U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry speaks with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif (Laurent Gillieron/Keystone via AP)

"Our closest allies were once our most bitter enemies": The historic promise of the Iran nuclear deal

The nuclear agreement may be an opportunity for the U.S. and Iran to "reset," memoirist Cyrus Copeland tells Salon


Elias Isquith
July 31, 2015 7:59PM (UTC)

As the Obama administration continues to battle opponents in Congress and Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu's administration, the symbolic importance of the deal struck between the P5+1 and Iran is becoming obscured by fear-mongering and the minutiae of nuclear fission. But the very fact that the U.S. and Iran were able to work together — however difficult and unpleasant it may have been — is huge. It represents a tectonic shift for a relationship that's been defined by shared hatred for nearly 40 years.

While that is far from the main point of Cyrus Copeland's memoir, "Off the Radar: A Father’s Secret, A Mother’s Heroism, and a Son’s Quest," the tragic lack of communication and understanding between the two cultures is a theme throughout. And because the perspective of Iranian-Americans is all but nonexistent in the mainstream media, Salon decided to follow in the footsteps of the "The Diane Rehm Show" and call Copeland to discuss his book and his views on both of the countries he's called home. Our conversation is below and has been edited for clarity and length.

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To begin, why don't you tell me a bit about your parents? How'd they meet and how did they end up in Iran?

My mother is decidedly an Iranian woman. She was the youngest woman to leave Iran unchaperoned, at the age of 17, when she went to Britain and remade a life for herself abroad, first as a fashion model, and later as an announcer at the BBC. At the BBC, she ended up translating Shakespeare into Farsi, and broadcasting those plays on BBC Persia.

With her, she always carried this tremendous love for her homeland. She does to this day. She frequently refers to herself as a daughter of Persia. She ended up writing a beautiful poem about that, on the very last night before she left for what she thought was the final time, back in 1980.

What about your dad?

My father, on the other hand, was raised in Grove, Oklahoma, which as they say, was about 20 years behind Tulsa in coming along. He was very much a byproduct of that small town, but he had that thing called wanderlust, and an eye for the horizon, he had a tremendous curiosity for other cultures. It drove him east, to destinations as diverse as Thailand, Japan, the Philippines, Bali.

They ended up meeting back in Washington D.C, on the very first day of their respective arrivals in the capital. My mother tells the story that my father had the temerity to approach her in the hotel dining room, over breakfast, and inquire if she always enjoyed the luxury of a late breakfast.

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That was where these two very improbable cultures, and countries, and people, met in the 1950's and the story carried forward in its way. They started a family and eventually we moved to Iran in 1974.

So what made you decide to write this book? Was it something you fell into or did you always want to do it?

The story began 35 years ago, when my American father was arrested and tried as a CIA spy in Iran. My mother became the very first female attorney minted by the Islamic Republic, because she wanted to defend him.

A couple of years later I found a file on my father — he was long deceased — and the file was called "Max's Radar Affair." I had actually been hunting for something else that day, but found this file in the dusty corner of a library, where it resided at the bottom of a box, and opened it. My mother was with me, and we found ourselves almost immediately transported back into the past, and into what was effectively the darkest chapter of our lives.

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As we were talking about this, my mother said to me, again, because she had said this to me through the years, "You know, of course, your father was a CIA spy." I didn't really believe her at the time, and she and I went back and forth about this, but I decided there and then to put this issue to rest, once and for all.

I ended up filing FOIA requests with the FBI and CIA and State Department, and also wrote to President Carter, all in an attempt to come to the truth about this question which had trailed me, and us Copelands, for 35 long years.

That's what began the story, though it turned into something quite different than that.

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How so?

For me, it was two consequential things. Firstly, in addition to coming to the truth about my father, I felt by the end of it that this was also a way for me to grow close to my father, in a way that, regretfully, I wasn't while he was alive. I did it by a lot of research, and finding out about the man that he was before he was the man who became my father.

The second thing that came out of this quest was that I learned how to hold the contradictions between being Iranian and being American — these two very contentious cultures that have gone out of their way to demonize each other for the past 35 years — with a little bit more grace.

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Did your understanding of the relationship between the U.S. and Iran change as you wrote the book?

The book is written from three different perspectives: the perspective of my father, as an American; the perspective of my mother, as an Iranian; and my perspective, as a bi-cultural child, who has had to reconcile these two contentious bloodlines over 35 years. Somehow, through the telling of the story and the piecing together of the narrative, I felt like I was able to do that, and have a greater appreciation for being Iranian, and American, and for the hyphen between Iranian and American.

Did your understanding of yourself as an Iranian-American change because of this project?

Before I started the project, it was almost as if those two aspects of myself were compartmentalized. When I was living in Iran, I thought of myself as an American, who was proud to represent that part of my bloodline, until it became difficult to do so. After the revolution, when all of the Americans fled, I understood that an American was a relatively dangerous thing to be.

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Over here, I felt very proudly Iranian, almost as if I was living in a parallel reflexive universe. I felt responsible to represent this misunderstood country and culture to Americans. My life had been compartmentalized, but as I said, piecing together this narrative, I feel like I've been able to hold that contradiction, and not have it be as much of a contradiction.

You've argued that Iran and America are more similar than many people think. How?

Iranians are the only reliably pro-American population in the Middle East today. You wouldn't know if from the discourse happening between our government and from the dialogue that is lobbed back and forth between their hardliners and our hardliners. But it's true.

They are consistently pro-American. I saw that when I went back to Iran for the first time in a long time last year. They love American culture, they watch American movies, they listen to American music. They have a much better understanding of our country and our culture than we have of theirs.

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Iran and America have more in common than we might like to admit. We both, in this instance, politically, have presidents who are working towards a peaceful resolution of our conflict, while secondary power sources, in this case our Congress and their revolutionary guards, are trying to sabotage that goal. We both have electorates that vote in elections and are dynamic.

Our relationship to Iran is unlike our relationship with that other "axis of evil," North Korea, whose one note foreign policy never really changes. But Iran and America are two countries who engage with each other, and respond to each other. For the past 35 years we've fought hard over hostages, sanctions, downed civilian airliners, military coercion, and espionage — but we've never stopped responding to one another.

It's like the dynamic that siblings have — it might be dysfunctional, but it's still a relationship. In this case, it means you get to do what parties to a relationship do, which is fight, defend, and judge, and eventually maybe, hopefully, make up with each other, just as we did with Britain, Japan, and Germany. In my opinion, it's not really an accident that our closest allies were once our most bitter enemies.

What are the major misconceptions that Americans have about Iran? Did your ever find yourself being disabused of one thought or another about the country?

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My favorite story to tell about that happened in the bazaar, which is really the locus of Iran's political, local, economic, maybe even spiritual, life. The bazaar was where the revolution ignited 35 years ago. I love walking through that hallowed institution. It goes on for miles, above ground, under ground, and there are thousands of shops.

As I'm wandering through the bazaar — I don't look like an Iranian — so the merchants are calling out, "Hey Mister, where are you from?" I respond in Farsi, "I'll give you 10,000 toman if you can guess." This begins a game. "Australia, France, Germany." No one ever guesses right. I give them a hint, "Death to..." and they say, in a really small voice, "Israel?" I say, "No, the other one!" and they say, "America!" When they say it, there's no rancor in that, only joy, that a representative of this country, which truly is beloved by most Iranians, is now here wandering in their mists, and would I now be interested in joining them for a tea or having dinner with them.

They have questions for me — where did I learn to speak Farsi so well, do I know Julia Roberts, what do I think of x, y, and z? This thing that we think of them, that they are this angry, inhospitable country — the reverse is actually true. I saw that everyday, that hospitality that the Iranians are famous for, in spite of the fact that the sanctions have made their lives a living hell, and have been almost draconian in their application. Yet here they are, being hospitable to an American.

Can speak more about how those sanctions have affected the Iranian people?

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It has affected every last nook and cranny of their society, in an invariably uncomfortable and distressing way. University professors are working two or three jobs, just to put food on the table. Often times I would get into a cab in Iran and was never driven by someone who's only driving a cab — that was usually a second or third job. For the population right now, there a lot of anti-anxiety medications, anti-depressants, sleep-aids, that are being prescribed.

It extends even to their ecological concerns. I was at a dinner party and someone was explaining to me how their efforts to preserve the Persian leopard were being effected by the sanctions. There are people in Tehran who are unable to get the cancer medications that are required — even though Tehran is one of the most heavily polluted cities in the world, they don't have access to cancer drugs. Again, because of the sanctions.

It has had an effect on 95 percent of the population of Iran. The idea that sanctions usually effect the people who can least afford to be effected by them — in Iran's case, that's true.

That contradicts the line you'll generally hear from those defending the sanctions, which is that they're "targeted."

I saw firsthand the effect that it had all over the country. Targeted? They may be targeted, but their effects are felt by everybody.

When news that the P5+1 and Iran had reached an agreement about the latter's nuclear program was announced, there were all these images of regular Iranians celebrating in the streets. Was that because they were looking forward to the sanctions being lifted? Or was it because they hoped it meant that the U.S. and Iran were going to finally approach one another differently?

I think it was decidedly both. Iranians are anxious to press the "reset" button in their relationship with America. They're anxious to travel once again, to resume their rightful position as part of the world. They want to do what people like you and I want to do — get out there and explore. This, for them is an invitation to the possibility of that. It's also hopefully an end to a situation that has made their lives miserable.

For me, I interpret that not only as a good sign for Iranians, but good for diplomacy. You have an area of a world that has been beset by conflict, economic hardship, military coercion, unspoken threats lobbed back and forth, and suddenly and improbably, it looks like diplomacy has finally worked. After 35 years of watching my two homelands that I love so deeply, demonize each other, the prospect of a diplomatic solution is so promising, and I am delighted to be alive to witness it.

How optimistic are you that you may live in a world that compartmentalizing your two halves will be archaic?

There's a Persian poet named Rumi, and he has the perfect line that describes the sense of possibility that looms: "Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing, there is a field. I will meet you there." I feel that America and Iran are about to join each other in that field.


Elias Isquith

Elias Isquith is a former Salon staff writer.

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