Was Dad a Spy?

03/24/2015 08:57 am ET | Updated May 24, 2015

Thirty-five years ago, the revolutionary government of Iran imprisoned my father and accused him of being a CIA agent.

It was 1979. The revolution was in its infancy, and Islamic fundamentalism was about to foist itself on an unready world. By then the vast majority of our American friends had fled the country. We stayed. And my American father took a job with Westinghouse, closing out the electronic giant's defense business. He was, in essence, a "Clean-Up Man," sort of like George Clooney in Michael Clayton. Only my father did his job on an international scale in unstable territory. And he was engaged in an activity that was bound to raise some eyebrows, if the Iranians ever found out what he was doing -- repatriating high-tech defense equipment to the US.

I was a boy at the time, with little understanding of the forces in play. I did not know that we were living at the fault lines between Iran and America -- or that the dispiriting, undeclared war between Iran and America would continue for three and a half decades.

A couple years ago, I set out on a quest to find out if the charges against my long-dead father were true. All kids have unanswered questions about their parents. But most don't have to ask, "Was Dad a spy?"

My father had always been a mystery to me, but he left behind a paper trail. I waded through journals, newspaper articles he'd penned, letters and diaries -- all in an effort to find the truth. In the course of my research, I came upon a little-seen document published by the US War Department 70 years ago: A Pocket Guide to Iran. U.S. troops began arriving in Iran in 1943, and the booklet was designed to familiarize them with the country. For a publication of the War Department, it was awfully cute -- peppered with illustrations, helpful phrases and tips. ("When you are in Irani home, don't be too enthusiastic about admiring some particular object. Out of courtesy, your host might feel obliged to give it to you." Or: "Often in a home, or even in a shop, you will be offered coffee or tea. If you take one cup or glass, you will be expected to drink at least two or three. To stop at less once you've started is considered rude. But do not take a fourth.")

Who would have thought that the War Department would have such a subtle understanding of the culture? I was impressed.

George Washington advised his contemporaries to avoid foreign entanglements. That was good advice then. The problem is, the United States has been a world power since about 1942 -- exactly when that guide was published. And our role in the world has become much, much murkier. As America and Iran seek a ground-breaking peace accord, finding a middle ground of understanding has been a challenge. We mistrust the Iranians. There is ample reason for the Iranians to mistrust us, too. Imagine you're Iranian: Glance at the left and what do you see? War torn Afghanistan occupied by America. A glance to your right reveals war-torn Iraq occupied by... America.

Last year, my quest to find out the truth about my father took me back to Iran, where I met Davoud. Like many Iranians, his life had been brought low by the U.S.-led sanctions. He has to work three jobs to make ends meet. "They think we want to make nuclear bombs," Davoud said. "Looking back on the past two hundred years, Iran has never attacked a country without being attacked first. Never. Can America say that? It's true that the regime has done itself no great favor with its cries of Death to America and Death to Israel. It is just posturing. And perhaps anger at the policies of America and Israel to insert themselves into the affairs of Islamic countries and ruin our Palestinian brothers. Even Khomeini says nuclear weapons are haraam according to Islam. Perhaps they're scared of Iran because we support the Moslems that Israel suppresses? Perhaps they think that this is the country of Argo?"

Maybe that's the problem. Our perceptions of Iran are still rooted in the passionate, fist-pumping miasma of blind-folded hostages and anti-American crowds spewing venom on the evening news. Those images began the downward spiral of our relationship. The Iran of today is considerably different from the Iran of my childhood. It is the only country in the Middle East with a reliably pro-American population -- even as hardliners in the government continue their age-old chants. Wondering the Big Bazaar in Tehran, I found pleasure in playing a guessing game with the merchants. At six-foot-four with Western looks, I was considerably out-of-place.

"Hello, meester, ver ahr you ferom" the shopkeepers called out.

"Ten thousand tomans if you guess," I replied in Farsi, and a lively game ensued. Germany? France? Australia? No one ever guesses right, so I give them a hint:

"Death to..."


"No, the other one."

"America!" they cry in unison, all of the revolutionary rancor gone, drained, dead. An American in their midst! What brought me here? Where did I learn Farsi? Had I ever met Jennifer Lopez?

Where was all the passion, the angst, the collective beauty of outraged citizenry? Looking around, I realized that all the anger, the rancor, the sweet fire of revolution had died -- replaced by humdrum lives where people buy pastries, take taxis, and read books as if they hadn't launched Islamic fundamentalism on an unsuspecting world three-plus decades ago. My first day in Tehran was Valentine's day, and I was pleasantly shocked to find Tehran was full of young couples en route to posh restaurants. "What, did you think a day of love was only for the West?" my cousin asked.

The search for the truth about my father led me down several paths, and gave me a greater appreciation for my American and my Iranian roots. The images of rampaging Iranian revolutionaries and angry, black-robed mullahs do not tell the whole story of Iran any more than the saber-rattling, name-calling members of Congress define the United States. The world is full of contradictory perspectives. Might makes right. But might isn't always right.

"Remember that you aren't going to Iran to change or reform the Iranis or to tell them how much better we do things at home," the Pocket Guide to Iran counsels. "Their ways of doing things have been good enough for them for some thousands of years, and they aren't likely to change because you think they should."

Perhaps we should all take the advice published by the US War Department over 70 years ago.


CYRUS M. COPELAND is an Iranian-American author. Off the Radar: A Father's Secret, A Mother's Heroism, and A Son's Quest (Penguin/Blue Rider) recounts his father's imprisonment and trial as a CIA agent. Cyrus's mother became the first female lawyer in the Islamic Republic of Iran, and defended his father before the revolutionary courts. Thirty-five years later, Cyrus embarked on a quest to discover if the charges against his father were true. Cyrus lives in New York City -- and in the digital domain: