Today, Ben Affleck’s new film Argo opens across the country. The man who won an Oscar off of Matt Damon’s coattails has picked a timely and dramatic topic — the 1979 Iranian revolution. The film follows Americans working with Canadians to smuggle six American ambassadors out of Iran under the guise of shooting a Hollywood sci-fi movie in the exotic Iranian landscape. The escape is somewhat fictionalized in the film, but it did happen. Nevertheless, it’s important to understand the historical context of these events to really appreciate this film.
Iran’s history is one of waxing and waning empires. The Persians in 300 were ancient Iranians, and the region has passed through many hands in the few thousand years since then. Persia was a great cultural force in several Islamic empires, and more or less started ruling itself in the sixteenth century. But like most of the world it fell under the aegis of Western empires in the nineteenth.
Despite its emerging constitutional monarchy, both Britain and Russia vied for Iran during the period of The Great Game. So it should also come as no surprise that both the United Kingdom and the Soviet Union invaded Iran during World War II. Even though both were American allies in the war, Iran still viewed the United States favorably — if only because it was a Western power not immediately interested in grabbing its land.
Enter oil. After the war, what is now BP still owned much of Iran’s oil reserves, so the Iranian parliament democratically elected a president who nationalized those reserves. A couple years later in 1953, Britain and America staged a coup that ousted that president and propped up an authoritarian regime less patriotic about oil rights. Our main man, the Shah, ruled oppressively for the next few decades, one of many American-backed dictators around the globe installed to oppose communism.
What happened in 1979 surprised pretty much everyone. Growing discontent with the Shah crystallized in the declaration of an Islamic Republic. Despite Iran’s strategic location by the Soviet Union, the United States did not intervene, and its ambassadors were held hostage. President Carter engaged in lengthy negotiations with the new regime to secure the release of the Americans, but they were not released until Reagan’s inauguration in 1981.
Just watching Argo or only considering the 1979 revolution, it’s easy to peg Iran as America’s permanent and mortal enemy. Who do they think they are anyway, kidnapping Americans? But it’s important to remember that 1979 was a rebellion against an authoritarian, American-backed regime. The theocratic and possibly nuclear connotations of that regime change notwithstanding, that revolution was an extremely popular cultural movement. The 2009 election protests show that the youth revolutionary spirit is still alive in Iran. More than half of Iranians are under 35, and they are ready to oppose any stiff old regime.
Had 2009 been part of the larger Arab spring, American attitudes toward Iran might be very different today. I was in London that year living down the street from the Iranian embassy and remember protesters daily demonstrating outside it, decked in and waving green. But even given today’s circumstances, it’s vital to understand that most Iranians, like the ones I saw in London or photographers making a serious dent in interfacelift.com, are young, tech-savvy people just like you and me. Let Argo entertain you, but don't let it spook you.