Categories
CULTURE ARCHIVES From The Archives Security THE FRONT ARCHIVES

Beautiful Butchers: The Shah Serves Up Caviar and Torture

The proof that torture can look better through a cham­pagne glass and taste better after a mouthful of caviar will be provided next Tues­day by the arrival in the United States of someone who can boast of a most notable achievement: He has made torturers chic. Though Hitler won the ad­miration of half the British upper classes in the 1930s, even he could not make the same boast.

Yet the Shah of Iran, whose own father was so ardent an admirer of the Nazis that he abdicated in 1941, can claim a double distinction: being the bane of the U.S. taxpayers (who paid the bills for his instal­lation on the Peacock Throne and his maintenance thereafter) and being at the same time the toast of the smart set in Washington, New York, Paris, and London. Thus does the Shah differ from Idi Amin or the Em­peror Bokassa, for, though as many pris­oners scream in his torture chambers and face his firing squads, he is socially okay —  and so are his emissaries abroad.

The social success of the Shah in the galaxy of international despots is the end result of a careful campaign, premised on two vital ingredients: snobbery and cash. Barbara Walters was recently able to confide to her ABC audience that, “There aren’t too many kings and queens around these days. Of the handful left, two couples have particular fascination for Americans. England’s own Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip. And, for different, reasons, the Shah and Empress of Iran.

[related_posts post_id_1=”720386″ /]

It was not always thus for the House of Pahlavi. The Shah can race a regal an­cestry only to his father, Reza Shah, a fellow of common origins who was hoisted onto the Peacock Throne in the ’20s by the British. Reza Shah’s achievements — apart from looting the Iranian people in a fairly methodical manner — included the intro­duction of torture on a wide scale. Thus, when the present Shah was finally and securely installed on the throne in 1953 with the help of the CIA, he was not particularly well placed to be a truly fashionable mon­arch.

But gradually he inched ahead of his peers, who at that time included such U.S. clients as Battista of Cuba and Trujillo of the Dominican Republic. Neither of those gentlemen ever had truly overweening social ambitions beyond the amassing of huge fortunes and the total control of their dominions. The Shah’s thoughts, however, always soared higher and he yearned to be placed in the national historical pantheon ranging back to the ancient Persian kings.

And in the eyes of international society, at least, he achieved his ambition with the famed coronation at Persepolis in 1967. Virtually every king was there except Kong. In a tented city a goodly proportion of the executives, chiselers, and spongers of western capitalism gathered to marvel and stayed to gorge at a coming-out gala for a regime of unexampled savagery.

Since then the Shah has gone from strength to strength, most notably in the boom days since the oil price hikes of 1973. Tehran is, as they say, the Mecca of every investment banker, industrialist, arms salesman, developer, and straightforward adventurer with a prospectus in one pocket and a bribe in the other.

[related_posts post_id_1=”717345” /]

Steady accrual of status was expressed through the increasing social success of the Shah’s plenipotentiaries abroad — most not­ably in the career of Ardeshir Zahedi, the present Iranian ambassador in Wash­ington. This Zahedi’s father, General Fuzullah Zahedi, was one of those instrumen­tal in securing the throne for the Shah in 1953. The son himself was once married to the Shah’s daughter. His function in Wash­ington has been that of every ambassador: to lie abroad for his country. Zahedi — as is evidenced in the gossip columns weekly — ­has managed to sell the beautiful people on torture by the simple expedient of throwing large parties, amply furnished with caviar. He mastered, you might say, the political economy of Elizabeth Taylor and realized that one star-studded bash, well-reported in the gossip columns, can do much to offset a couple of Amnesty reports about torture and a few intellectuals detailing exactly how the Shah’s secret police ripped out their fingernails.

Zahedi threw the parties and in they came. Henry Kissinger, Nancy Kissinger, Senator Ed Brooke, Elizabeth Taylor danc­ing wildly with Senator Ed Brooke, Marion Javits, paid by the Iranians for the pleasure of her PR. William Rogen, John Murphy, John Lindsay, Barbara Walters, Walter Cronkite, Julian Goodman, Gregory and Veronique Peck, Phyllis and Bob Evans, the Baroness Stackelberg, Mrs. Drew Pearson, Page Lee Hufty, Polly Bergen, Buffy Cafritz, Sandra McElwaine, Diane von Furstenberg, David Frost, Mr. and Mrs. Tom Braden, Mrs. Frank Ikard, Diana Vreeland, Andy Warhol, Yolanda Fox, even Birch Bayh. On and on the list of names goes, and on and on the parties go too: the political crowd, the Hollywood crowd, the art crowd, and the straight tacky crowd.

How do they like the parties and their host? Here’s a fairly representative series of remarks from Mrs. Bill Cafritz, wife of a Washington builder. “Every adjective in the book has been used to describe Ar­deshir,” she confided to The Voice‘s Jan Albert a few months back. “He’s a warm, marvelous host, expert with food and wines. He’s not just an ordinary host. His centerpieces are famous. He’s had glass globes with flowers coming out of them. For Andy Warhol’s party, he had hearts with Campbell soup cans. All his parties, in every detail, from food to music to guests to decor are highly imaginative. He makes every guest feel that he is intent and interested in them. An invitation from Ardeshir is something to be cherished. He invites all the glamour people — Polly Ber­gen and Diana Vreeland came to the Warhol party.”

Mrs. Cafritz was then asked how she felt about the matter of torture in Iran, and whether she had asked Zahedi about it. “He’s not anti-American,” she replied. “At almost all of his parties he makes after­ dinner speeches toasting the friendship of Iran and America. He is a good friend of America’s. Besides, these reports are exaggerated. There are open lines of communication between our countries and the Shah is our friend. It’s not for me to make judgments. They should be made at a higher level. Everyone just has the best to say about him.”

To a similar sort of query from Jan Albert, Mrs. Frank Ikard (wife of the head of the American Petroleum Institute) stressed the beauties of Zahedi’s charac­ter — “the most kind, warm-hearted man, the friendliest and most outgoing” — while taking a balanced view on the matter of torture. “I have never been interested in international news,” she said. adding that she was the kind of person who felt we should “clean things up in our own back yard first. Besides, if you had a brother who was a black sheep I wouldn’t hold it against you. These reports are largely youthful mutterings. Anyway, Ardeshir’s house is not the place to find out such things.” She added that her son, a reporter in Iran for the Tehran Journal, had never mentioned such subjects to her.

[related_posts post_id_1=”725566″ /]

And so it goes — from Elizabeth Taylor through fascist chic’s recording angel, Andy Warhol, with his Polaroid and his tape recorder.

Would they all go to a similar sort of bash, hosted by Amin’s Washington envoy? Probably not, for reasons of taste. And of course there is the fact that the Iranians are, as you might say, sophisticated — and not even Arabs at that: the children of Xerxes rather than Ham.

If the Shah’s regime were not so repul­sive, there would be something pathetic about his pronounced social ambitions and desire to make his palace a haven for the rich, the famous, and the beautiful. Not so long ago it was the turn of Farrah Faw­cett-Majors to rest up in the shadow of the Peacock Throne. In his arriviste dreams, said one journalist long in Tehran, the Shah probably thought a double-barrelled name was a sure emblem of ancient and distinguished social lineage.

The bloom is going off the rose. Despite Zahedi’s greatest efforts and the precipi­tate rush to his parties by the beautiful people, there is general recognition that the Shah’s regime is not an emblem of liberty. The U.S. will continue to sell him arms. American universities will go on taking his money, socialites will go on drinking his champagne and eating his caviar. Money always talks, but it will have to do so amid increasing clamor about one of the most savage regimes of the 20th century. ■

[related_posts post_id_1=”723288″ /]

How Rich is the Shah?

The present inhabitant of the Peacock Throne has attained the dream of every rich person around the world: he has funneled his assets into a private founda­tion whose proceedings are secret and whose operations are beyond scrutiny. The Pahlavi Foundation, now 19 years old, is thought to have assets of more than $1 billion and is a combined charitable foundation and family trust fund. The Shah is its chief officer and selects all board members. The income is tax-free and can be drawn only the Shah’s family.

The Shah’s father (a former army sergeant who seized the throne under the aegis of the British in 1926) laid the basis for the Pahlavi family’s wealth by simply stealing it. He confiscated vast estates which he designated as crown lands. His son later sold off some of this land and began to invest in industrial and financial enter­prises: the cement industry (which the Shah virtually controls); sugar-processing installations; insurance and banking businesses; assembly plants; hotels; computer equipment marketing, and the like. The Shah is thus not only the leader of his country; he is also its chief stockholder.

In addition, the national budget provides expenses for the imperial court, plus $1 billion for a revolving discretionary fund. Prudently mindful of the possibility of exile one day, the Shah is also thought to have over $1 billion banked abroad.

As the Pahlavi Foundation’s chief officer, the Shah is entitled to 25 percent of the income of the foundation. He has stipulated that he is not accepting this money. His son and heir will become entitled to the 25 percent take, which as Eric Pace of The New York Times pointed out last year in a report on the foundation — could run into tens of millions of dollars annually.

[related_posts post_id_1=”714924″ /]

New Yorkers who desire an immediate sense of the Shah’s financial status can proceed to the southwest corner of Fifth Avenue and 52nd Street where a 36-story building for the tax-exempt Pahlavi Foun­dation of New York is being erected. The Pahlavi Foundation of New York was created by the Pahlavi Foundation of Iran in 1973. The nominal charitable purpose of the New York outfit is to provide funds for Iranian students going to American universities. In an article on the U.S. founda­tion published last fall, Ann Crittenden reported in The New York Times that, “Two individuals close to these early arrangements say that from the first, howev­er, the acquisition [of the site] was con­sidered solely as an investment for the Iranian foundation and as a showcase site for offices of Iranian companies and government agencies in New York City — such as the Iranian consulate, the National Iranian Oil Company, the Bank Melli, and various tourist offices. One man who was intimately involved and who asked not to be identified, laughed when asked if the scholarship program was ever discussed: “It’s egregious,” he said,”with all of the problems New York City has, for an immensely wealthy foreign outfit to come in and receive a tax exemption at almost the same moment when the same government has just created an oil crisis.’ ”

Vitally concerned with the establishment of the tax-exempt foundation here were several well-known local faces: one was William Rogers, former secretary of state under Nixon and partner in the law firm of Rogers and Wells. Rogers set up the foun­dation and its address is currently at his law office. Also involved was Representative John Murphy of Staten Island, a frequent visitor to Iran. He, along with Rogers, is on the board of the foundation and has acknowledged his involvement in its business affairs, particularly in the construction contracting for the Fifth Ave­nue building. And indeed, helping out one would-be contractor — John Tishman of Tishman Realty and Construction Company — was former Mayor John Lindsay. The architect is John Warnacke. Another adviser to the Pahlavi Foundation is former Assistant Treasury Secretary James A. Reed. He told Crittenden that foundation officials in Tehran had said they would not go ahead with the New York operation unless they were able to get tax-exempt status. Thus, American tax­payers help finance an operation designed to further the Shah’s personal and political interests abroad. Even Amin hasn’t the gall to demand these kinds of favors. ■

[related_posts post_id_1=”714416″ /]

The Iranian National Pastime: Torture

“The torture on the second day of my arrest consisted of seventy-five blows with a plaited wire whip at the soles of my feet. I was whipped on my hands as well, and the head torturer took the small finger of my left hand and broke it, saying he was going to break my fingers one by one, each day. Then I was told that if I didn’t confess my wife and thirteen-year-old daughter would be raped in front of my eyes. All this time I was being beaten from head to toe.

“Then a pistol was held at my temple by the head torturer, Dr. Azudi, and he prepared to shoot. In fact, the sound of the shooting came and I fainted. When I opened my eyes, I was being interrogated by someone called Dr. Rezvan. The interrogation, combined with psychological torture and sometimes additional beating, went on for 102 days until I was let out…

” … There were also all sizes of whips hanging from nails on the walls. Electric prods stood on little stools. The nail-pluck­ing instrument stood on the far side. I could only recognize these devices upon later remembrance and through the description of others, as well as by personal experience. The gallows stood on the other side. They hang you upside down and then someone beats you with a club on your legs, or uses the electric prod on your chest or your genitals, or they lower you down, pull your pants up and one of them tries to rape you while you’re still hanging upside down …

” … This is what happens to a prisoner of the first importance. First, he is beaten by several torturers at once, with sticks and clubs. If he doesn’t confess, he is hanged upside down and beaten; if this doesn’t work, he is raped; and if he still shows signs of resistance, he is given electric shock which turns him into a howling dog; and if he is still obstinate, his nails and sometimes all his teeth are pulled out, and in certain exceptional cases, a hot iron rod is put into one side of the face to force its way to the other side, burning the entire mouth and the tongue. A young man was killed in this way. At other times he is thrown down on his stomach on the iron bed and boiling water is pumped into his rectum by an enema.

“Other types of torture are used which have never been heard of in other despotic systems. A heavy weight is hung from the testicles of the prisoner, maiming him in only a few minutes. Even the strongest prisoners are crippled in this way. In the case of the woman, the electric baton is moved over the naked body with the power increased on the breasts and the interstices of the vagina. I have heard women screaming and laughing hysterically, shouting, ‘Don’t do it, I’ll tell you.’ Rape is also a common practice. Thirteen-year-old girls have been raped in order to betray their parents, brothers or relatives.” Reza Bahareni was finally freed from the Shah’s prisons in 1974 under international pres­sure. His descriptions come from his book, God’s Shadow and from an article by him published in The New York Review of Books on October 28, 1976. Other state­ments attributed to Bahareni in this issue of The Voice are taken from the same article. ■

[related_posts post_id_1=”105301″ /]

Some Facts at a Glance 

• “The Shah of Iran,” said Martin Ennals in the introduction to Amnesty International’s Annual Report for 1974-5, “retains his benevolent image despite the highest rate of death penalties in the world, no valid system of civilian courts and a history of torture which is beyond belief.” The total number of political prisoners for 1975, stated the report, “has been reported at times throughout the year to be anything from 25,000 to 100,000.”

• Thousands of people have been executed over the last 23 years. According to Bahareni, more than 300,000 people have been in and out of jail in the last 20 years.

• Ninety-five percent of the press is controlled by two families taking their orders from the Shah and the police.

• There is only one political party — the Resurgence Party — whose membership is compulsory for the entire adult popula­tion.

• The vast bulk of the population is desperately poor, undernourished, and un­educated. In Quri-Chai, the northern slums of Tabriz, there is only one school for 100,000 children.

• There are 34 million people in Iran. Only half are Persian; the rest are Azar­baijanis, Kurds, Arabs and Baluchis, along with Christians, Jews, and Zoroastrians. The Shah considers all Iranians to be Aryan, who must learn one language, Persian. He is attempting to purge the Persian language of all Arab and Turkish elements, thus proscribing 40 percent of the vocabulary. The Shah himself speaks Persian badly, faring better in French and English. ■

[related_posts post_id_1=”714117″ /]

Why the US Backs the Shah

The reason the Shah is where he is today is because the U.S. government put him there.

By 1949, the Middle East was perceived by American foreign policy planners as perhaps the most critical area in the world in the contest between the U.S. and the Soviets. As George McGhee, then assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern Affairs, recently recalled in congressional testi­mony: “The governments in the area were very unstable. We had no security pact covering this area. The Soviets had threat­ened Greece, Turkey, and Iran. As a result of the very strong position taken by President Truman we were able to dislodge the Soviets from northern Iran, where they had demanded an oil concession. Although we had already bolstered Greece and Turkey through the Greek-Turkish aid program, both were still in a precarious state. The Arab states were hostile to us because of our involvement in Israeli affairs.”

McGhee pointed out, “At this time the principal threat to the Middle East lay in the possibility of nationalist leaders mov­ing to upset regimes which were relatively inept and corrupt, and not attuned to the modern world. There was also always in the background the reaction in the Arab states to what happened elsewhere. For example, had there been a Communist seizure in Iran, we would have expected a similar threat in the Arab states.” And, of course, underlying American concern for the politics of the region was the business of oil, which McGhee described as “the jackpot of world oil. To have American companies owning the concession there was a great advantage for our country.”

It was against this background that Iran’s nationalist premier, Mohammed Mossadegh, sought to increase the country’s participation in the affairs of the British-controlled Anglo-Iranian Oil Co.

When the British refused to meet his demands, Mossadegh nationalized the company. The seizure reverberated throughout the Middle East. In Saudi Ara­bia the finance minister threatened to shut down the Aramco concession if more money was not forthcoming.

[related_posts post_id_1=”714267″ /]

Both Aramco officials and the U.S. State Department, acting independently, con­cluded — as McGhee later put it — that a “big move had to be made.” Thereupon, the Middle East underwent political con­vulsions which eventually were felt within the U.S. itself. First, this country did a secret deal with Saudi Arabia that allowed Aramco to take a tax break, offsetting its royalty payments to Saudi Arabia against U.S. taxes. The net effect of this was a subsidy, continuing to this day, of Saudi Arabia and the oil companies by the U.S. taxpayer.

Meanwhile, the Justice Department, quite independently of other branches of government, began to press actively two grand jury investigations, attacking the international petroleum cartel. These in­vestigations followed publication of a lengthy report by the Federal Trade Com­mission, which spelled out the details of the cartel’s operations. When Dean Acheson, then secretary of state, found out about the Justice Department probe, he opposed it vigorously, on the grounds that the results of such an investigation “will probably be to cause a decrease in political stability in the region [Middle East].” Acheson’s view eventually prevailed and President Tru­man himself downgraded the inquiry from a criminal to a civil proceeding, on national security grounds.

Eisenhower, taking office at the start of 1953, held to the same line. By the middle of 1953 Allen Dulles, head of the CIA, turned up in Switzerland for meetings with Loy Henderson, the ambassador to Iran, and with the sister of the present Shah. Soon after, American intelligence agents — not­ably Kermit Roosevelt — appeared in Te­hran. The Shah dismissed Mossadegh, who paid no attention and remained in office. The Shah left the country. On August 18, units of off-duty police and soldiers joined mobs in overthrowing Mossadegh. The Shah returned from exile and, thus aided by the CIA and Iranian associates, took charge of the country.

Two months after the Shah was restored to power, Herbert Hoover, Jr., set to work reorganizing the Iranian oil industry. Hoover soon persuaded major American oil companies to join in a consortium that would exploit Iran’s oil: In part, they agreed with the plan because of the down­grading of the Justice Department’s cartel case. Eisenhower’s attorney general formally sanctioned the new deal, ruling that the proposed consortium would not, in itself, constitute an unreasonable restraint of trade. The cartel was never brought to trial and instead members of the consor­tium signed a participants’ agreement which had the effect of sanctioning the cartel and indeed making it an instrument of cold war policy.

[related_posts post_id_1=”724683″ /]

Hence it is no academic exercise to regard the Shah not only as a U.S.-­sponsored oppressor of his own people but of the American people as well. His role has been to help maintain the international oil cartel, with the resulting bogus shortages, price hikes, and penalties attaching to the present international system of oil extrac­tion and distribution.

Oil, of course, forms the basis for American interest in Iran. But in the last 25 years the game has changed somewhat from its original primitive terms. Now, in order to get the oil, the American government has to pay off the Shah in other ways. As part of the U.S.’s policy to maintain the Shah and his repressive apparatus, it was necessary to train and supply a police force and army for him. The tastes of the army have grown more profligate over the years.

In 1972, the U.S. was sending the Iranians a half-billion dollars worth of military armaments. In the current fiscal year the U.S. is sending $5.3 billion worth of weap­ons. This is paid for by Americans in the form of higher prices for petroleum products, and in aid. The long-term scheme for Iran is a vast process of industrialization, with American companies forming joint ventures with Iranian companies, leading toward the establishment of industries such as aluminum, steel, and a whole variety of mining exploration. The idea in this is not to make life any better for the Iranian people, but to achieve savings in manufac­ture, due to the plentiful and immediate supply of energy (natural gas).

The Shah, always a client of the United States, visits Washington next week (until the postponement of his trip, President Carter was to have dropped in on Tehran for lunch later in the month in the course of his grand tour). As Henry Kissinger remarked, the interests of the United States and Iran coincide, and Zbigniew Brzezin­ski, Carter’s security adviser, agrees. Iran is one of those impending powers, argues Brzezinski, to which the U.S. may pay court. Other nations on the Carter schedule included Venezuela, Brazil, and Ni­geria. For all the talk about human rights, the Carter administration has been careful not to offend Iran. The king of torturers will be received with decorousness and respect, even though any honest toast at the White House banquet would demand silence and sorrow for the thousands who have died for opposing a regime built in blood. ■

[related_posts post_id_1=”725990″ /]

Law Enforcement in Iran

Every tyranny needs an efficient secret police force and Iran can boast of one of the most awesome in recent world history —  namely, the infamous SAVAK.

The Sazamane Ettella’at va Amniyate Keshvar (State Security and Intelligence Organization) was set up in 1956 with the help of the American CIA and, according to some reports, Israeli intelligence. The Shah himself has claimed that SAVAK has about 3000 people. Other estimates put the number at more than 60,000 and beyond that to an army of agents and informants amounting to hundreds of thousands. SAVAK, controlled by the Shah, is now run by General Hossein Fardust, a former classmate of the Shah, described by him as “a special friend.”

SAVAK is not only the cutting edge of oppression and torture in Iran, but operates on a worldwide scale as well. Documented cases of its activities in Europe and the United States have received much publicity — including espionage and harassment of Iranian students working abroad and of political exiles. Agents of SAVAK have been dispatched abroad with missions of assassination.

This army of spies and torturers should have a special meaning for American citizens. As exiled writer Reza Bahareni put it: “Imagine a more tyrannical and primi­tive George III being crowned 6000 miles away by the very descendants of George Washington and Benjamin Franklin with money raised by the American taxpayer. The CIA re-created the monarchy, built up the SAVAK and trained all its prominent members, and stood by the Shah and his secret police as their powerful ally. Iran became the police state it is now.” Ba­hareni did not mention that as a final expression of courtesy Richard Nixon sent former CIA head Richard Helms to be the American ambassador in Tehran. ■

[related_posts post_id_1=”717255″ /]

Welcoming Committees 

Already, law enforcement officials In Washington are worried about reception committees for the Shah when he arrives next Tuesday. It is possible that as many as 20,000 demonstrators will converge from around the country for the two-day visit. A compromise supervised by the Secret Service and the National Park Service has stipulated that on Tuesday pro-Shah demonstrators will be allowed to congre­gate nearer the White House. Anti-Shah Iranian students will be given the prime spot on Wednesday, when he leaves.

According to Iranian students in the U.S. opposed to the Shah, SAVAK agents have been carefully building up for the Shah’s visit, offering individuals from all over the U.S. up to $300 to travel to Washington to demonstrate their loyalty. Iranian students in the New School’s political economy division have stated that they have been approached and offered bus fare to Washington, if they join the pro-Shah group. Anti-Shah demonstrations will also be held in San Francisco. The Shah will be staying in Blair House. No demonstrators will be allowed within 500 feet of the building.

Anti-Shah Iranian students in the United States have not only been harassed by SAVAK agents, but also by college administrations and U. S. police. Darioush Bayandor, adviser to Iran’s ex-prime min­ister Hoveida, has been quoted as saying that “SAVAK has agents outside Iranian borders to detect subversive elements and their links with other countries that might be against Iran and to penetrate the ranks of students and make sure their organizations are not used to harm Iran.” Iranian student groups at American colleges around the country have protested the interference of college administrations and police in their meetings, demonstrations, and finally their private conversations.

[related_posts post_id_1=”659688″ /]

At Emporia College in Kansas, a group of Iranian students were told that they would be arrested if they picketed in the presence of an Iranian government representative at a cultural day on campus. The official pretext was that the students were not an officially recognized organization. They had made repeated applications and were denied approval.

Ninety-two students in Houston, marching in front of the French Consulate at the end of 1976 to protest the expulsion of some Iranian nationals from Paris, were arrest­ed and beaten up by local police. Many witnesses have testified to the fact that the demonstration was orderly and peaceful and that the attack by police was unprovoked.

At San Jacinto College in Pasadena, Texas, students were forbidden to form a club by school officials who insisted that tapes of any meetings held in their native tongue be made and handed over to the administration for review. If held in Eng­lish, a school representative was to be present. This harassment culminated in several students being arrested for conversing in Persian over lunch. A teacher approached them and reminded them that it was against the rules to hold meetings in “a foreign language.” Police arrived and charged students with resisting arrest and menacing police and school authorities. In this and other in­stances, the police passed the names of Iranian student transgressors along to the Iranian consulate, and received letters of congratulation on a job well done and thanks from Zahedi. ■

Categories
From The Archives NEWS & POLITICS ARCHIVES THE FRONT ARCHIVES Washington, D.C.

Edward Said on the “Persian Psyche”

Innocence Abroad: Bruce Laingen’s Memo on “the Persian Psyche”
February 4, 1981

On August 13, 1979, a confidential tele­gram signed by Bruce Laingen, charge d’affaires at the U.S. embassy in Tehran, was sent to then Secretary of State Cyrus Vance. On January 27, 1981, after the hostages had been released, excerpts were published on the Op Ed page of The New York Times.

Editors at the Voice thought the tele­gram so astonishing, so revelatory of an occidental, imperial mentality that we asked Edward Said, professor of English at Columbia, author of Orientalism, The Question of Palestine, and the forthcoming Covering Islam, to discuss the his­torical and cultural mindset that inspired it.

For those who did not read the excerpts published in the Times, here are its essen­tial points. The author set himself the task of analyzing the “Persian psyche” and the “cultural and psychological qualities” that accounted for difficulties experienced by Americans in their dealings with Iran.

“The single dominant aspect of the Persian psyche is an overriding egoism… an almost total Persian preoccupation with self.” The writer noted the “bazaar mentality so common among Persians, a mindset that often ignores longer-term in­terests in favor of immediately obtainable advantages.” He also stressed “a general incomprehension of causality,” partly to be accounted for by Islam’s “emphasis on the omnipotence of God,” which led to difficulty in “grasping the inter-relationship of events.” The writer suggested that this helped explain the “Persian aversion to accepting responsibility for one’s own actions.” He concluded that Persians had imperfect understanding of the notion of obligation and “given the Persian negotiator’s cultural and psy­chological limitations he is going to resist the very concept of a rational (from the Western point of view) negotiating process.”

***

At one point during the recent ABC special on the secret negotiations leading to the hostage release, Christian Bourguet describes his late March 1980 meeting with Jimmy Carter at the White House. Bourguet, a French lawyer with ties to the Iranians, acted as an intermediary be­tween the U.S. and Iran; he had come to Washington because, despite an arrange­ment worked out with the Panamanians to arrest the Shah, the deposed ruler had left suddenly for Egypt. So they were back to square one:

Bourguet: At a given moment [Carter] spoke of the hostages, saying, you under­stand that these are Americans. These are innocents. I said to him, yes, Mr. Presi­dent, I understand that you say they are innocent. But I believe you have to understand that for the Iranians they aren’t innocent. Even if personally none them has committed an act, they are not inno­cent because they are diplomats who represent a country that has done a number of things in Iran.

[related_posts post_id_1=”576972″ /]

You must understand that it is not against their person that the action is being taken. Of course, you can see that. They have not been harmed. They have not been hurt. No attempt has been made to kill them. You must understand that it is a symbol, that it is on the plane of symbols that we have to think about this matter.

In fact Carter seems to have viewed the embassy seizure very much in symbolic terms, but, unlike the Frenchman, he had his own frame of reference. From Carter’s perspective, Americans were by definition innocent and somehow outside history; Iran’s grievances against the U.S., he would say on another occasion, were an­cient history. What mattered now was that Iranians were terrorists, and perhaps had always potentially been a terrorist nation. Indeed, anyone who disliked America and held it captive was dangerous and sick, beyond rationality, beyond humanity, beyond common decency.

Carter’s inability to connect America’s longstanding support for local dictators with what was happening to the Ameri­cans held unlawfully in Tehran is ex­traordinarily symptomatic. Even if one completely opposes the hostage taking, even if one has only positive feelings about the hostages’ return, there are alarming lessons to be learned from what seems like the official national tendency to be ob­livious to certain realities. All rela­tionships between people and nations in­volve two sides. Nothing at all enjoins “us” to like or approve of “them,” but we must at least recognize (a) that “they” are there, and (b) that so far as “they” are concerned “we” are, at least in part, what “they” have experienced of us. Neither side in a conflict has such command of reality as to disregard totally the other viewpoint. Unless of course we believe as Americans that whereas the other side is ontologically guilty, we are innocent.

Consider now the confidential cable sent from Tehran by Bruce Laingen to Secretary of State Vance on August 13, 1979 — a document entirely consistent with President Carter’s attitudes in his con­versation with Bourguet. The cable was published on The New York Times Op Ed page January 27, 1981, perhaps to explain what Iranians are really like, perhaps only as an ironic footnote to the crisis. Yet Laingen’s message is not a scientific ac­count of “the Persian psyche,” despite the author’s pretense to calm objectivity and expert knowledge of the culture. The text is, rather, an ideological statement de­signed, I think, to turn “Persia” into a timeless, acutely disturbed essence, there­by enhancing the superior morality and national sanity of America. Each assertion about “Persia” adds damaging evidence to the profile, while shielding “America” from scrutiny and analysis.

[related_posts post_id_1=”717345” /]

This self-blinding is accomplished rhetorically in two ways. First, history is eliminated unilaterally: “the effects of the Iranian revolution” are set aside in the interests of the “relatively constant… cultural and psychological qualities” un­derlying “the Persian psyche.” Hence modern Iran becomes ageless Persia. The unscientific equivalent of this would have Italians becoming dagos, Jews, yids, blacks niggers, etc. (How refreshingly honest is the street-fighter compared to the polite diplomat!) Second, the Iranian national character is portrayed only with reference to their imagined (i.e., paranoid) sense of reality. Laingen neither allows that the Iranians may have experienced real treachery and suffering, nor that they may have arrived at a view of the United States based on their understanding of U.S. actions in Iran. This is not to say that Laingen implies the U.S. did not do any­thing in Iran: only that the U.S. is entitled to do what it pleases, without irrelevant complaints or reactions from Iranians. The only thing that counts for Laingen is the constant “Persian psyche” that overrides all other realities.

Most readers of the Laingen message will accept, as doubtless he does too, that one should not reduce other people or societies to such a simple and stereo­typical core. We do not today allow that public discourse should treat blacks and Jews that way, just as we laugh off Iranian portrayals of America as the Great Satan. Too simple, too ideological, too racist. But for this particular enemy — Persia — the re­duction serves. The question is what ex­actly does it serve if, as I shall argue, it neither taught us anything about Iran nor, given the existing tension between the U.S. and Iran after the Revolution, did it help to guide our actions there.

Laingen’s argument is that no matter what happens, there is a “Persian proclivi­ty” to resist “the very concept of a rational (from the Western point of view) nego­tiating process.” We can be rational: Per­sians cannot be. Why? Because, he says, they are overridingly egoistical; reality for them is malevolent; the “bazaar mentali­ty” urges immediate advantage over long­term gain; the omnipotent god of Islam makes it impossible for them to under­stand causality; and words and reality, in their world, are not connected to each other. In sum, according to the five les­sons he abstracts from his analysis, La­ingen’s “Persian” is an unreliable nego­tiator, having neither a sense of “the other side,” nor a capacity for trust, good will, or character enough to carry out what his words promise.

[related_posts post_id_1=”659688″ /]

The irony of this cliché is that literally everything imputed to the Persian or Muslim without any evidence at all can be applied to “the American,” that quasi-­fictional, unnamed author behind the message. Who but “the American” denies history and reality in saying unilaterally that these don’t mean anything to the “Persian.” Now play the following parlor game: find a major Judeo-Christian cul­tural and social equivalent for the traits that Laingen ascribes to “the Persian.” Overriding egoism? Rousseau. Malevolence of reality? Kafka. Om­nipotence of God? Old and New Testa­ments. Lack of causal sense? Beckett. Bazaar mentality? New York Stock Ex­change. The confusion between words and reality? Austin and Searle. But few people would construct a portrait of the essential West using only Christopher Lasch on narcissism, the words of a fundamentalist preacher, Plato’s Cratylus, an advertising jingle or two and (as a case of the West’s inability to believe in a stable or bene­ficent reality) Ovid’s Metamorphoses laced with choice verses from Leviticus.

Laingen’s message is a functional equivalent of such a portrait. In a different context it would be a caricature at best, a crude though not particularly damaging attack at worst. It is not even effective as a bit of psy-war, since it reveals the writer’s weaknesses more than its oppo­nent’s. It shows, for example, that the author is extremely nervous about his opposite number; and that he cannot see others except as a mirror image of himself. Where is his capacity for understanding the Iranian point of view or for that matter the Islamic Revolution itself, which one supposed had been the result of in­tolerable Persian tyranny and the need to overthrow it?

And as for good will and trust in the rationality of the negotiating process, even if the events of 1953 and U.S. support for the Shah were not mentioned, much could be said about the attempted army coup against the Revolution, directly en­couraged by the U.S.’s General Huyser in late January 1979. Then too there was the action of various U.S. banks (unusually compliant in bending the rules to suit the Shah) who during 1979 were prepared to cancel Iranian loans contracted in 1977 on the grounds that Iran had not paid the interest on time. (Le Monde’s Eric Rouleau reported on November 25–26, 1979, that he had seen proof that Iran had actually paid the interest ahead of time.) No wonder that “the Persian” assumes his opposite number is an adversary. He is an adversary, and an insecure one at that: Laingen says it plainly.

[related_posts post_id_1=”714117″ /]

Let us concede that accuracy, not fairness, is the issue. The U.S. man on the spot is advising Washington. What does he rely on? A handful of Orientalist clichés that could have been taken verbatim from Sir Alfred Lyall’s description of the Eastern mind, or from Lord Cromer’s ac­count of dealing with the natives in Egypt. If poor Ibrahim Yazdi, then foreign min­ister of Iran, resists the idea that “Iranian behavior has consequences on the per­ception of Iran in the United States,” which U.S. decision-maker was prepared to accept in advance that U.S. behavior had consequences on the perception of the U.S. in Iran? Why then was the Shah admitted here? Or do we, like the Per­sians, have an “aversion to accepting re­sponsibility for one’s own action”?

Laingen’s message is the product of uninformed, unintelligent power, and certainly adds little to our understanding of other societies. As an instance of how we confront the world it does not inspire con­fidence. As an inadvertent American self­-portrait it is frankly insulting. What use is it then? It tells us how our representatives created a reality that corresponded neither to our world nor to Iran’s. But if it does not also demonstrate that such misrepresenta­tions had better be thrown away forever, then we are in for more international troubles and, alas, our innocence will again be uselessly offended.

Categories
From The Archives NEWS & POLITICS ARCHIVES THE FRONT ARCHIVES Washington, D.C.

Cozying Up to Murderous Despots — What Could Go Wrong?

As more information is leaked about the alleged murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi by minions of Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman, we were reminded of another royal family in the region. In the mid-1970s, much of Washington’s elite and a swath of America’s glitterati welcomed the Shah of Iran, in spite of the fact that he was a known torturer and murderer of his own citizens. In the November 14, 1977, issue of the Village Voice, Alexander Cockburn, James Ridgeway, and Jan Albert wrote that when the Shah had been crowned a decade earlier, “Virtually every king was there except Kong. In a tented city a goodly proportion of the executives, chiselers, and spongers of western capitalism gathered to marvel and stayed to gorge at a coming-out gala for a regime of unexampled savagery.” The writers pointed out that Iran’s ambassador to the U.S. had the political insight to realize that “one star-studded bash, well-reported in the gossip columns, can do much to offset a couple of Amnesty reports about torture and a few intellectuals detailing exactly how the Shah’s secret police ripped out their fingernails.”

Which is pretty gruesome, but if current reports coming out of the Turkish news media are correct — that Khashoggi’s fingers were severed and he was beheaded and dismembered — then we are dealing with a regime every bit as bloodthirsty as the Shah’s. As the Voice reported back then, the rich and powerful had been happy to turn a blind eye to the brutality: “An invitation from [Iran’s ambassador] is something to be cherished,” Buffy Cafritz, the wife of a big-time political donor, told the Voice at the time, adding, “He invites all the glamour people — Polly Bergen and Diana Vreeland came to the Warhol party.”

[related_posts post_id_1=”598566″ /]

When asked what she thought of the Shah’s record of torture, and whether she had questioned the ambassador about it, she elided the question with the response, “He’s not anti-American.” Then she elaborated: “At almost all of his parties he makes after-dinner speeches toasting the friendship of Iran and America. He is a good friend of America’s. Besides, these reports are exaggerated. There are open lines of communication between our countries and the Shah is our friend.”

Just as now, apparently, Kim Jong-un, Vladimir Putin, and Mohammed bin Salman are each a “good friend” of America. MBS is, according to President Trump, a particularly good friend, because he is buying somewhere north of $100 billion worth of American arms (although many sources are reporting that number as being actually much smaller, with some arriving at a total below $4 billion).

In November 1977, the Iranian revolution and the fall of the Shah were only months away. The U.S. has spent the intervening years painstakingly repairing the bad blood between the two countries, a difficult process that the international community felt was bearing fruit…until President Trump pulled America out of the Iran nuclear deal this past May. Instead, the leader of the free world has placed his faith in the likes of the Saudi crown prince. As the articles on the pages below remind us, cozying up to murderous despots rarely comes to a good end.

Categories
CULTURE ARCHIVES FILM ARCHIVES

Iran’s “No Date, No Signature” Asks Why It’s So Hard for Men to Face What They’ve Wrought

Much like the work of his countrymen Asghar Farhadi and the late Abbas Kiarostami, writer-director Vahid Jalilvand’s No Date, No Signature is a soberly made piece of melodramatic neorealism featuring just-trying-to-live characters who are forced to make moral decisions in a world where doing the right thing is usually a luxury that cannot be afforded. It is at heart a film about two men making the wrong decision at the exact same time.

On a highway at night, an aggressive speeding driver causes forensic pathologist Kaveh Nariman (Amir Aghaei) to knock a family of four, all riding a single motorcycle, off the highway. The doctor pulls over and checks to see if they’re all OK, even though — as we later learn — his insurance has expired. The only one who appears to have injuries is a small boy, who is suffering a slight pain in the back of his head. The doctor advises them to go to the nearest clinic to get checked out, but Moosa (Navid Mohammadzadeh), the boy’s father, ignores this and drives into the night.

You can probably see where this is going. The boy’s dead body winds up at Nariman’s hospital. Even though the autopsy rules that the kid died of botulism, a shocked and shaken Nariman keeps himself distant from the family, hiding in plain sight while trying to determine whether the accident was the true cause.

For a movie centered around the needless death of a child, Jalilvand (Wednesday, May 9) creates a heartbreaking but still hopeful story. As it’s consistently pointed out throughout, Nariman is an upstanding doctor, examining abused women on the low and cursing out colleagues who botch autopsies. Once Nariman learns of the boy’s death, Aghaei effectively gives off a pained, ashamed vibe for most of the movie. You can plainly catch the guilt eating up Nariman, even when his back is to the camera.

As the dad who unfortunately gave his son the stale meat that led to contracting botulism, Mohammadzadeh plays guilt in a more explosive, tortured manner. In a scene where Moosa goes to a meat factory to beat down the worker who sold him bad meat, Mohammadzadeh goes back and forth between screaming in anger and sobbing uncontrollably. I’ve never seen an actor convey the rage and confusion a parent must go through after the sudden death of a child as convincingly.

No Date, No Signature stirs up a lot of emotions, but it mostly puts you in the shoes of two men who each had a chance to make the correct choice — and who fail miserably, and pay dearly. Ultimately, after causing much damage to others either physically or mentally, they both come to the realization that they must take responsibility for their actions. You might expect Jalilvand’s movie to play as commentary on how men in that part of the world let their pride and stubbornness get in the way of making logical decisions. But the moral conundrums — and eventual, tragic aftermath — the characters face prove universal. In the dog-eat-kennel times we’re living in now, No Date, No Signature presents a story of flawed but generally decent people trying to put right what went so horribly wrong.

 

No Date, No Signature
Directed by Vahid Jalilvand

Distrib Films US
Opens August 1, Film Forum

 

Click here to sign up for our weekly film and TV newsletter.

 

Categories
CULTURE ARCHIVES FILM ARCHIVES Living NEWS & POLITICS ARCHIVES NYC ARCHIVES THE FRONT ARCHIVES TV ARCHIVES VOICE CHOICES ARCHIVES

Art vs. State: Panahi’s Closed Curtain Unveils Iran

Sometimes, if not often enough, movies demand to be watched as something more than just expensive daydreams — they come festooned with real-world urgency and relevance, and the context of their existence kicks the shit out of how entertained we may or may not be at any given moment. No contemporary filmmaker possesses the hyper-context belonging to Jafar Panahi, who has become justly world famous for not only being under house arrest in Iran until 2016 and banned from filmmaking for 20 years (for anti-government “propaganda”) but also for continuing to make films anyway.

Closed Curtain opens with a five-minute-long view through the security grate of Panahi’s beach house, as a cab pulls up down by the Caspian beach and slowly disgorges a writer (Kambuzia Partovi). Once inside, he releases the dog he had secreted in his duffel bag — and the reality dawns that he is in hiding, as much for himself as for his dog, whom he had saved from the Islamic Republic’s newly ramped-up campaign against “unclean” pets. (Soon enough the dog — in one of movie history’s deftest and most eloquent animal performances — is watching televised news footage of mass canine roundups and executions. We hardly need a better reason to dismiss the mullahs as blinkered fools.) The writer immediately closes the curtains and blacks out every window with cloth, and we have the acute sense that from here on in, everything concrete will be metaphoric, and vice versa.

Trapped with the protagonist in these rather lavish digs, we’re perhaps less surprised than he is to be accosted by a 20-something brother and sister (Hadi Saeedi and Maryam Moghadam) invading the house after running, so they say, from the police.

The girl lingers, and is clearly a projection from the outset, possibly of the writer’s own fears and worries (her supposed penchant for suicide attempts emerges later as Panahi’s own), and more likely as a figure in the unmentioned screenplay he’s trying to write. Eventually, Panahi appears as well, roughly alternating with his alter ego, and the film slips between the movie we’re watching, its production (which might include the script that never gets finished), and multiple movies within the movie, coming off as imagined scenarios that can be swiped and reconceptualized.

And that’s moviemaking, isn’t it? Of course the real world doesn’t stay out — in Closed Curtain an ominous break-in and ransacking necessitate the intrusion of neighbors and handymen, and they bring others, creating a kind of social meditation on how life can be lived in a violently absurdist culture. Art, on the other hand, may not survive.

Possibly the Iranian new wave’s last meta-man, Panahi is in an ideal position to make the unique methodology of his filmmaking merge with its substance. But he’s always been fascinated by how a film’s bell-jar bubble can be punctured, leaving a viscous interface between real and cinematic. Throughout Closed Curtain there’s the feeling that the film itself is unfinished — it is, in fact, unfinishable, because life does go on.

Peel the artichoke, beyond the visual doublings and textual enigmas — and the hypnotic cutaways to the dog named Boy, so baffled by life in Iran and so nakedly fascinated by his owner — and you may come to wonder, as I did, if the fictionalized “realness” of Panahi’s movie, and how it expresses his life’s dilemma, isn’t just more simulacra and self-publicity, as authentic or inauthentic as a bedroom YouTube spat or activist Twitter chain. If so, so what? The reality of Closed Curtain is entirely off-screen, in the grip of Sharia fanaticism, and no less vital for that. (After the film splashed at the Berlin Film Festival last year, Partovi and Moghadam have both had their passports confiscated at home.) If that’s not your idea of what movies can do, feel free to go stick your head up a giant robot’s ass.

Categories
ART ARCHIVES CULTURE ARCHIVES Datebook FILM ARCHIVES Living Museums & Galleries NEW YORK CITY ARCHIVES NEWS & POLITICS ARCHIVES NYC ARCHIVES THE FRONT ARCHIVES TV ARCHIVES VOICE CHOICES ARCHIVES

The Defiant Manuscripts Don’t Burn Exposes Iran’s Brutal Measures Against Free Expression

Harrowing, defiant, and exemplifying through its very existence the moral courage its totalitarian villains stamp down, Mohammad Rasoulof’s Manuscripts Don’t Burn exposes the brutal measures Iran’s government takes against free expression, and does this so powerfully that, for fear of retaliation, its credits list no cast- or crewmember besides Rasoulof.

Rasoulof himself is now forbidden to leave his home country, far from his first punishment at the hands of a paranoid regime. (Manuscripts Don’t Burn exists despite its creator living under a 20-year ban from filmmaking.)

The film, while wrenching and audacious, is crafted with that humane and observational mastery of great Iranian cinema of recent decades: Even the lugs punishing writers for the state turn out to be regular guys battling their own consciences, and, early on, Rasoulof contributes a doozy of a sequence to the stockpile of that standby of Iranian film: real-time single-shot Frogger–style street crossings.

The build-up is patient, the story involving novelist Fourouzadeh learning that his new book can only be published with over 100 official changes; Khosrow, a freelance tough desperate for money to pay for his son’s hospitalization, is charged with recovering a document revealing the government’s involvement in the assassination attempts of writers, a document likely in the hands of Fourouzadeh.

The last third is gut-churning in its slow suspense, especially an inventive bit centered on a clothespin, but what lingers most, as in Rasoulof’s The White Meadows and Goodbye, is his honoring of life as it’s actually lived, even as he’s condemning what’s gone so wrong with it.

Categories
Living NEWS & POLITICS ARCHIVES NYC ARCHIVES THE FRONT ARCHIVES VOICE CHOICES ARCHIVES Where To

PERSIAN POETRY

Bless the Sufis, for whom music isn’t just a permissible spiritual practice — especially compared to the Islamic hardliners who would do away with it altogether — but mandatory. Born Fatemeh Vaezi, the 63-year-old Iranian singer known as
Parissa has transcended religious and
gender barriers to become one of the great champions of Sufi music in Iran. She was forced into silence after Iran’s 1979 revolution, but re-emerged to teach other females the traditional dastgah style based on Persian art music’s modal
system, singing centuries-old poetry by Hafez, Rumi, and Omar Khayyam. A
formidable improviser with a remarkable alto, Parissa appears here with the Dastan Ensemble: Hamid Motebassem (tar lute), Hossein Behroozinia (barbat lute), Saeed Farajpouri (kamanche fiddle), and percussionists Hamin Honari and Arjang Ataollahi.

Fri., Nov. 8, 8:30 p.m., 2013

Categories
Living NEWS & POLITICS ARCHIVES NYC ARCHIVES THE FRONT ARCHIVES VOICE CHOICES ARCHIVES Where To

Kayhan Kalhor & Ali Bahrami Fard

A Tehran-born performer of Kurdish descent, Kalhor is a virtuoso of the kamencheh spike fiddle. Ali Bahrami Fard is likewise a master of the santour hammered dulcimer. Together, they will improvise magnificently and incrementally extend the Persian classical tradition as they perform music from Kalhor’s most recent album, I Will Not Stand Alone. The evening is part of Asia Society’s “New Sounds From Iran” series, and don’t miss the “Iran Modern” art show while you’re in the house.

Sat., Nov. 16, 8 p.m., 2013

Categories
NEWS & POLITICS ARCHIVES THE FRONT ARCHIVES

Benjamin Lawsky: The Man Who Picked a Fight With Wall Street

Project Gazelle was a banker’s dream. It was quiet, discreet, and made staggering piles of money catering to clients no one else would touch. The fact that it was also illegal didn’t seem to matter much. Bankers at Standard Chartered felt confident no one would notice what they were doing. And even if somebody did, history said the punishment would be a delicate slap on the wrist.

The bank was a stodgy old colonial holdover with a massive headquarters in London. It did a lot of business in Asia, clearing billions each year in profit. Sometime around 2001, the higher-ups spotted yet another place to make a buck: Iran.

The Iranian government (as well as a few private corporations) wanted to get its money out of government-run banks and into England and the Middle East. Standard was happy to help with a series of wire transfers that snaked the funds through multiple countries and, ultimately, safely abroad.

The scheme worked like a charm—with only one small snag: The transactions had to pass through the bank’s New York offices to be converted into dollars.

At the time, such maneuvering was legal, as long as banks vetted the deals for suspicious signs. But the U.S. government believed Iran was laundering its money to finance its nuclear weapons program. So Standard—which was also transferring cash for rogue states like Libya, Sudan, and Burma—took pains to cloak any hint of suspicion.

Bank executives gave employees detailed instructions on how to pull notes from their records to hide the involvement of off-limits nations, a process known as “repair.” An internal memo warned that the repair plan “MUST NOT be sent to the U.S.” Between 2001 and 2007, the bank moved $250 billion through America under this system.

Repair, of course, was illegal. In law-enforcement circles, it’s called “stripping,” and the U.S. Justice Department had already fined five other banks more than $2 billion for doing the same thing.

That left Standard’s stateside executives increasingly nervous. In 2006, Ray Ferguson, then head of Standard Chartered Americas, warned the home office in a memo that doing business with Iran could subject them all “to personal reputational damages and/or serious criminal liability.”

Standard’s finance director, Richard Meddings, had a terse reply to that one, which would soon be splashed across the pages of newspapers in both countries.

“You fucking Americans,” he wrote back. “Who are you to tell us, the rest of the world, that we’re not going to deal with Iranians?”

The transfers continued.

At some point the feds caught wind of the scheme, launching an investigation into Standard’s offices in New York, London, and Dubai. The bank disclosed this, in a way, in its 2010, 2011, and 2012 annual reports, writing that it was voluntarily reviewing its “historical compliance” with U.S. law.

Yet Standard had the good fortune of being caught during the bank-friendly Obama presidency. Despite taking office as the financial industry imploded, Attorney General Eric Holder began ramping down prosecutions for bank crimes. A new pattern emerged: The feds would conduct long, meandering investigations that ended with polite fines and no admission of wrongdoing. Standard seemed destined to be handled with the same kid gloves.

Then, seemingly out of nowhere, one man at one obscure government agency got impatient.

In August of last year, the New York State Department of Financial Services (DFS) blew the lid off Project Gazelle, issuing a complaint that charged Standard with moving billions for Iranian clients, “dealings that indisputably helped sustain a global threat to peace and stability.”

These were the words of a plainly seething Benjamin Lawsky, DFS’s superintendent.

The rest of the report was similarly furious. “For almost 10 years,” Lawsky wrote, “SCB schemed with the government of Iran and hid from regulators roughly 60,000 secret transactions, involving at least $250 billion, and reaping SCB hundreds of millions of dollars in fees. SCB’s actions left the U.S. financial system vulnerable to terrorists, weapons dealers, drug kingpins, and corrupt regimes, and deprived law enforcement investigators of crucial information used to track all manner of criminal activity.”

Lawsky wanted to know why he shouldn’t pull Standard’s license to operate in New York—a move that would cost the bank billions. The financial world erupted in chatter.

From a sleepy federal investigation that was going nowhere fast to punishment that threatened Standard’s very existence, it was clear there was a new sheriff in town.

But who the hell was Benjamin Lawsky?

At first, no one—not the feds who’d been overshadowed by Lawsky, not Standard itself—knew quite how to take the state bureaucrat’s charges (and probably a few of them were busy Googling his name). The bank was baffled and angry. The feds were, according to multiple reports, embarrassed and irritated at being outflanked. Internal memos at the Treasury Department revealed that Lawsky had informed the agency of his intentions only “hours before” announcing the charges publicly.

The blowback was nasty. Standard rejected Lawsky’s “portrayal of facts,” conceding that it had transferred money illegally—but only $14 million.

Next came the implication that Lawsky’s move was some sort of anti-British conspiracy designed to cripple London and favor New York. Mervyn King, governor of the Bank of England, the United Kingdom’s central financial institution, implied that Lawsky had gone rogue. A columnist for the Financial Times accused Lawsky of burnishing his political prospects, ignoring the fact that his target, a gubernatorial appointee, wasn’t running for anything.

“In the strange political climate of the U.S., anyone who stands up to Iran is a hero,” wrote economist Kishore Mahbubani.

London Mayor Boris Johnson chimed in, writing in the Telegraph that Lawsky had been “motivated by jealousy” and “a simple desire to knock a rival centre”—yet another example of the U.S. being “high-handed in her treatment of other nations.”

Underneath the faux outrage, the real shock was that a bank—any bank at all—might be subjected to a serious punishment.

Though Congress passed Dodd-Frank, landmark legislation designed to rein in big banks and loosen their chokehold on the U.S. economy, more than three years ago, most of the bill has never been implemented.

So bankers have been partying as usual, laundering funds for terrorists, drug traffickers, and repressive regimes (HSBC, Standard Chartered); price-gouging on necessities like electricity and aluminum (JPMorgan, Goldman Sachs); investing other people’s pension money in doomed-to-fail ventures (Bank of America, several times); and charging illegal overdraft fees (nearly every large bank in the country).

And the U.S. continued to handle institutional financial crimes the way it always had: by politely ignoring them, or, at worst, by charging the offender a penalty that typically amounted to just a few days’ worth of revenue (what the feds always describe as “historic” fines).

Take JPMorgan Chase, which has been fined or sued at least 10 times between 2011 and 2013. It paid $5.29 billion for its share of the subprime mortgage crisis; almost $300 million for misleading investors about shaky mortgage-backed securities; $150 million to pension funds whose money it invested in a risky “structured investment vehicle.” And that’s just a snapshot of a 10-month period last year. Financial analyst Joshua Rosner estimates that since 2009, JPMorgan’s “litigation expenses” have amounted to about $16 billion. (The figure inched up in July, when the bank was fined $410 million for manipulating electricity prices in California and the Midwest.)

Or take HSBC, which for years did a brisk business laundering money for Mexico’s Sinaloa drug cartel. Despite the nation’s reputation as a cartel kind of place, HSBC deemed Mexico a “standard” risk for money-laundering, meaning that all wire transfers to and from the country, no matter how large or frequent, were allowed to proceed without any internal review.

The Treasury Department found that hundreds of millions of dollars in drug money flowed through HSBC branches in the United States and Mexico. Drug traffickers deposited hundreds of thousands of dollars a day in cash at single branches, using boxes designed to fit precisely through HSBC’s bank windows.

Bart Naylor, a financial policy advocate for Public Citizen, a consumer group that for years has begged the feds to take a harder line on bank crimes, says financial crime doesn’t just hurt the economy; it deeply affects the lives of ordinary people.

“That teenage girl you knew in high school that became an addict to crack cocaine? That was made possible by HSBC and Standard Chartered taking money-laundering as unseriously as they did,” says Naylor. “Shut off money-laundering, you can go a long way toward solving the drug problem and the subsequent gun violence.”

The feds, Naylor asserts, have responded with “candy-ass deferred prosecution agreements,” in which bankers accept no responsibility and no one goes to jail.

“I call it the immaculate-conception theory of a crime,” Naylor says. “A crime was committed, but by no person and no corporation.”

In a March appearance before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Attorney General Holder admitted as much, saying that some banks have become “so large that it does become difficult to prosecute them,” especially because a criminal charge would have “a negative impact on the national economy.”

Standard knew that in Benjamin Lawsky it faced a different adversary. A day before a scheduled hearing on whether its New York license would be revoked, the bank settled, paying a $340 million fine to DFS.

The feds followed with their own sanctions months later, fining Standard $100 million and forcing it to forfeit $227 million more, punishment for “illegally moving millions of dollars through the U.S. financial system on behalf of sanctioned Iranian, Sudanese, Libyan, and Burmese entities.” According to the New York Times, the Justice Department, having concluded that the bank had broken no laws, had been on the verge of letting Standard completely off the hook before Lawsky intervened.

True, Lawsky had only managed a fine. But the settlement also forced Standard to install a monitor for two years to watch out for money-laundering violations, and hire permanent monitors to audit “internal procedures.”

Lawsky’s critics lapsed into a sulky silence. “The industry is not happy with how Ben went after Standard Chartered,” says Neil Barofsky, a former federal regulator who oversaw the controversial bank-bailout program. He and Lawsky worked together as prosecutors in the Southern District of New York.

“He didn’t follow the playbook: a lengthy internal investigation where you accept all the bank’s arguments, then settle for pennies on the dollar,” Barofsky says. “Ben said, ‘This is egregious conduct, I’m going to take your license.'”

But the costs of that threat—not to mention stealing the feds’ thunder—were clear. “When you do something like that, you’re going to piss off everyone,” Barofsky adds. “You’re going to upset the bankers, because the advantageous status quo is being disrupted. You’ll upset the regulators because they’re being exposed as not doing their jobs, taking the easy road out, or a road that’s acceptable to the banks, or helpful when officials want to take a spin through the revolving door.” (That is, when federal regulators leave their government jobs for cushy bank jobs, a phenomenon several investigations have concluded is especially common at the Securities and Exchange Commission.)

Though Lawsky didn’t end up taking Standard’s license, the fact that he threatened to was something new and terrifying for the banks.

“This industry is so cosseted, no one’s even suggested that before,” Naylor says. “We are so captured by the banking industry, we don’t even know it.”

If the Standard affair was equivalent to DFS lobbing a grenade into a tea party, the department’s founding was a bit like setting off a stink bomb in the middle of a landfill. No one really noticed.

DFS’s backstory is deadly dull, full of phrases like “fiduciary power” that tend to make eyes glaze over. Briefly, it goes like this: Once upon a time, before there was a Department of Financial Services, New York had a Banking Department and an Insurance Department, both of them hundreds of years old. In 2011, Gov. Andrew Cuomo passed a law jamming the two together. That May, Ben Lawsky, who had briefly served as Cuomo’s chief of staff (as well as several other positions in his cabinet), was appointed superintendent of DFS.

Although DFS oversees banking and insurance, performs investigations, and metes out fines, it can’t put people in jail. That was a change for Lawsky, who got his start as an aide to Senator Chuck Schumer on the Judiciary Committee, and as a trial attorney in the Department of Justice. His formative job, though, was that prosecutor’s spot in the Southern District, where he developed skills that made him uniquely equipped to take on banks.

“One of the things you learn is to question everything,” Barofsky says. “Things have to be proven to you, and [you can’t] be fearful of authority or others.” (Barofsky learned the same skill set. After resigning from the bailout program, he became one of the financial system’s greatest critics, calling it a “gaping chest wound.”)

DFS started small, with a series of mundane moves throughout 2011: warning New Yorkers to watch out for home-repair scams in the wake of Hurricane Irene, announcing it would crack down on workers’ compensation fraud, and investigating sketchy doctors for fraud.

Lawsky played nice with the banks at first, opting for persuasion over force. When Ocwen Financial Corporation wanted to buy a mortgage company owned by Goldman Sachs, Lawsky said the deal could go through only if Ocwen forgave some of the money owed by homeowners facing foreclosure, people who were 60 days delinquent on their loan payments. Goldman and Ocwen agreed.

But last year, with the sudden announcement of the Standard investigation, the tone shifted perceptibly, and the targets became more numerous: not just banks, but also predatory payday lenders and abusive debt collectors.

This year, Lawsky hammered three insurance companies—Narragansett Bay, Tower, and Kingstone—after they failed to process homeowners’ claims in the wake of Hurricane Sandy. So began an astonishing show of force for a tiny state agency with only 40 full-time investigators.

“He’s done an outstanding job,” says Michael Greenberger, a former regulator with the federal Commodity Futures Trading Commission. Greenberger is now a professor at the University of Maryland’s law school—when he’s not testifying before Congressional committees on “dysfunctions” in the country’s financial markets. “He’s has taken this financial-division department and really made some wondrous thing out of it, including making the federal government look like they don’t know what they’re doing.”

A year after settling with Standard, Lawsky wasn’t quite done with the bank. This June, DFS went after Deloitte, one of the nation’s largest corporate auditors. Deloitte was supposed to be monitoring Standard for shenanigans. Instead, DFS charged, it was in cahoots with the bank, watering down reports and removing recommendations on how to prevent money laundering.

“At times, the consulting industry has been infected by an ‘I’ll scratch your back if you scratch mine’ culture and a stunning lack of independence,” Lawsky said in a press release announcing his assault. “Today, we are taking an important step in helping ensure that consultants are independent voices—rather than beholden to the large institutions that pay their fees.”

Deloitte agreed to a $10 million fine, relatively small potatoes. But there was a bigger hit in store: It agreed to a one-year ban on consulting for New York banks, a devastating timeout that forced the auditor to forgo some huge contracts.

Two days later, DFS lit up the Bank of Tokyo–Mitsubishi UFJ for laundering money for Iran and Burma. The department accused the bank of conducting about $100 billion worth of illegal transactions, fining it $250 million. A year earlier, the Treasury Department had negotiated a mere $8.5 million settlement in its own case.

“Terrorism needs money to survive,” Lawsky told the New York Post. “We will continue to do everything we can to ensure banks don’t facilitate the flow of funds that could be used by terrorists and enemy nations.”

It was a good summer at DFS. But as the heads have piled up, Lawsky has gotten skittish about talking to the press. Almost every press release issued by DFS credits Governor Cuomo first. Lawsky isn’t usually mentioned until the third or fourth paragraph.

Where he once gave expansive interviews in his office on State Street, posing for photographs behind his giant, shiny desk, securing an interview with Lawsky these days involves weeks of chasing and a little party-crashing. The Voice only managed to reach him by dropping in on a midsummer talk he gave at the Yale Club.

That morning, Lawsky spoke to a crowd of financial journalists and industry types in a place so lush, white, and hushed, it feels like being inside a roll of expensive toilet paper. When Lawsky told the crowd that Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, Wall Street–basher-in-chief, was “brilliant” and “someone worth listening to,” the silence was profound.

Afterward, Lawsky briefly spent time taking reporters’ questions and pressing the flesh. In person, the 43-year-old civil servant is almost comically clean-cut, the type of man you imagine stepping out of the shower completely dry, clad in a suit and polished wingtips. He doesn’t deny he has been hard to reach the past few months.

“I’m shy,” he says, chortling dryly at his own joke before quickly turning serious. “No. I think that—you know, I don’t think DFS should be about a cult of personality. I don’t want it to be about any one person.”

He comes off distinctly unpolitician-like; he doesn’t try to deflect conversation about hostilities between himself and federal regulators and doesn’t seem to have a canned, sunny answer about it. These days, he says flatly, the relationship between DFS and the feds is “fine.”

True, “We shook things up with Standard Chartered. We said, ‘We think this should be done in a different way.’ But I think since then things have settled down.”

Tensions between regulators are to be expected, Lawsky says. “But in a healthy competition, everyone is sorta pushing each other to do more and be a better regulator. And that’s much better than the alternative, which is unhealthy competition, where it’s who can be the lightest-touch regulator. Then you have standards moving downward.”

Art Wilmarth, a law professor at George Washington University and a student of federal-versus-state regulator strife, says there’s a history of the feds resenting the more aggressive actions of states like New York. Lawsky may be smart to keep his head down, out of the line of fire.

“The best he can hope to do is embarrass his federal colleagues so they sort of have to fall into line,” Wilmarth suggests. “Eliot Spitzer did that for two or three years in the early 2000s. And there’s no question he paid a price. I think he picked up a lot of enemies on Wall Street.”

If it’s tough to pin down Lawsky for an interview, it’s nearly impossible to get the financial industry to speak his name—at least not on the record.

Told that a background conversation would have to be paired with an on-the-record statement for this story, Deloitte spokesman Jonathan Gandal countered by agreeing only to “fact-check” the article and “consider” submitting a statement for publication. (Deloitte did not provide the latter.)

The Securities Industry and Financial Markets Association, one of Wall Street’s largest trade groups, also declined to comment.

Following numerous requests over the course of several weeks, the New York Bankers Association relayed a one-paragraph statement calling Lawsky “diligent” and adding that he “maintains an open door policy, and always listens to our concerns.” Several other banking associations and trade groups didn’t reply to multiple interview requests.

“We don’t discuss our regulators publicly and we’re still under a consent order,” says Julie Gibson, a spokeswoman for Standard Chartered. When pressed, she adds, “They’ve got all the cards. It’s not a relationship of equals. If you make them mad, then, you know . . .”

She opts not to finish that thought.

As he stood in the Yale Club’s overstuffed ballroom, Lawsky had to be aware of his new position: feared and loathed in some corners, respected in others, but very closely watched. He has the capacity now to make people nervous, as he clearly did during his speech when he mentioned that DFS was about to turn its attention to the state’s pension funds.

“Our predecessor agency did somewhat limited reviews and published them rarely,” he said. “We’re going to change that and significantly step up the scrutiny.”

The comment generated a flurry of news reports; one Capital New York reporter immediately tweeted that Lawsky’s words were “a warning shot.”

The same thing happened in early August, when DFS announced it would look into Bitcoin, the online currency that’s basically unregulated in the offline world. When DFS homes in on a target these days, people listen.

But Lawsky also seems uncharacteristically nervous about coming across as “anti–Wall Street,” taking pains during the Yale Club event to make it clear he’s as pro-business as anybody.

“I think taking real, appropriate, and sometimes tough action is not anti-business. It’s pro-business because it protects our system, keeps up consumer confidence and ultimately helps prevent another meltdown,” he told the crowd.

Yet his agency is essentially fighting a guerrilla war: running out of the jungle, picking off the targets it can reach, then retreating. It’s outmanned by a financial system—an entire economy—that’s been bent and twisted to serve the needs of the insurance and finance industries, with enthusiastic help from politicians who rely on donations from those sectors and regulators seeking lucrative landing spots at these firms someday. From this angle, Lawsky’s job starts to look like a morbidly depressing game of Whac-A-Mole.

Lawsky refuses to see it that way, though he does cop to feeling a little sad on occasion.

“I’ll tell ya, I was a little depressed reading the papers this morning,” he says, drumming at the Yale Club’s white tablecloth. The New York Times had just produced a riveting story about Goldman Sachs manipulating the price of aluminum, while electricity price-gouging allegations had been leveled at JPMorgan.

“It makes you wonder how much progress we’re making,” he muses.

That said, he has no desire for his office to wield the hammer of criminal prosecution. “I know what it is to have that power, that very heavy burden, to put people in jail,” Lawsky says. “And if you make a mistake, it’s a very big deal to get it wrong. As I said, I’m very aware of the powers that DFS has. They’re extraordinary powers, and we try to wield them humbly and carefully. So I don’t sit around and say I wish I had the power to put people in jail. That’s other people. That’s the job of the attorney general of the United States. We have a lot of criminal prosecutors who have a lot of power and a lot of resources and a lot of people.”

Yet Attorney General Holder isn’t using those powers, and it seems increasingly unlikely that he will. Last month, the big buzz in the financial world was over the impending arrests of two former JPMorgan traders who allegedly tried to hide $6 billion in lost trades. It’s the closest thing America gets to real punishment on Wall Street: two guys, nowhere near the top of the bank hierarchy, who may or may not actually go to prison. (One of the traders, Javier Martin-Arajo, was finally arrested in Spain at the end of August; he’s currently fighting extradition to the U.S. The other, Julien Grout, is in his native France, which historically has been reluctant to ship off its citizens to the U.S.; his lawyer told the press his client “has not yet decided” whether he’ll return to face charges.)

Barofsky is still betting on Lawsky. He says the culture of Wall Street can be changed, but only with fines so large and punishments so strict that banks and insurers simply have no choice but to take them seriously.

“The banks didn’t get this type of political and economic power overnight,” he says. “They spent decades amassing it. You’re not going to just snap your fingers and undo the status quo like that. It’s a grind.”

People like Lawsky and Elizabeth Warren, Barofsky says, “are making incremental success. That’s good. I’m extraordinarily confident that we’ll get past this era of bank dominance and universal banks. Hopefully it’s before the next crisis. It’s an unsustainable model, so one way or another it’s going to go down. It’s just a question of whether we’ll be smart enough to do it before we repeat what we did in 2008, only perhaps on a larger scale. And the best way to avoid repeating it is with regulators like Ben Lawsky.”

Lawsky is more modest. “We’re trying to make reforms that make the system better. Are we gonna fix every problem out there? No; I’m not self-delusional enough to think that the world will become a great place. And, look, in every society there are good apples and bad apples. And I think sometimes the problems are just the result of bad apples, and we’re always gonna have some bad apples.”

Adds the lone-wolf regulator: “I’m hopeful.” He says it with evident sincerity. “I’m a hopeful person.”

amerlan@villagevoice.com

Categories
CULTURE ARCHIVES FILM ARCHIVES Living NEWS & POLITICS ARCHIVES NYC ARCHIVES THE FRONT ARCHIVES TV ARCHIVES VOICE CHOICES ARCHIVES

Kiarostami in Exile for Like Someone in Love

Abbas Kiarostami is preoccupied with my tape recorder. He wonders if it’s too far away from where he’s sitting. He makes his translator switch from one side of him to another so that the recorder is between them. After a while, clearly still anxious about it, he picks it up and sets it down on a side table directly next to him. I can’t tell if he’s really worried about my sound, or if he’s obliquely commandeering our conversation. “Where should I go?” I ask, half seriously. “Wherever you want,” he says.

Then, without prompting—”something personal I can tell you”—he relates this to his way of making films. The idea, he says, signature dark glasses perched on a smooth, untilled face that suggests a younger and even handsomer James Caan (both are 72), is to create a situation in which everyone feels most natural, in which the recording device isn’t central but secondary to the emotions and interactions at play. “I leave much more freedom than you’d expect to actors,” he says. “I’m not going to be the one to give them instructions. I’ll just create the right conditions, the right atmosphere, and then let them live.”

The filmmaker is celebrated for his meticulously conceived shots and sequences—even after 40 years, every composition, every move of his camera is singular and provocative. In his new film, Like Someone in Love, about an unlikely love triangle between a call girl, her jealous boyfriend, and a retired professor, Kiarostami juices tension from a static shot of three people in a car, and pans around a one-bedroom apartment as if it were a previously undiscovered planet.

After spending his entire career in his native Iran, government crackdowns on speech—the likes of which led to the house arrest of Kiarostami’s former protégé Jafar Panahi—have effectively exiled him. These developments would seem potentially crippling for an artist whose work has been so rooted in his homeland, one whose elegant, unobtrusive style seemed so well paired with Iran’s spare, arid landscape in films like Through the Olive Trees, Where The Wind Will Carry Us, and Taste of Cherry, winner of the Palme d’Or at Cannes.

Yet even when he still made films in Iran, Kiarostami often struggled to get them approved for domestic distribution. That effectively made him a “filmmaker of the world” in terms of audience, if not necessarily intent. Now with his two most recent films—the Italian-set, French-English-Italian language Certified Copy, starring Juliette Binoche, and the Japanese language, Tokyo-set Like Someone in Love—he’s fully evolved into an auteurist globe-hopper.

Frequent flyer miles aside, Kiarostami insists that nothing substantial has changed about his art, which also tentacles out to poetry, photography, painting, and installations. “I consider cinema a universal language, and I consider human beings as universal beings,” he says. “So there’s no reason why people should not be able to relate to a film, or we shouldn’t be able to make films, in different languages and different cultures than our own.”

On first look, Certified Copy seemed like a major departure, vaulting the filmmaker from the world of Iranian strivers, hustlers, and townsfolk to a pair of strolling bourgeois Europeans role-playing about marriage. But the film is no less haunted by mortality, and no less preoccupied with our inherent unknowableness, than films like Taste of Cherry and Ten. He again mines existential humor and emotional violence from these themes in Like Someone in Love.

Though defiantly productive in the face of exile, Kiarostami isn’t deceiving himself about how he got here. “I can’t really say it was as a wish or a personal choice,” he says. “As a door gets closed, there’s no point in staying behind it.” That at least implicitly questions countrymen like Panahi, who remained in Iran—and made This Is Not a Film under house arrest. “I’d rather go on and open other doors. You hope for the best to happen, and go through new experiences that help you continue and improve. But I’ve not closed an open door just for the sake of seeing what’s elsewhere.”

But even if he doesn’t see his decision to flee as one freely made, he does see wisdom in being where he’s at—of taking himself to new places and finding new collaborators while remaining true to himself and his art. I bring up Andrei Tarkovksy, who made his final two masterpieces in Europe after being sidelined in post-thaw U.S.S.R. He counters with Woody Allen, a filmmaker “for whom nobody has closed any doors,” but who nevertheless has been reenergized by making movies overseas. “If you’re just repeating yourself in the same circles and the same cycle, there is the risk for you of becoming nothing but a technician, and to repeat yourself,” he says. “So you have the need to actually renew yourself. Changing your spot, your language and culture, can be the best way to do it.”