Who owns Iran’s history?

Historians in the News
tags: Iran

Andrew Scott Cooper (author of The Fall of Heaven)

To the Editor:

Who decides what is history and what is not? And who gets to write it?

These questions came to mind when I read Azadeh Moaveni’s review of “The Fall of Heaven” (Aug. 7), my new investigative history on the last days of imperial Iran. Historians are reassessing the life of the shah and his 37 years on the Peacock Throne. Some of the most recent literature on the subject, my own included, presents a more nuanced portrait of the man and his times. This makes for uncomfortable reading for Iranian intellectuals whose identity and work are invested in the caricature that holds the shah to have been a cruel dictator who achieved nothing of any use for his country.

Your reviewer chose to dismiss or overlook important new revelations concerning the disappearance of Imam Musa Sadr, a towering figure in 20th-century Shiism; documents revealing the flow of weapons and cash from Arab leaders and terrorist groups to the Khomeini movement; the disclosure that United States diplomats were in close contact with Iranian opposition leaders; that senior Muslim clerics opposed Khomeini and begged the shah to end his rebellion; and that the shah repeatedly, and over the strong objections of his top army brass, refused to sanction the crackdown that might have saved his throne but led to bloodshed.

The contributions of non-Iranian scholars to the debate on the Pahlavi era should not be dismissed out of hand. As outsiders, we bring to the discussion a different way of thinking and new tools in research and analysis. We can say things in public that many Iranian intellectuals will only admit to in private. During my trip to Iran to study Shiism as part of book research — a fact left out of Moaveni’s review — I experienced firsthand just how popular the shah and his family are with many ordinary Iranians.

This book will, I hope, shake up a historical narrative that for too long has felt too settled. “Blunt histories do not always meet with warm approval,” the historian Margaret MacMillan writes. Those who “produce work that challenges deeply held beliefs and myths about the past” are often accused of “being elitist, nihilistic or simply out of touch with that imaginary place ‘the real world.’ ” Let’s make sure that everyone’s voice counts in this debate. No single person or group “owns” history, and all views and contributions should be welcome.

Robert Scott Shaffer (professor of history at Shippensburg University)

To the Editor:

I appreciated Azadeh Moaveni’s incisive review of Andrew Scott Cooper’s attempted whitewash of the shah of Iran. Nevertheless, Moaveni is too credulous of Cooper’s allegations that President Jimmy Carter opposed and exaggerated the shah’s human rights abuses.

While Carter claimed that human rights would underscore his foreign policy, he effusively praised the shah. During a visit by the Iranian leader to the White House, Carter referred to the Iranian dictator’s “enlightened leadership” and “reaffirmed to His Majesty that he fully supports the special relationship” between the two nations — a relationship characterized in large part by the sale of weapons in one direction and oil in the other.

Carter topped even these fulsome tributes a month later in Tehran, declaring, in a mind-numbing misreading of historical momentum: “Iran, because of the great leadership of the shah, is an island of stability in one of the more troubled areas of the world.” As Iranian opposition to the shah mounted, the president saw only “the admiration and love which your people give to you,” adding: “There is no leader with whom I have a deeper sense of personal gratitude and personal friendship.”

To be sure, some Carter administration officials did take the president’s human rights rhetoric seriously, criticizing the shah for widespread imprisonment and torture of opponents. But Carter for most of his presidency publicly backed this tyrant, ensuring that those who deposed him would direct their ire against the United States as well — helping to inaugurate 40 years of U.S.-­Iranian antagonism, which Presidents Obama and Rouhani have only recently begun to overcome.

Read entire article at Letters to the Editor of the NYT

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