Manifesting typical Trojan animus toward all things Irish, the USC guy breakfasting with me in Rasht, on Iran’s Caspian seacoast, was thoroughly enjoying my discomfiture. “What’s the final score?” I pleaded as his colleague, with maddening prolongation, read aloud the International Herald Tribune account of the Notre Dame-Alabama football game that happened a few days earlier, on November, 13, 1976.
He smirked and said, “21-18,” but withheld the most important piece of information.
“Who won?” I croaked.
After an eternity, he relented. “Notre Dame.”
All three Iranians with me at the table, functionaries of the government of His Imperial Majesty Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the Shah of Iran, totally got my ND zealotry. Besides my USC tormentor, the others also had graduated from American universities, par for the course back then because Iran was, in effect, a client nation of the United States.
Indeed, the survival of the Shah’s brutally autocratic government depended on American support, as it earlier had relied on the British, who were compensated by a near-monopoly on Iran’s oil. In 1953, the U.S. and U.K. had engineered a coup that restored the Shah’s absolute rule after democratically elected prime minister Mohammad Mosaddegh had sent him to the sidelines. In return, Iran served as a strong military ally bordering the Soviet Union and as a bulwark in a Middle East boiling with anti-U.S. sentiment.
Thus, I was not surprised that the American presence was so prominent in Iran when I went there on assignment in the late ’70s, not long before the start of demonstrations that led to the 1979 revolution, which ended the monarchy. It took thousands of Americans just to maintain military equipment Iran purchased from Washington.
What I did not expect was so prevalent an Israeli presence. It was obvious during my first night in the country, on assignment with a project designed to keep the Shah’s image shiny in the U.S.
A few hours after arriving in Tehran, I was taken by government contacts to a nightclub atop the Intercontinental Hotel, a favorite watering hole of the Shah’s personal posse. A band was playing. The song was a surprise, given that I was in a predominantly Muslim country, an anthem at every Jewish wedding and bar mitzvah I had ever attended. Tables crowded with Israelis were treated to “Hava Nagila.”
Although the Shah never officially recognized Israel, the Jewish state was fueled largely by Iranian oil and deeply engaged in the country’s military and security operations. In particular, the dreaded SAVAK, the Shah’s ruthless secret police, was started and trained by Israeli Mossad agents, along with the CIA.
After the revolution, the Islamic Republic fanned resentment of Israeli involvement with the Shah’s abhorred enforcers into full-blown hatred of the Jewish state. (As an aside, I am very pro-Israel, was on the board of a foundation that supported conservation there, and count an afternoon spent with Israeli general Avraham Yoffe, a hero of the Six-Day War, as a life highlight.)
Be that as it may, when a powerhouse public relations firm offered me a trip to Iran, I jumped on it. As a young freelance reporter, a few years removed from a real job, I eagerly sought international assignments, which were starting to come my way with welcome regularity.
This one, however, came with a hitch. Ostensibly, I was going as a freelance journalist to gather material for articles I could sell to American publications. Actually, I was being paid through the PR firm to engage in an operation called the International Affairs Project of the Government of Iran. Money from articles based on the trip would be gravy. Any semblance that I was working as an objective journalist vanished when the firm produced a federal document for me to sign, “FORM OBD-66, Under the Foreign Agents Registration Act of 1938.”
Ethically a journalist on the staff of a news outlet could never have taken the deal. A case could be made, however, that freelancers could hedge their bets as long as they were honest about it when they tried to pitch stories. I knew that some big-timers had been taken to Iran before me, including Marya Manes, former Vogue editor, critic and top-selling author, and Dr. Lee Salk, author, commentator, television personality and brother of polio vaccine inventor, Jonas. Next to them, I was a nobody, on the scout team, getting a shot at playing after the first string had wrapped it up.
If name players could do it, I figured, so could I, as long as I was upfront with editors about potential Iran stories. Freelancing then and now is a tough business at which few survive full-time. While travel expenses for staffers on assignment abroad were paid by their employer, I had to rely on one-time expenses from magazines and organizations such as NGOs, or freebies like my Iran trip. To get not only a free trip but to be paid for it as well was golden.
That said, the educational, agricultural and educational reforms that I saw — part of the Shah’s “White Revolution,” designed to modernize the country — were legitimate and highly effective. I wrote about three so-called “revolutionary corps,” into which young men and women were drafted as quasi-military health workers, teachers and agricultural agents. About 25,000 were on duty, in mud-hut hamlets, small towns and even tent encampments of desert nomads. Those I met were dedicated and committed to bettering the lives of their compatriots.
What now seems ironic is that the young corps members, men and women, reminded me of the young Israelis I had met at a moshav, a cooperative agricultural settlement, in the occupied Sinai a short time earlier. Vibrant, vocal and viewing the future with youthful optimism, they are now of late middle age and citizens of nations in deadly conflict, albeit through proxies and covert operations. Who knows, had it not been for Iran’s Islamic revolution, some of these people might have visited one another’s countries, perhaps as tourists or even in government service.
There was another element of irony involved in the assignment. Several years earlier, I had helped a group of Iranian university students who were Mosaddegh supporters promote anti-Shah demonstrations at the United Nations. Their hatred of all things Shah was intense. I thought better of putting it on my resume.
Over the years, I have tried to square the westernized, cosmopolitan Iran I experienced with the discontent and rancor that sparked the revolution. Tehran — at least, the Tehran I saw at first — wowed me. It was a vibrant, lively city. Later in my career, when I traveled so widely my wife sometimes did not know what continent I was on, I might not have been so bedazzled. Then, it was heady.
Meeting with government officials in the imposing imperial palace. Driving through the majestic Alborz Mountains to the Caspian Sea, where the air above endless marshes thundered with the wings of migratory waterfowl. Attending parties at which first-class caviar was washed down with vodka, always Smirnoff, among cultivated, uniformly pleasant and just plain classy people.
The fact that alcohol was readily available testified to the way the Shah, and his father before him, had undercut the influence of the Shi’a clergy and Islamic fundamentalism in government. While political dissidence could be fatal, religious tolerance prevailed. The crowd at the first gathering I attended reflected that fact. Conversing with a group of people, I found it included Muslims, Christians and Jews, all Iranians. With booze flowing and conversation worldly, it was easy to forget that that freedom in Iran had definite limits. Any perceived opposition to the government could bring a visit from the SAVAK, with unpleasant consequences.
When push came to shove, individual civil rights unquestionably were at the whim of the government. That became evident through efforts to combat drug addiction and the illicit trade that supported it. While I was there, the government was launching a war on drugs, ballyhooed in the newspapers.
It was an especially complex task. For thousands of years, the opium poppy has played a substantial role in Iran’s culture and economy. Beyond that, members of the Shah’s family and close associates compromised his credibility with their involvement in the drug trade. (The Shah’s brother was arrested in Los Angeles during 1992 on suspicion of possessing opium with intent to sell.)
Justice was two-tiered. Unconnected drug dealers were subject to raids by a special strike force. Penalties on trafficking were fierce, including death for second-offense smuggling. Trials could be before military courts, although not all offenders had the benefit of the process. A military officer in anti-drug operations confided that dealers and smugglers were often shot on the spot.
Looking back, I saw evidence that the revolutionary pot was beginning to boil while walking on a busy Tehran street with my government escorts. A car full of men stopped, its occupants glaring at me, waving fists and screaming in Farsi. I did not understand the language but I was obviously the target of vociferous invective. My companions explained that the guys in the car were mullahs. They thought I was also one, but a rogue, since I was not wearing my turban.
A word explanation is required here. At the time, I had a full jet-black beard, well below my chin, and a shaved head. When I first began reporting internationally, I realized that I did not look American, which in many places was advantageous. On arrival in Iran, one of my greeters told me, “Unless you open your mouth you will pass for one of us.”
I made many friends in Iran and planned to go back there as a real journalist, to cover more stories, especially about nature and wildlife conservation. Then came the revolution and I never got the chance.
There is a strange postscript to this story. In the ’80s, I contracted with the World Wrestling Federation to help develop its magazine, which backstopped storylines for its ring characters. I was regularly on the road with wrestlers such as Andre the Giant, Macho Man Randy Savage and the Iron Sheik, aka Khosrow Vaziri, who the New York Times said, “drew on his Iranian heritage to create a caricature of a Middle Eastern villain and became one of the most memorable heels in wrestling history.”
Before a show in Poughkeepsie, New York, the Sheik asked me to take him to pick up his car from the shop. As he got into my vehicle, he looked at the floor and picked up a coin. It was Iranian. How it got there, years after my visit, I cannot explain.
As I sat at my keyboard writing this story in June 2023, news came to me that the Iron Sheik had died. Like so many Iranians I have known, he was a first-class guy.
Ed Ricciuti has been reporting and writing for 60 years and teaches martial arts near his home in Killingworth, Connecticut.