians.

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 Iran.

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,… for 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 early 60s.

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 going on.

Press TV: Until when?

Prof. Zonis: How about from the middle to the end of the [1979] 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 important issue.

Why is that? How does this system maintain itself and its status around the world when it is so misinformed in key areas?

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 Do Anything."

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 solved.

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 from Harvard,… 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 be?

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…members of 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 in 1949.

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.