Hollywood Argonistes (with apologies to John Milton)
Published on: February 28, 2013
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  • Pave Low John

    Oddly enough, this is the second article I’ve read today that discusses the Iranian hostage situation. The Huffington Post has an, ahem, interesting article by James Farwell on the Operation Rice Bowl, the plan to rescue the hostages using SFODD and other SOF assets.


    I’ve read pretty much all the books on the operation, and have attended two briefings on what happened (one by Colonel James Kyle, the other by Major Wade Ishimoto). Last, but not least, I spent 12 years flying MH-53 helicopters that were extremely similar to the RH-53Ds used for that operation.

    So, having said all that, here is my two cents: They were lucky that operation failed where it did. If they had lost another helo during the overnight laager or the exfil, or if anything else had gone wrong in any way closer to Tehran, it would have been a massacre. You have to read either Beckwith or Kyle’s book to comprehend the total [email protected]#K that Desert One was (and that was merely the first step in the mission). There was no opportunity to do a full rehearsal of the mission, the Marine pilots were latter-stage replacements for Navy pilots that weren’t trained for the mission, the RH-53s had gotten covered in corrosive fire-retardant foam on the carrier, and on and on.

    So, instead of being treated to a Mogadishu-like spectacle of dead Rangers and Delta operatives being dragged up and down the streets of Tehran, we managed to confine the damage to the lost helo and MC-130 that collided at Desert One. Still bad, but not the full-blown disaster that would have occurred if Colonel Beckwith had been foolish enough to proceed with that rapidly deteriorating operation.

    Thank god for Charlie Beckwith, when someone once asked him what he would have done if Carter had ordered him to proceed, he replied, “I would have faked radio problems and aborted the mission anyway.” Unlike that writer Farwell at the HP, Beckwith knew what was going to happen if he pressed on after the loss of the sixth helo.

    • Adam Garfinkle

      Agree, entirely. Of course, Argo is not about the failed rescue mission. But thanks for the insight al the same.

  • Cunctator

    An excellent critique of a movie and a lesson in the importance of having some historical awareness all wrapped into one text. I particularly liked the put-down of Affleck and others like him (including the current inhabitant of the White House, I would argue), whose ignorance has in no way stopped them from embracing the causes of parties who views are inimical to the West — and, paradoxically, to the freedoms that permit such nonsense as Arho to make it to the big screen. Oh well…what to do? All we can do is wait and hope that the public will slowly wake up and realise that the underlying argument in this text — i.e., get an education, think critically, and do not be lulled by cinema into false understandings — is a valuable one.

    • Adam Garfinkle

      Well, thank you, but: (1) recall that I did not pan the movie as such, which I think is pretty good once you set aside the dangling historical participles of the intro and closing comment–so I don’t think the movie as a whole is nonsense despite the infantile leftist bias of its creators; and (2) I don’t necessarily buy the intimation about Obama. You are referring, I guess (since you don’t say), to the accusation that he genuinely admires and supports the Muslim Brotherhood. I see no evidence for that. At best I see evidence that he’s trying to navigate a mess in which we have no real allies or reliable partners who are also candidates for rule in Egypt, and arguably other places as well.

      • Cunctator

        I think you are being too generous to Obama in that I do not think there is a great deal of “strategising” behind his foreign policy – at least I cannot see any. If there were, I would have expected a very different policy response to the vast uncertainties that accompanied the outbreak of the Arab Spring and to the Libyan and Syrian civil wars, not to mention Iran. That absence, I would suggest, might well be due to the very evident arrogance of the man-in-charge.

        that aside, does he admire the Muslim Brotherhood? Perhaps. Its grass roots approach to political mobilisation naturally must appeal to him. Does he endorse its agenda? I think the jury is still out, and that is itself rather worrying.

        In any event, I still very much enjoyed your article as I have many of your books since I first encountered them as a student nearly three decades ago. And, I still read what you write to gain a greater apptreciation of the topics you choose to write on. Thank you!

  • John Burke

    I would go farther to refute the one about the US and Britain engineering a coup to depose Mossadegh and put the Shah on the throne — the mythic scenario that is now embedded in history books and conceded even by conservatives — and it’s always the “democratically elected Mossadegh.”

    First, Missadegh was no more democratically elected than Hitler. The Shah was a constitutional monarch but one with considerable powers. He recognized Mossadegh as the rising popular choice and appointed him PM. Second, Mossadegh nationalized the oil companies and precipitated a period of political turmoil in which Mossadegh acted in an increasingly high-handed manner. Next, feeling his oats, Mossadegh called for new elections but using his control of the process, stopped the counting after enough of his supporters were in (!) claiming foreign agents’s interference. Thus “reelected,” Mossadegh demanded
    that the Shah surrender his constitutional right to
    appoint key military leaders. When the Shah refused,
    Mossadegh, resigned and let loose huge protests strikes and demonstrations with lots of street violence. The Shah caved and Mossadegh returned with control over the military top appointments. Thus, empowered, he demanded and got from parliament the ability to rule by “emergency” decree for six months. Later, he demanded and got this unconstitutional authority extended for another 12 months. Not surprisingly, many political actors did not much care for this and a lot of plotting, some involving the Brits, commenced. To solidify his essentially dictatorial power, in August 1953, Mossadegh staged a Napoleanic referendum to dismiss the parliament and formalize Mossadegh’s power to make laws by decree. Surprise! The referendum granted him this power with a 99% majority!! On August 16, the parliament was prorogued indefinitely. A few days later, the Shah gave his approval to the military plotters to overthrow Mossadegh with the help of MI6 and the CIA.

    Some “democratically elected” prime minister. IMO, the “coup” against Mossadegh could properly be understood as a counter-coup to reestablish the constitutional government. But it’s hopeless at this point to resist the narrative.

    • Adam Garfinkle

      You are right (some innocent typos notwithstanding). Your account is pretty much what any standard account, from 1953/54 on through the 1960s at least, said. Thanks for the effort it took to write it out. Note that my brief comment on Mossadegh doesn’t differ from yours; it’s just a lot shorter because as much detail as you bring would have too much lengthened and imbalanced the comment.

      It is frustrating to see hogwash become “common knowledge”, I know. I have written on similar outrages in the past–Black September, why SALT II was withdrawn from the Senate, and so on and so forth–as far as I can tell to no general effect whatsoever. But we must keep trying.

  • Kov

    Wow, semantics. “This is an utter lie which though true in essence is still sort of a lie”. Bill O’ Reilly would be proud. Thanks for putting these “Hollywood-types” in their place.

    • Adam Garfinkle

      It is not hard to understand the common phrase “true as spoken but false as intended” if a person understands the critical role of context in any lexical expression. It is not about “semantics.”

  • Gary L.

    Great essay – one minor correction . Even he has to know, one would hope, that it was the imminent beginning of the Reagan Administration that finally sprung the hostages on January 20, 1981, the day before Reagan’s inauguration..

    Reagan’s inaugeration took place on January 20. The hostages were released right after he completed his inaugeral address. The Iranian government did not want to release them until Carter was officially out of office.

    • Miguel Sanchez

      Your are wrong on that account. There are plenty of people, both in government and in the Reagan whitehouse who attest that the Reagan camp struck a deal to not release the hostages until after his inauguration. Although Congressional inquiry did not find such evidence, there is evidence to suggest otherwise. Similarly, I’d suggest the author hear read up on Operation Ajax regarding Mossedegh. Interesting how the author is willing to trust congressional inquiry when it suits his political storyline, but to refute and mold events to suit your needs. You are guilty of the same indiscretions you purport the movie takes. The somersaults you do with the nationalization of oil is amazing. I wonder wait contortions you might put yourself through to justify an invasion of Iraq.

  • Karl Selig

    Thanks for the article and especially Point #2, Adam. I had been under the impression that it was “Iranian oil”, but you’re right about British oil production assets and prior contracts.

    I’m disappointed, however, for your oversight of another major mistake with “Argo”. Near the beginning, the caption states “69 days after the embassy takeover,” yet Ben Affleck is driving through a D.C. that still has dozens of trees with fall foliage on them. It would have been mid January, when there are never trees with foliage on them. Of course, the cherry blossoms can bloom anytime of the year… Am I right, or am I right? (heh, heh)

    • Adam Garfinkle

      Ha! Great catch. I missed that. But of course this is not something to do with history, just typical Hollywood production craft. My wife enjoys pointing out when tv shows and movies have the moon rising or setting where it cannot possibly be. That happens a lot. We’re such indoors types these days that few people sense the weirdness.

  • Snorri Godhi

    A heartfelt thank you for this fisking.
    When I saw the movie, I instinctively discounted the voice-over introduction as Hollywood anti-American propaganda, but I had no idea of just how deceiving it was.
    (No problem about the Carter comment at the end: we all know that every politician compulsively blows his own fanfare.)

    WRT Mossadegh it seems to me that the most obvious parallel is to Mussolini: both ruling under a king, both appointed because the king thought they were expressing the popular will, both increasing their powers through referendums, and both economic nationalists.
    At the end, both were dumped by their king.

    • Adam Garfinkle

      You’re right about the parallels between Mossadegh and Mussolini, at least early in their chronologies. The cases diverge as time goes on, on account of the war in the case of Mussolini, and the coming of first the Germans and then the Allies–and the fact that Mussolini and his mistress are strung up on meat hooks by a mob, and, of course, the Italian King lasts only until 1946, when the Kingdom is abolished by referendum and Victor Emmanuel ends up, in all places, in Egypt.

  • Holt Ruffin

    Thanks, Adam Garfinkle, for challenging the widely accepted but false historical narrative in which Affleck et al. packaged Argo. It made me cringe when I saw the film, but how else would it have won Best Picture? Thanks also to Cunctator and John Burke for elaborating some crucial details about the Shah and the overthrow of Mossadegh. How rare it is to hear your voices!

    • Adam Garfinkle

      You’re right; no revisionism, probably no “best picture.”

  • Peter

    An outstanding pieces of antirevisionist history by Mr Garfinkle. The Mossadegh coup has been revised, retold and generally laundered over the past few decades, and this article puts it right.

    Mr Garfinkle points out that Mossadegh was not democratically elected, as there were no democratic elections in Iran (not at that time, nor since, arguably). Mossadegh can charitably be described as a crack pot, with a mania about Britain bordering on insanity.

    Arguments are sometimes made that the oil companies were enjoying excessive returns, at the cost of the Iranian government, and that Mossadegh’s action in more or less stealing these operations was no more than rough justice. Such arguments are puerile, and are grounded in a misunderstanding of what is a highly complex industry. As Mr Garfinkle points out, Iran could not have developed its own energy industry.

    It is also true that there was a long history of British involvement, not to say exploitation, in Iran. Certainly, by the middle of the 20th century, Britain was regarded vis a vi Iran, rather in the same way that Israel is regarded with respect to the Levant. While it is true that Britain did meddle in Iran prior to WW1, it could also be argued that British involvement in Iran during WW2 prevented a Soviet takeover. Mossadegh manipulated this anti-British sentiment, stoked it, and profited from it. He was one of Iran’s richest landowners, and like all do-gooding politicians, safely above the day-to-day challenges of the people he tried to govern. “Playing at politics” would be a charitable description of what he was up to.

    Mr Garfinkle is to be praised for exposing an incorrect, politically-driven narrative. The frightening aspect of all this is that the narrative ever existed in the first place, that it can be stated with a straight face (“The Persian Empire”, forsooth) and is so readily accepted as to pass 99% of reviewers right by.

    However, it is worth noting in passing one positive sign — that the film was made at all, and at least does not glorify or sympathise too closely with the thugs that raised the revolution and brought Iran to probably the worst 30 years in its history, periods of rule by Greeks and Parthians notwithstanding.

  • Kieth Nissen

    Very good. Both the article and the comments.

  • Cal

    All but one of my professors argue what you point out as false in point 3 as true. Thank you for correcting the point. Too bad the academy will teach the lie.

    • Adam Garfinkle

      Too bad indeed. Beware academics with ideological axes to grind.

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  • Miguel Sanchez

    I enjoy reading Mr. Garfinkle’s sanitized version of the transition of power in Iran. Much of this critique leaves out many important elements, and focuses on mundane suppositions (the Shah instituted the vote for woman….Is Affleck saying this is bad?). In an effort to say, “Mossedegh was a crazy power hungry nationalist who violated international law, and okay the CIA may have helped his exit a bit, but he wasn’t a good guy.” to trying to frame the Shah as a reformist, and forgiving him for a life of opulence because after all, he was a King you idiots. As I stated above he forgets about Operation Ajax, and conveniently forgets the entire Iran Arms for Hostages/Ollie North/delay of hostage release dog and pony show that occupied our nations attention for sometime back in 1987. But of course, Mr. North was a patriot. And it was never proven that Reagan’s people delayed the release, so don’t pay attention to any of this detail. I’ll simple offer that you envy Mr. Affleck because he was able to tell his altered version of the truth and you have not been able to get anyone to buy your altered version for production. Plenty of conservatives in Hollywood to make that movie.

    • Adam Garfinkle

      What an unusually lame comment.

      First, you mock my analysis with a tone that is manifestly unserious. Second, the reason I did not mention Ollie North and “arms for hostages” is that they have nothing to do with the period Argo and I focus on. Your intimation, without any evidence, that I was fine with all that is offensive. So who is cherry-picking?

      Speaking of which, there is zero evidence that the Reagan transition team tried to delay the return of the hostages. Why would I mention someone else’s baseless, lurid fantasy?

      As for your last bizarre accusation, let me just note as fact that I have worked as a Senate staffer, a federal commission in which the SectDef signed my paychecks, done consulting for the intelligence community and worked as a speechwriter for two Secretaries of State–and you think I envy Ben Affleck, and am all torn up because I’m not “in” with Hollywood? You are very funny, although I am pretty sure you don’t mean to be.

  • Will you be reviewing The Gatekeepers?

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  • Tom V

    With regards to point #1, as Iran was officially called the Imperial State of Persia under Shah Pahlavi’s rule isn’t it still more or less correct to name it the Persian Empire?

    For the rest I would just say in short that I find most of Mr. Garfinkle’s points on the whole unconvincing.

  • I think the broad outlines of the intro captured reasonably well how most Iranians would understand their history (your defence of colonial oil concessions tends to ignore the imbalance in negotiating power). Yes, I would like some more nuance in much of the history, particularly the immediate post-revolutionary period but I always want more nuance! And there is a limit to how much nuance one can pack into a concise 2-3 minute segment.

    What did surprise me, given your focus on greater historical accuracy, is how you ignored the major bloopers in the core of the film:
    – understating the Canadian role
    – the creation of fictional and silly events (the bazaar scene – the hostages never left the Canadian houses except for Christmas dinner and one or two other meetings, the airport scene – they simply walked through.

    That being said, we liked the movie and it captured the overall time, place and tension well.

    • First off, you’re simply wrong. Reza Shah changed the name of the country to Iran in 1935. No one in the 1970s called the country “The Imperial State” of anything. My point was that the territorial configurations of the three great Iranian empires were each vastly different from that of the Iranian state in the 20th century. Apparently, you missed that point.

      As to your not being convinced, well, that’s your problem. I don’t expect to convince those living in fact-free zones. And good luck with that…..

    • The “major bloopers” you mention I left alone as being within the ambit of legitimate artistic license. Film artists deserve some slack when they try their hand at this sort of thing, which is why I praise the verisimilitude of the movie once it really gets going. The framing front and back ends do not deserve that slack, in my view.

      Otherwise, you’re right to say that most Iranians would have agreed with the plot line of the introductory frame at the time. I am not so sure they still think that way, what with the United States being so popular in Iran as a result of the widespread hatred of the clerical regime. There is new research too, by the way, suggesting that clerical opposition to Mossadegh had more to do with his fall than anything the CIA or British intelligence did–two relatively new books make that argument.

      As to unequal negotiating power, well, the point stands that the Iranians at the time lacked the technical ability to find, extract, refine, transport and market oil. The negotiating imbalance was not imperial so much as civilizational, and the British did not force themselves on the Iranian leadership after 1906. It was a matter of mutual interest.

  • Peter

    Fellow readers and commenters:
    The Iran / Mossadegh / Shah / hostage question seems similar to the Chambers / Hiss question: no matter how much is written, how many verifiable, legitimate records are searched, and how many times historians and journalists beat through the piles of evidence, hearsay, opinion and, to be frank, cant, there are still some who produce red herrings, refuse to believe what is patently true, believe what has been demonstrated as unproven or incapable of demonstration, and maintain what can only be described as beliefs.

    The following beliefs bedevil the discussion on Iran, hostages, the Shah and related matters:
    1. Mossadegh was democratically elected (dealt with most thoroughly above, by John Burke and Mr Garfinkle.)
    2. The CIA / MI6 perverted the course of Iranian history in operation Ajax, when Boy Scout was put back on the throne.
    3. Most of the events of 1978-1979 can be explained as a result of 1, and 2.
    4. When an Iranian, Egyptian, Afghani (add as many as you wish) says “democratically elected” it means just the same as when the US board that supervises elections (whatever that may be) says “democratically elected president of the US”.
    5. Not exactly a belief, but some kind of an emotional reflex: “Alternatives to monarchies and dictatorships, as long as they do not wear polished boots, have little moustaches and as long as they are not caucasian, must be reflexions of the people’s will”.

    This is not to belittle thoughtful people who really do want to know the truth, and who have a genuine sympathy for the Shah’s opponents (talk to victims of Savak and it is difficult not to damn the entire Iranian state apparatus of the period), and this is not throwing up straw men. It is an appeal to stop making false analogies, imputing equivalency and pulling up red herrings such as Iran / Contra, which was not even a twinkle in Oliver North’s eye in 78/79 when the hostages were taken.

    And, why would anyone envy Ben Affleck? He has tried to do a decent piece of work, historical facts are not available to him, or do not fit exactly into the story he was trying to tell. Is this something to envy?

    • Very well stated. Thanks for contributing so masterfully to this conversation.

  • Mike Seybert

    “As to unequal negotiating power, well, the point stands that the Iranians at the time lacked the technical ability to find, extract, refine, transport and market oil. The negotiating imbalance was not imperial so much as civilizational, and the British did not force themselves on the Iranian leadership after 1906. It was a matter of mutual interest.”

    I wonder if that response doesn’t give short shrift to Andrew Griffith’s point about colonial oil concessions and the imbalance in negotiating power. If it’s true the British had the technical means and knowledge to exploit the resource, and the Iranians didn’t, just how long should we expect any people not to resent such power or indeed overthrow it? For roughly half a century, until Mossadegh, the British and others controlled the resource, and re-acquired control, I presume, for another decade or two (if that’s not true, please enlighten).

    Isn’t that the crux of the issue–whose resource is it? That doesn’t mean that Mossadegh was a democrat or some sort of hero or that the current regime isn’t worse than the Shah’s, but I wonder if you haven’t ignored to a degree the struggle for ownership of the oil. Again, that doesn’t mean Iranians are better off with the clerics’ control of the oil, but I doubt very much any Iranians, including the current regime’s opponents, would favor giving it back to Western powers.

    I don’t mean to ignore your criticisms of the Affleck film; they seem well grounded. But more of the context for Iranian hostility against the West might recognize even more nuance.

    • Sure, that’s true. As Iran became more modern and less politically passive under Reza Shah and then especially under Mohammed Reza Shah, what had been taken for granted became problematic. That’s why I said that the latter was in some ways the victim of his own successes. The point remains, now for the third time, however, that the potted history at the beginning of Argo treats this subject in a decontextualized and ideologically romantic way designed to make the West–Britain and the United States by association–evil enough to deserve having its diplomats taken hostage. That’s the revisionist logic I described at work.

  • Steve

    Excellent piece. A couple of things.

    First, the ’53 coup happened during the Cold War. We did what we thought we had do. This goes for all kinds of things across a wide range from fighting wars to persecuting Hollywood communist sympathizers. I wonder how things would be had McCarthy gone after Nazi sympathizers? Would we today be hearing about the evil ‘Nazi witch hunt’? Anyway, I thought that the geopolitical aspect to this was worth bringing up.

    Second, regarding the subject of lies in general, we live in an era of gnostic ideology where what is deemed to be true is what needs to be true in order to support the illusions of a second, entirely man-made reality. Thank you for the Crichton quote. Plato would not be surprised: was there ever a more tangible embodiment of the cave allegory than the flat-panel TV and the overstuffed sofa?

    • Thank you, and good points. As I have written elsewhere, if I had it to do all over again I would not hesitate to put the Shah back on his throne. Can you imagine how US diplomatic and military options in the region would have been constrained in crises had Iran been a Soviet proxy? Now there’s a counterfactual to raise a fright.

      And I love your equation of the cave allegory with flat-panel TVs and overstuffed sofas. That is downright masterful.

  • Alexandre

    Amazing text. I just disagree with the Milton’s vision about the people expected Sha act like a royalty, when he bring lunch from Paris by a concord…it ridiculous for all people in the world nowadays and in the past.

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