Saturday, December 10, 2016

Q&A with Andrew Scott Cooper

Andrew Scott Cooper, photo by Hali Helfgott
Andrew Scott Cooper is the author of the new book The Fall of Heaven: The Pahlavis and the Final Days of Imperial Iran. He also has written The Oil Kings. He is an adjunct associate professor at Columbia University, and his work has appeared in a variety of publications, including The New York Times and The Guardian. He lives in New York City.

Q: You begin the book with a scene from 2015 featuring Farah Pahlavi and [former Egyptian first lady] Jehan Sadat in Cairo. Why did you choose to start here?

A: I started the book at the end. What I mean is that the story of the Pahlavi family is coming full circle with the revival of interest inside Iran for the monarchy and a resurgence of sympathy for the last King, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, and also for his wife, Queen Farah and their children.

Many Iranians, especially since the 2009 crackdown, and the 2011 Arab Spring convulsions, now regard the Pahlavi era as one of remarkable peace and prosperity. There is a lot of guilt expressed about the revolution and sending the family into exile after all they did to build and modernize Iran.

Q: You write, "Today Americans, if they remember the Shah at all, are likely to associate him with massive human rights violations and state-sanctioned repression." What are some of the most common perceptions and misperceptions about the Shah of Iran?

A: The first misconception is that the Shah was an American puppet. This thesis no longer holds water, thanks in large part to the release of U.S. government declassified documents that tell a very different story. Behind the scenes, we now know that from the mid-‘60s onwards it was the Shah who was driving bilateral relations.

If anything, U.S. officials including the presidents understood they had surrendered their strategic leverage to influence him and this ultimately led to a great deal of tensions and mistrust.

The second misconception is that the Shah was a serial human rights abuser. As I explain in the book, this just was not the case. The numbers used by human rights groups to convict him in the 1970s were completely erroneous––something even the Islamic Republic to its embarrassment has admitted.

The Shah ran a tough regime but it was in way comparable to those we saw in Uganda, Kampuchea or Iraq at the same time. For his time and for his region, the Shah ran a remarkably benign shop.

The third misconception is that the Shah was corrupt. Again, the Shah did not steal billions from Iran’s treasury, nor did he leave the country with fabulous wealth. These stories were spread by his enemies to criminalize him in the minds of Iranians and non-Iranians alike.

Q: How did you research this book, and what particularly surprised you in the course of your research?

A: The book process took four years, though if you add in the research that contributed to my first book, The Oil Kings, we’re talking about a full decade of investigate research.

I am a researcher’s researcher––it’s what makes me get up in the morning––and researching this story was a real adventure and also quite a personal journey. I studied Shia Islam in a seminary in Qom, Iran. I traveled to southern Lebanon to Hezbollah country. I met revolutionaries and royals.

The surprise was that everywhere I went I was helped by so many people who wanted to guide, counsel and assist me. Everyone realized it was time to take another look at this story, and everyone felt I was the right person for the job.

Q: How would you describe the relationship between the U.S. and Iran toward the end of the Shah's reign?

A: Relations became tense in the aftermath of the 1973 oil shock which the Shah championed. Relations deteriorated when Carter came to office and really at the end they sort of collapsed. The Shah felt betrayed, understandably, and the Americans realized they had never understood him at all. This really is a cautionary tale.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I am teaching a senior seminar in U.S.-Iran relations at Columbia University and working on a third book project––we will have to see where that takes me. But I like the book writing process so I hope to get a shot at one more.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Keep reading history books! Now more than ever we need an informed populace. one that is engaged and interested in the affairs of the world. We can’t turn inward and turn our backs on the world no matter how bad things get. We have to keep learning from each other.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb