While planning a trip to Florida in 2011 to see my ailing mother-in-law, I realized that the Department of Motor Vehicles had misspelled my last name. Instead of Khosravi, they spelled it Khosrui.
It might be a minor issue to most people but having a Middle Eastern name in today’s xenophobic climate I naturally became paranoid. Having heard of others being arrested and deported to a rendition camp in some country where the US had outsourced this type of practice, just because their name was similar to a known terrorist, made me feel certain that I needed to have this mistake corrected immediately.
A trip to the DMV was my immediate plan. They told me that they needed proof of my identity before they could issue a corrected driver’s license. The procedure was worthy of a documentary film in itself. To make the correction, I needed documents to prove my identity. Each document had points attached to it. A passport, for example, had 6 points, so did a birth certificate, while a credit card had only 2 points, and so on. In total, I needed 16 points.
So, I began an online search for proofs of my identity. That is when I discovered my father’s true identity.
While I searched for my father’s name, I came across several books describing his role in the history of modern Iran. Suddenly, all that had seemed certain to me — what I had been told about him — was turned upside down. This revelation, besides being shocking, opened up a wealth of information about his role vis-a-vis Reza Shah, the first Pahlavi king of Iran who ruled from 1925 until 1941. In that year, after the Anglo-Soviet invasion of Iran, Reza Shah was forced to abdicate in favor of his son, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. The latter is the king most people know of when the Shah of Iran is mentioned.
Until then, what I knew about my father was that he had been a general and a Minister of Finance under Reza Shah, that the Iranian paper currency had his signature on it, and that he had visited the US in 1944 where I was born. What I learned subsequently from those books on Iran of the Pahlavi era, however, painted a surprisingly troubling picture of his role.
I have been a filmmaker for most of my adult life. It occurred to me then that making a documentary film about the history of modern Iran by way of a personal memoir would literally be a documentary I was born to make.
To say that my father and I weren’t very close is an understatement. In fact, the most memorable time of my life happened on August 19th, 1953, outside of the front door of my aunt’s house in Tehran, where I had been living away from my father. On that day, upon hearing loud shouting outside, I rushed to see what was going on. I opened the front door, which separated the house’s courtyard from the street. Though young (I was only nine-years old), I had seen many demonstrations before in Tehran but none quite like this one. The anger expressed by a stick-wielding mob greatly disturbed me.
Not to mention that all this mayhem was happening barely 20 feet away from where I was standing while I had no idea why. Suddenly, an older man in the crowd raised his fist and shouted Mossadeq. Quickly, a crowd of men surrounded him and started to beat him up and then they threw his lifeless body on top of a bus parked nearby. Then, a shot hit the ground next to me to my right. In the distance, I saw tanks moving towards where I was standing. At the same time, across the street, people were looting Mossadeq’s house. Some were carrying mirrors, others pipes, sink faucets, mattresses, and other household items. The tanks and truckloads of soldiers, now alongside a cheering crowd, passed by me and turned right into the street where Mossadeq lived.
That was August 19, 1953, the day the CIA staged the coup that overthrew the democratically elected Prime Minister of Iran, Dr. Mohammad Mossadeq. His major sin: the nationalization of the Anglo-Persian Oil Company, the British oil company that had been exercising monopoly control over Iran’s oil since oil was discovered in 1908. The coup was staged under the pretext that Mossadeq was a communist and had a cozy relationship with the Russians. There was no mention of oil.
Let’s rewind to the beginning of the 20th century in Iran, then known as Persia.
When Reza Shah, the first Pahlavi king, was sixteen years old, he joined the Persian Cossack Brigade. He also served in the Iranian Army, where he gained the rank of gunnery sergeant. In 1911, he was promoted to First Lieutenant. By 1915 he was promoted to the rank of Colonel. This was also the year my father served under him as a regimental bugle boy.
On 14 January 1921, the commander of the British Forces in Iran, promoted the then Reza Khan to lead the entire brigade. Reza Khan led his detachment of the Cossack Brigade to Tehran and forced the dissolution of the previous government and of the Qajar dynasty.
My father played an active part in the 1921 coup as an officer serving under Reza Khan’s command. The British favored Reza Khan’s move and a creation of a centralized power that could act as a bulwark against Bolshevik influence in Iran and better secure British control of India as well.
Reza Khan declared himself Shah of Iran in 1925 and became the first king of the Pahlavi dynasty.
At this time my father was close to Reza Shah and was promoted to head the Shah’s personal bank, Pahlavi Bank. Soon after that Reza Shah started to transfer much of the oil royalties that Britain had agreed to give to Iran (Persia at the time) into his personal accounts abroad. In this way, my father became an important aid to Reza Shah’s extraction of wealth from Iran.
Of course, extracting the wealth of Iran had begun earlier in the century after a British prospector, William D’Arcy, discovered oil in 1908 and the Anglo-Persian Oil Company (APOC) was founded in 1909. In 1914, the British government purchased 51% of the shares of the company, effectively nationalizing it. Mossadeq nationalized Iran’s oil industry in 1951 after a long list of grievances against the company had spawned strong nationalistic sentiments inside Iran. He established the National Iranian Oil Company. However, the UK joined by the US blocked the sale of Iran’s oil aiming to strangulate its economy and destabilize Mossadeq’s government leading up to the August 19, 1953 coup which removed Mossadeq from power and restored the authority of the Shah. In 1954, the oil issue was settled in favor of a Consortium of western oil companies effectively reversing the nationalization of oil in Iran. In that same year, the British company was renamed the British Petroleum Company (BP).
Clearly, none of the above information was known to me as a 9-year-old boy. Today, much of the public in the US remains unaware of the same. So it was that I gave myself the task of making a documentary film through which I could narrate not only my personal biography but also tell a pivotal story about the making of modern Iran and its relationship with the US.
Cambiz Amir-Khosravi is an award-winning video producer whose work have won prizes at various film festivals and are part of the permanent collections of major museums. Libraries, and universities, such as the Museum of Modern Art, The Kitchen in NYC, Yale, Harvard, and Columbia. For more information, please visit: cambizkhosravi.com