Argo, the movie, features Ben Affleck as the CIA “exfiltrator” who sneaks U.S. embassy personnel out of the Ayatollah Khomeini’s Iran under the guise of a Canadian science fiction movie production crew. The six Americans had escaped the U.S. embassy compound in Tehran as it was overrun by radical protesters ultimately supported by their new, post-Shah regime. They sought refuge with the Canadian ambassador. At the time in 1980, the Canadians were accorded full credit for the escape, while the CIA role was only revealed in 1997.
Of course, 50 other Americans remained trapped as hostages for over a year at the U.S. Embassy, with the feckless Jimmy Carter Administration unable fully to respond. The humiliation was compounded by the failed U.S. rescue operation in which American helicopters crashed in the Iranian desert. Iranian Islamists routinely paraded the hostages before international cameras to humiliate the Great Satan. Concurrently, the Soviet Union invaded neighboring Afghanistan, which perhaps would have been less likely if the pro-U.S. Shah had retained his throne. The nightmarish years 1979-1980 seemed to embody American malaise and decline amid a world pivoting towards disorder and tyranny.
Argo competently portrays the terrifying Iranian occupation of the U.S. Embassy, which initially assumed that even the Iranian government would respect international diplomatic norms by rescuing them instead of endorsing and exploiting their captivity. So too does the re-creation of Tehran in 1979-1980, a modernized and previously Westernized city, set against a backdrop of snow-topped mountains, that suddenly felt captive to a resurgent radical Islam that despised the West and modernity. It shows Hamilton Jordan, Carter’s chief of staff, representing the Administration, along with a brief appearance by Secretary of State Cyrus Vance. More time is spent inside CIA headquarters in Langley, where nearly everyone, like the rest of America in 1979-80, had bad haircuts and unfortunate clothing.
The CIA had been eviscerated during the Carter years, following the emasculation of the 1970s thanks to the infamous Senator Frank Church Committee and purported reforms that seemed to aspire towards a CIA more akin to the Peace Corps than to espionage and covert action. Argo does not explore the CIA’s near implosion as an effective tool of American power but instead understandably showcases this particular effective operation. Argo does unavoidably portray the hostage takers and the Iranian authorities as the sadistic beasts they were, including a pretend firing squad execution of the hostages at the embassy, among other villainies. But political correctness seems to preclude referencing the militantly radical form of Islam that undergird the terror and lawlessness of the Ayatollah’s new world. In the movie’s introduction, we are told that the Revolution reacted against the imposition of Western culture, while advertising of scantily clad women is shown as an example. In fact, the Islamist Revolution rejected legal and social rights for women, as advocated under the Shah.
Far more irritatingly, the introduction explains the Revolution was the fairly understandable response to the Shah’s ostensible regime of “torture,” fully supported and even encouraged by the U.S. “We had him torture and deball the population,” one U.S. official crassly explains. Another official references the U.S. “ferrying out the torture apparatus” of the Shah before the Ayatollah’s conquest. Inevitably, the 1953 coup, supported by the CIA and British intelligence to restore the Shah and topple nationalist Muhammad Mossadegh, is referenced in the movie introduction as the seminal cause for subsequent tragedies. In this regard, Argo, like much of conventional left-leaning opinion, assumes the Shah was an unprecedented tyrant sustained by American power, against which Iranians have a legitimate grievance.
This assumption begs the question: the Shah was despotic compared to whom? His often notorious SAVAK security service did not invent or introduce torture to Iran/Persia or the Near East and Middle East, where of course it remains alive and well. The Shah’s militant Islamist successors enhanced and expanded the state’s murderous tools of torture and repression on a far vaster scale even dreamt by any SAVAK chief. Since the Ayatollah’s regime, now regrettably 33 years old, was almost immediately far more tyrannical than the Shah even on his worst day, clearly the Revolution against the Shah was not about human rights but against the Shah’s Western influences and in favor of the imposition of strict Islam, which entails the suppression of human rights.
It’s estimated that the Iranian Islamic Republic executed 20,000 political prisoners just in its first decade of rule. According to the Iran Truth Tribunal, there were 15,000 political prisoners executed between 1981 and 1984, with an execution every 2 hours just the first few years of the regime. By comparison, the new biography of the Shah by Abbas Milani estimates that about 1,500 political prisoners were executed during the 37 years of the Shah’s rule. While SAVAK targeted radical Islamists and the Tudeh, Iran’s communist party, the Islamic Republic has targeted almost anyone who challenges its brand of radical Islam. The Shah was a royal dictator. His successors are theocratic totalitarians.
Milani’s biography of the Shah notes that during the 1960s and 1970s under the Shah, Iran was “one of the most liberal societies in the Muslim world in terms of cultural and religious tolerance, and in the state’s aversion to interfere in the private lives of citizens, so long as they did not politically oppose the Shah.” He cites thriving and relatively protected Baha’i and Jewish communities in Iran then. One of the Shah’s sisters even became Catholic, provoking only her brother’s indifference.
As to the 1953 coup, the Milani book notes the CIA, like its critics, enjoyed believing it had masterminded the Shah’s return, but there were many other factors at work. Mossadegh had created political and economic chaos, scaring the middle class and the military. And Muslim clerics turned against him, including a young Khomeini, fearing, like the West, his tacit alliance with Iranian communists, who were able to mobilize more followers in the streets than could Mossadegh. The Shah ultimately fell in 1979 to Khomeini not because he was a tyrant but because, like other feckless monarchs such as Czar Nicholas II and King Louis XVI, he would not wield sufficient force against his opponents. The consequences of weakness, as with Russia and France, were disastrous for the world, and we are still reaping the nasty consequences.
But anti-American myths are more eagerly propagated by the Left and by Hollywood than the ugly reality of murderous revolutions. Even the Religious Left plays the game. In 1980, the United Methodist General Conference dispatched a message to Ayatollah Khomeini about having heard revolutionary Iran’s “cries for freedom from foreign domination, from cultural imperialism, from economic exploitation.” United Methodism’s bishops urged U.S. repentance for its “grave sins” against Iran. One bishop even met Khomeini and denounced the Shah’s “demonic system” while insisting Khomeini taught that an “Islamic system is a democratic system founded on popular insistence.” This bishop, unable completely to ignore the rivers of new blood, claimed Khomeini was only killing “known torturers and killers” from the Shah’s regime.
Maybe a movie someday will explore how Iran gave itself over to madness, helping to birth the global jihadist movement against which we still contend today and will for the rest of our lives. Meanwhile, despite its tut-tutting over the Shah, Argo at least portrays a rare heroic episode during a shameful period.