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Know Thine Enemy book

From the promised land

By Ghassem Namazi
July 1997
The Iranian

Edward shirley is a Persian-speaking former intelligence officer at the CIA. I was a little familiar with his work through an article he had written on Iran a few years ago in the Atlantic Monthly magazine. It was quite apparent that his knowledge of Iran, Iranians and the Persian culture was extremely good.

"Know thine enemy; A spy's journey into revolutionary Iran" (read excerpt from the book) is a tail of a Jewish-American from the Midwest who is in love with Iran and Persian culture. The Iranians called him the angel when he was stationed at the American embassy in Turkey. After all, he had helped hundreds if not thousands of Iranians obtain an American visa. Shirley's love affair with Iran had started early in his childhood. As a grownup, he spoke Persian, had Iranian girlfriends and knew Iranians better than most native Persian scholars, yet he had never been to the promised land.

Shirley joined the CIA mainly because of his hatred for communism. Many Iranians like to think of the CIA as this omnipotent agency where Iran's future could be decided in a matter of minutes. At the beginning of the book he writes, "Among the Middle East's most devout conspirators, Iranians believe that American intelligence is everywhere, all knowing and of course Persian speaking." Well, he shatters that image and contends that the CIA is no longer the institution it used to be.

He dismisses Iranian assertions that the CIA and the BBC were behind the 1979 revolution. Shirley thinks that Iranians come from a very proud culture. Sometimes too proud for their own good. They are too proud to take responsibility for many of the wrong doings they have done in the past. He writes "Persians are proud and haughty. I had met a number of foreigners who'd dealt face to face with Pahlavis and mullahs. They found them essentially unchanged: too proud for their own good."

Shirley had become disillusioned with the CIA and left the agency after nine years of service and vowed to get to Iran on his own. He hired an Azari-Iranian to smuggle him across the border to Tabriz and eventually to Tehran. The day by day account of his odyssey is extremely interesting. Shirley meets with ordinary Iranians along the way, always very careful not to reveal his nationality.

On all occasions, Iranians, young or old, rich or poor, express their heart felt disenchantment with the current regime. In a very interesting discussion, along side the road while eating kabob, three Iranians begin expressing their thoughts. "The mullahs are thieves. They are worse thieves than the shah and his family because they are mullahs. They can hide more money in their robes." Shirley stays three days in Tabriz and one day in Tehran. Ordinary Iranians, he reports are weary of Islamic dogma and the clerical regime and have resorted to cynicism and humor as everyday survival tactics.

It has mostly been my experience that foreign scholars do a better job characterizing the Iranian psyche and culture. Edward Shirley knows the Iranian character extremely well. His conversations with his smuggler and average Iranians are intriguing. Some of his remarks about Iranians may offend you; however, we should bear in mind that anyone who is an expert on Iran and is willing to go through hell to get to his promised land may be worth listening to.

Excerpt from the book


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