On April 14, center-right blog The Hill posted a piece by A.J. Caschetta that entirely described the Iranian coronavirus crisis from the perspective of the US, which is, according to this way of seeing the world, the one that represents the universal perspective.
For Caschetta, who contributes to the National Review, and so is a member of that endangered species of political animal classified as the right-wing intelligentsia, the virus turns out to be on the side of what many Americans call freedom, which began its God-directed march through history with two of three 18th century revolutions sanctified by the West. (The third revolution, which liberated black slaves in Haiti, is demonized, if recognized at all.)
Could the virus from Wuhan accomplish in a matter of months what seven U.S. presidents, 19 CIA directors, and legions of Iranian secularists and dissidents could only dream about achieving in Tehran? The answer is maybe—the coronavirus may just deliver the coup de grace to the theocratic dictatorship that Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini started 41 years ago, but only if the devastation and feckless government response inspires everyone, from the lower classes to the ruling classes, to say “No more.”A coup de grâce is the blow or bullet that finally kills a foe.
The first bizarre thing in this paragraph is the association of Iranian secularists with CIA directors (more about that later in this post). The next bizarre thing is that the virus, according to Caschetta, has the potential to destabilize power structures not only in Iran but also in China and other totalitarian states. The virus, however, presents no threat to democratically elected officials in the free world, no matter how badly they have managed the crisis. As you can see, Caschetta's exposition has little to do with actual Iran and everything to do with how a certain class of Americans feel about that Persian nation.
But where did this feeling come from? Why is Iran "the perennial target of hate." And how to explain the obvious joy Caschetta derives from describing idiotic statements made by Iranian religious leaders on how to cure COVID-19: “Before sleeping, put a cotton ball dipped in violet oil to the anus”? To reach some of the answers to these questions, one can actually begin with a key character in a popular science fiction TV show, The Expanse.
Shohreh Aghdashloo was born in 1952 to a middle-class family in Tehran. Her parents raised her to enter a profession that was respectable: doctor, lawyer, and the like. She, however, wanted to become an actress. Her teenage mind was filled with glamorous images from European and Hollywood films. Indeed, the man she fell in love with wore, according to her own account, on their second date "a creamy white cotton suit like Dirk Bogarde in Visconti's Death in Venice." She married this man. He became an official in Iran's Ministry of Culture, and she an actress on the stage. Eventually she entered film, and in 1977, obtained a major role in the first film by a man many consider to be the greatest Iranian director of the 20th century, Abbas Kiarostami.
The movie, The Report, which influenced the 2012 Oscar-winning Iranian film A Separation, is about a middle-class marriage that's falling apart. Aghdashloo is a twenty-something wife; Kurosh Afsharpanah is her thirty-something husband. She takes care of their baby; he spends the day at work in a tax department at the Ministry of Finance. The wife can't stand her husband any more (the way he eats, the way he moves about the apartment, the way he combs his mustache); he only wants to look good, climb up the department's ladder, and make a little scratch from bribes on the side. This is one of Abbas Kiarostami's darkest films. And that is saying a lot.
When the revolution erupted in 1979, Shohreh Aghdashloo fled Iran by way of Turkey and, after a short stay in England, ended up in Los Angeles, the present Iranian American capital. Aghdashloo did minor parts in movies and TV shows until she landed a supporting role in the melodrama House of Sand and Fog. Set in Los Angeles, and based on a novel of the same name, Fog is about a former colonel in Mohammad Reza Shah's army (played by Western cinema's universal brown man, the British actor Ben Kingsley), and his wife (Shohreh Aghdashloo), and all of his troubles (I was once somebody in Iran; I'm now nobody in the US).
The film is bad (working-class whites, striving immigrants, a big culture crash at the end, no solution), but it won Shohreh Aghdashloo a nomination for the Best Supporting Actress in 2004. House of Sand and Fog, however was not exactly a game changer for Aghdashloo. She spent another long stretch of time doing parts that were, true, better than her pre-Fog period, but not outstanding. Then, at the age of 62, she struck gold with a top role in the acclaimed TV show The Expanse. And it is here things get interesting.
By far, the most powerful and most complex performance in the The Expanse, whose fourth season was released in December, 2019 by Amazon, is by Aghdashloo. She plays Chrisjen Avasarala, a woman who rises to the position of Secretary-General of the United Nations and effectively becomes the leader of Earth and the most powerful political figure of the parts of the solar system that have been colonized by humans—from her planet to the moons of the gas giants (Mars and Asteroid Belt are in the middle).
Aghdashloo super-charges her character with an intensity that I think no US actor could reproduce. Avasarala is calculating, foul-mouthed, operatic, sensual, vulnerable, patriotic, despotic, colorful, mythical, self-destructive, always storming into a room, always leaving with a bang, always trying to keep two steps ahead of her enemies, always in some kind of danger. Until the end of season four, viewers had no idea what to make of Avasarala. Should we trust her? Or hate her? Was she making life in the solar system better or worse? How was one to classify this political animal?
You will not make sense Avasarala unless you are familiar with the turbulent modern political history of Iran. She is a dramatic concentration of all the forces that sent the Persian nation this way and that, right and left, secular and theocratic, authoritarian and democratic. Packed into the leader of the solar system are the leaders of a country that was born in the early 1920s. Their passions, adventures, misadventures, and will-to-power make Avasarala pop and spin like a firework every moment she's on the screen.
I would not have made the connection between Iranian politics and Aghdashloo's celebrated performance on The Expanse had I not read A Modern History of Iran, a vivid and masterful work by the US-based Iranian scholar Ervand Abrahamian. And I most likely would not have read this book if the US hadn't assassinated Maj. General Qassim Suleimani in Baghdad on January 3, 2020.
Three days after celebrating the first day of the new decade the world was on the brink of another world war. What got us here? And weren't we here before, in 2006, when the hawks in Bush's administration were planning "a major air attack" on Iranian facilities? And weren't here a number of times in 1980s, when Reagan's administration designated Iran as a State Sponsor of Terrorism? Why did we keep returning to the same brink of total, all-out war with this one country?
What Abrahamian first stresses in his book, which is "for general readers perplexed by the sound-and-fury of modern Iran," is the newness of the Iranian state. "Iran entered the twentieth century with oxen and wooden plough," writes Abrahamian, in a style that is not academic but ironic, gentlemanly, and professional. "It exited with steel mills, one of the world’s highest automobile accident rates, and, to the consternation of many, a nuclear program."
Nothing like the Iran we know today really existed in the 19th century. It was forced into existence by the first in a series of powerful leaders, Reza Shah. He changed the country’s name from Persia to Iran in 1935. He impressed on a very diverse population the official status of Persian as the national language. He built lots of roads and railway tracks. He made lots of enemies inside and outside of Iran. British and Soviet troops removed him from power at the beginning of the Second World War. Why? Because of oil. Iran has lots of it. And the British Empire did everything it could to control it.
When the left-sympathetic leader, Mohammad Mosaddegh, attempted to nationalize oil production in 1953, the Brits organized with the US a coup d’etat that replaced Mosaddegh with the last Shah (King) of Iran, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi (if you were in the West, he was something of a tragic figure; if you were not, he was seen as one of the great monsters of the 20th century).
The shah loved high-tech weapons in the way Imelda Marcos loved shoes. He also set up the notorious SAVAK, a secret police force that listened to your phone calls, read your letters, watched you in the cinema, and disappeared you if it reached unfavorable conclusions about your politics. This was the world the colonel in the movie House of Sand and Fog longed for. The epaulets, medals, military marches, torture chambers, secret agents in the hotels, drinks and dinner with arms dealer. Those were the days.
After the fall of the shah, the ayatollahs (the religious hardliners) took power in 1979 and called Iran an Islamic Republic. From that point on, the only real challenge to the hardliners came from the moderates—those who wanted a democratic Islamic state. And always at the center of the political upheavals (from royalists, to socialists, to nationalists, to royalists again, to theologians) that Shohreh Aghdashloo packs into the fictional leader of the solar system in the year 2350, you will find oil, the crack of the 20th century.
The strangest thing happened when I finished reading Ervand Abrahamian's book. It went down like this: I'm sitting at the bar of the Pan Pacific hotel, which is owned by a corporation based in Singapore and is near the heart of Seattle's tech town, South Lake Union. Next to my Kindle is a glass of Sauvignon blanc from New Zealand. It is 4:00 in the afternoon. I have just completed A History of Modern Iran and am preparing to read a transcript of a roundtable of experts on the reverberations in Iraq, Syria, and Yemen caused by Soleimani’s assassination (I downloaded the text from the website Jadaliyya), when I notice a man sitting with three women at a table in the bar’s dining area.
What catches my attention is the man’s all-black sunglasses. I stare at his face for a moment and soon realize that he is blind, and then further realize that he is the most prominent Iranian American in US politics, Cyrus Habib, Washington State’s Lieutenant Governor.
The four have just finished a meeting and are talking about the current presidential race. It seems Habib is not happy with Sanders's post-Nevada surge. He supports Pete Buttigieg because, one, the two have a friendship that extends back to their days at Oxford, and, two, he believes the mayor's brand of politics could “unite the country while delivering on progressive promises.”
Habib, who is the same age as Buttigieg, 38, worked for Hillary Clinton as a student in New York City, and his rise in US politics received considerable support from Barack Obama. Indeed, if Jay Inslee wasn’t running for re-election in 2020, and if Habib hadn't heard the call of the cloth, Washington State would very likely have entered 2021 with an Iranian Governor.
I walk over to the table, introduce myself, and ask if I'm speaking to Cyrus Habib? He looks at me with black sunglasses and confirms that he is that man. I explain the coincidence—just reading about Iranian politics and history, turn around, lo and behold, there is the most prominent Iranian American politician in the Pacific Northwest. He seems to be not so impressed by the coincidence. I ask if I can interview him about the state of things for Iranian Americans after the assassination in Baghdad? He accepts the offer and asks one of the women to arrange the interview. She gives me her card and tells the bartender to put the glass of wine on their tab.
The next day, I’m on the phone with Habib. We talk about his education. (His Oxford dissertation analysed two important 20th-century novels: Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man and Salman Rushdie's Satanic Verses.) We talk about the incident at the Blaine border. (The weekend following the assassination, an Iranian American family was held there for several hours with no explanation.) Habib blames MAGA and the Muslim ban for the incident. And while talking about Trump's decision to kill the Iran agreement, the Lieutenant Governor points out that Republicans in Congress passed an Islamophobic bill a year before Trump was president. This bill added radical changes to the Visa Waiver program that allows citizens from most European countries to enter the US without visas. Now, people who were born in Iran or or Syria but who are citizens of those European countries cannot take advantage of the waiver. They have to apply for a visa.
“Just think of it,” Habib says with astonishment, “a British citizen born in Iran and has lived in the UK since they were two years old, that person now has to apply for a US visa.” Habib’s point, which is also the very point of my pieces on Iranian Americans and Iran in general, is not only that this policy is obviously racist, but it also deprives Iranians in the West a home. If you are Iranian and all you know is Britain, this ruling by the US Congress says: Britain is not your home. Similarly, those who were held at the Blaine border crossing in early January were not going to their home, the US. And the California Border Patrol agents followed my Iranian American friend Roya because they refused to see the US as her home.
At the end of our conversation, I ask Habib if he has a favorite Iran restaurant in the Seattle area. And he does. It’s the Caspian in Bellevue, the Iranian American capital in the Pacific Northwest. It’s where he goes for traditional Persian food. A month after our conversation, and three weeks before the The Hill posted the article about the virus possibly dealing a death-blow to the current power configuration in Iran, Habib surprised the world with the announcement that he is leaving politics and joining a priesthood. Why?
The New York Times provided the answer:
[Habib] was a lock for re-election, as is the state’s governor, Jay Inslee. But in one scenario, a Joe Biden presidency could lead to a high-level administration position for Inslee, who would then have to step down. His lieutenant governor would immediately take his place.He feared what power would do to him. How it might corrupt him. Habib did not want to become like Shohreh Aghdashloo's Chrisjen Avasarala, the power-twisted queen of the solar system.
Habib worried that if he moved into the governor’s office, he might be too intoxicated by power to let it go. Stepping down now, he told me, is like “giving your car keys to someone before you start drinking.”