Lessons From Iran, 1977-78

by HENRY PELFIAN

During my time in Iran from 1977 to 1978 there were between forty and fifty thousand Americans, many of them working in the military-industrial complex. The Shah of Iran with the approval of the U.S. government had signed a contract with a U.S. manufacturer of helicopters worth $250 million dollars for the purchase of helicopters, parts and the training for pilots and mechanics. Before departing for Iran the sub-contractor showed a documentary film of Iran with the narration stating that the Shah’s goal was to become the major military power in the Middle East and the Persian Gulf.

My job was as an instructor in the intensive English language program for Iranian army trainee pilots and mechanics. After the Iranian trainees had successfully completed their one year English language program utilizing helicopter parts the graduates would go on to train directly with helicopter pilots or mechanics.

When we arrived in Iran there was a cultural orientation program for us conducted by an American and its brevity of a few hours with its limited scope minimized its effectiveness.

The job site was an Iranian military base in Isfahan, Iran and my students were young Iranian army recruits dressed in green fatigues whose youthful energy and alertness made the job of teaching them both challenging and interesting. Instructors also had a uniform, light blue shirts and navy pants.

Soon after arriving in Iran it became apparent that few Americans working in Iran spoke Farsi. I met only one American who spoke Farsi and he was a former Peace Corps volunteer in Iran. Most of the Americans working in Iran as helicopter mechanics and helicopter pilots had little or no experience in a Muslim country and the stress of a foreign culture was evident in their impatience with and sometimes disdain for the Iranians‚ lack of technological knowledge and English. It seemed to me that culture shock was very real for many Americans, especially those formerly based in Texas, the headquarters of the helicopter manufacturer. Instructors who were former U.S. Peace Corps volunteers adjusted and accommodated themselves to the Iranian culture more easily with their extensive cross-cultural training and experience.

The employees of the major American companies lived in American ghettoes, newly constructed housing projects complete with fast food chains selling hamburgers, chicken and pizzas. Americans were bringing their culture with them to Iran, setting up enclaves in a foreign country, further isolating themselves from Iranian culture and people. Those of us who were working with subcontractors had to find housing by renting from Iranians. Slowly but surely, some Americans began developing an antipathy and dislike for the country and culture they were residing in. The language, religion with its daily audible call for prayers and even the dress of Iranian women seemed to be almost an affront to some Americans who were there to teach their technology to the backward Iranians. Unfortunately, many Americans including the highest levels of government in both the elected and career positions did not realize and know that their ultimate employer were these same “backward” Iranians and a commitment to understanding their culture was as important as imparting advanced technology in Iran.

The Iranian army recruits were mostly teenagers who sought to improve their lives by joining the military. They were exuberant and rowdy at times, but their youth and fun loving nature was like fresh air. The structured classroom techniques were dominated by student participation in order to show that the students had acquired a grasp of the English language and helicopter parts. Entire sections and parts of a helicopter were on display in the classroom and used in lessons to learn English.

There was a popular restaurant where Americans frequented, which was owned and managed by an enterprising South Korean. The food was strictly American fare. I remember one meal because the actor Anthony Quinn had eaten it. Mr. Quinn was in the country making the movie of James Michener’s book, Caravansand the owner had told us that Mr. Quinn had just departed the restaurant minutes before we had arrived. I asked what table Mr. Quinn had eaten at, what had he eaten and sat down at Mr. Quinn’s chair and ordered ham and pineapple with mashed potatoes.

One day Empress Farah of Iran visited the military base and a throne chair was in the back of an open military truck and the soldiers in the truck were anxiously trying to locate her by driving rapidly around the base.

On one occasion a few of us went on a hike in the countryside and we passed through small villages and the children seemed inadequately dressed for the cold weather and the poverty of the people was evident in their housing and clothes.

Over the coming weeks and months incidents of American arrogance in their treatment of Iranians became evident, leading to even a few episodes of street fights between Americans and Iranians. Good salaries attracted Americans to Iran at that time and the negative attitude communicated by a few Americans toward Iranians prompted Iranians to resent the Americans’ presence.

I have talked to Americans who had visited Iran prior to the arrival of large numbers of Americans in Iran and there was a general consensus of a very favorable view of Americans by Iranians. At the time I was in Iran I was unaware that the U.S. government had actively helped overthrow the democratically elected government of President Mossadegh in 1953 because he had proposed nationalizing the oil fields.

It was a time when the Shah’s reign was supreme and his Secret Police, the Savak, kept communists and dissidents from challenging his rule. The Savak headquarters, a sturdy well-built brick building in Isfahan, was pointed out to me by an Iranian as we were driving through. He told me that when someone goes into that building he seldom returns home. He was working with a U.S. petroleum refinery company and he told me that Iranian workers had gone on strike to complain not only about wages but also that Americans repeatedly called them “jackasses or donkeys.”

What had happened to the Iranians’ pro-American views? Why the change from a favorable view of Americans? A superpower with a vast and powerful military- industrial complex without a vast and equally powerful humanitarian-cultural complex is like a giant hobbled by a crippled or lame foot. Few dare mention to the giant his imperfection because his power and financial resources are enormous and his stride encompasses the globe and he does not tolerate criticism because he says it is Un-American and unpatriotic.

The famous adage is still applicable: Those who do not learn from history are condemned to repeat it.

Henry Pelifian received a B.A. from the State University of New York at Geneseo, NY in English/Drama and Education, an MBA in International Managment from Thunderbird, Garvin School of International Management in Arizona. He served in the U.S. Army with one year in Qui Nhon, South Vietnam. A former Peace Corps Volunteer in Thailand, he worked for several more years overseas, primarily in Thailand in the U.S. Refugee Program. He is now writing novels, plays and short stories.

This article originally appeared on History News Network.

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