An American in Iran: Interview with Michael Zirinsky

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Michael Zirinsky attended Oberlin college in Ohio, majoring in government, with an emphasis on international politics. He received his M.A. in international relations at the American University in Washington, DC. Later, he finished his Ph.D. in modern European history at the University of North Carolina. 

An American in Iran: Interview with Michael ZirinskyAll of his work addresses Western relations with the Middle East. He began to focus on Iran’s relations with the West at the time of the 1979 revolution. He has written extensively on the role of the Presbyterian missionaries in Iran.

Michael lived in Iran with his family in the late 1950’s into the 60’s and finished his high school at the Community School in Tehran. 

A retired professor of  history at Boise State University in Idaho, he writes,  “Let me make myself clear: I am not a historian who believes only in studying the past for its own sake. Enjoyable as it is to learn about the past, it seems to me that one of the chief reasons to study history is to learn how we got the world we inhabit.”

Here is the interview: 

How did you become interested in Iran?

In 1956, when I was 13 years old, my father, an attorney for the New York district office of the US Army Corps of Engineers, was assigned to the Corps’ newly opened “Gulf District” in Tehran. My family remained based in Tehran for six years, and I had my entire high school experience there, at Community School (Madraseye-Amrika’i), graduating in 1960 before going to college at Oberlin, in Ohio. My years in Tehran were literally a life-altering experience.

wjzqe7nz.jpgTableau of the Corps of Engineers’ Tehran Office

Community School was the last American Presbyterian mission school in Iran, originally established in 1936 for the children of American missionaries and as such permitted to continue to exist when Reza Shah’s government nationalized all foreign schools in 1940. The school rapidly became an international school “for English-speaking children,” preparing its students for matriculation at American colleges and universities. Shortly before I arrived in 1956, the school was physically transferred from the missionaries’ “central compound” – now the base of the Evangelical Church of Iran – to the former grounds of the American Hospital (erected in 1890), which had become redundant after World War II with the development of modern medicine and excellent hospitals by Iranians.


You have written a number of articles on the Presbyterians in Iran. What is their significance and how did they contribute to Iranian society?

American missionaries first came to Iran about 1830, more than 50 years before the mission was transferred to the Presbyterian Board in New York, a half century before Iran and the USA exchanged diplomatic representatives. The mission therefore was the oldest and most durable American relationship with Iran. These missionaries worked selflessly and quietly in Iran for more than a century before the US government began to engage with Iran in 1942, for almost a century and a quarter before the coup of 1953 led to massive increase of American activity. The apparent contradiction of the slogan “down with USA” and the frequently noted admiration of Iranians for Americans can in part be explained as the legacy of good will toward Americans established by the work of the Presbyterian missionaries.

Although originally the purpose of the mission was narrowly to encourage the rejuvenation of the Church of the East (the Assyrian community) from a base in Urumia, the missionaries quickly established schools with American-style curricula – including western languages and modern science – and hospitals. Schools and hospitals, the two secular legs of the missionary tripod of preaching the Gospel, education, and medicine, were open to all communities and were patronized by Muslims, Armenians, and Jews as well as Assyrians. Since the mission existed at the express permission of the Iranian government, which was unwilling to permit proselytization of Muslims, the secular work loomed largest in what the missionaries did. As such, particularly after the mission spread its work throughout northern Iran, the Presbyterians were an important vector in Iran’s modern integration with the rest of the world, especially before the development of modern roads, railroads, and air services.

The most durable institution established by the Presbyterian missionaries in Iran was Alborz High School, a video about which has recently been posted on YouTube by the Iranian government’s Press TV. Alborz was originally called by its founder, Dr. Samuel Jordan, The American College of Tehran, a name changed to Alborz College of Tehran when the Iranian government required Iranian names for all foreign schools in Iran. Before it was nationalized, Alborz was chartered by the Regents of the State of New York to award baccalaureate degrees, the last of which were issued in 1940. Since then the institution has been a premier secondary school, both under the Pahlavi monarchy and the Islamic Republic.

Community School in the late 1950s; the building was erected in 1890 as the American Hospital.Community School in the late 1950s; the building was erected in 1890 as the American Hospital (photo credit: Michael Zirinsky)

In a 2005 lecture series, in Manchester, England,  you spoke about a certain U.S. Consul in Iran, namely Robert Imbrie. Can you tell us more about him and how he died?

Imbrie trained as a lawyer and served in the Great War as an ambulance driver on the Salonika front, with the French Army. After the war he joined the US consular service, serving in Petrograd (where he was declared persona non-grata by the Bolsheviks), in Finland, and at Istanbul. In all three places he apparently was an intelligence agent, acting against the Soviet government. And, according to the US diplomatic archives, which I consulted for my IJMES article about him, that was his purpose when the State Department assigned him to Iran, initially to Tehran but ultimately intended to be posted to Tabriz.

He arrived in Tehran in the midst of a dual crisis in Iran’s political history, Iran’s first effort to break the British monopoly control over Iran’s oil resources by establishing an American oil concession in the north of Iran, and Reza Pahlavi’s failed effort to create a republic in Iran, as Mustafa Kemal had recently done in Turkey. As best as I could determine from the American and British diplomatic records of the events, Reza Khan’s government sought to deflect public opinion from its failures by encouraging a pogrom against the Baha’i community. This was intended to cement Reza’s promise to the Shia hierarchy that he would never abolish the monarchy, by encouraging their prejudice against the Baha’is as schismatics.

Imbrie, an avid photographer who had previously published in The National Geographic Magazine, set out to photograph a saqqa-khaneh in Tehran which had become a focus of this anti-Baha’i agitation. There the crowd took him and his bodyguard, Melvin Seymour (an oilfield roughneck ostensibly a consular prisoner, convicted of assaulting his foreman by a consular court) for Baha’is and assaulted them. They were injured and rescued by the police who took them to a clinic for medical attention. There they were attacked again. The crowd had grown larger and more violent, augmented by soldiers from the nearby Cossack barracks. Seymour survived this second attack. Imbrie died.

The US government protested, extorted compensation from the Iranian government, and insisted on the executions of scapegoats. In the course of discussing this matter, both internally and to members of Congress, the record records that one of the US arguments for death penalties was the old racist cliché, “human life as such is not greatly valued by orientals.” Context suggests that probably Allan W. Dulles, then State Department Near Eastern Affairs chief, wrote this unsigned minute.


You have indicated in your paper that Imbrie was sent by Allen Dulles to Iran to gather information about the Soviets. You write that  Imbrie “Was a personal friend and special agent of Allen Dulles.” Was Imbrie in fact killed because he was an intelligence officer or was he killed because they thought he was a Bahai?

The crowd took him for a Baha'i.  As far as I can tell, no one on the street that day had any idea he was American, much less that as Consul he was tasked to work against Soviet interests.


You mention that Reza Shah used Imbrie’s murder “ To cement its faltering grip on power.” What do you mean by that?

Before Imbrie was beaten to death, opinion in Tehran, as recorded by foreigners, held that Ahmad Shah Qajar would soon replace Reza Khan’s government. Reza’s power depended first on his Cossacks, who had enabled him to seize Tehran in 1921, and then on the support of the notables, including the clergy, who previously had become disillusioned with earlier Qajar governments inability to protect Iranian sovereignty. Before the Great War, Tehran had managed to maintain independence by balancing foreign interests against each other, most notably playing the Russians against the British. But after the Anglo-Russian Agreement of 1907, and especially after the outbreak of the 1914 war, in effect Iran had become an Anglo-Russian condominium. With the collapse of Russia in revolution in 1917, Britain alone remained in occupation and control, especially after the capitulation of Germany in November 1918.

Iran sought to break Britain’s stranglehold on Iran at the Paris Peace Conference in 1919, but despite support from France and the USA its delegation was refused a seat. Subsequently Tehran sent Husain Ala as Minister to Washington, intending to reestablish the Shuster treasury mission of 1911, which had been “strangled” by Anglo-Russian cooperation. In the event Shuster demurred and recommended the hiring of Arthur Millspaugh as financial advisor.

Britain worked to make its control permanent by negotiating the 1919 Anglo-Persian Agreement, for which it paid Iran’s negotiators more than 131,000 pounds sterling. The Agreement would have reduced Iran’s sovereignty to a status much like that of India or Kuwait. Iran failed to ratify the agreement. Despairing of maintaining its troops in Iran due to financial exigencies, London ordered evacuation. British agents in Iran, fearing chaos and Bolshevism, encouraged Reza Khan to seize power in 1921, with his Cossacks marching from Qazvin to Tehran in British boots and carrying British arms.

In Washington, Husain Ala sought an American oil concession for the northern territories exempt from the concession of the Anglo-Persian Oil Company, and bank loans to replace the loan promised by the British in the defunct 1919 agreement. This policy was sharply opposed by both Britain and the Soviets. Rumors circulating in Tehran after Imbrie’s death blamed both the British and the Soviets for encouraging the murder.

Reza Khan, as he still was, saw this crisis as an opportunity. He managed to encourage all elements –the clergy, secular patriots, the foreign legations, the Millspaugh mission, perhaps even some supporters of the Qajar monarchy – to believe that his government was the only conceivable alternative to anarchy. Consequently his government survived, and he was able to manipulate the Majles into calling a Constituent Assembly, which deposed the Qajars and made him the first Pahlavi Shah.


Can you compare the killing of the Russian emissary, Alexander Griboyedov in Tehran in 1829 to what happened to Imbrie some one hundred years later?

Not in any detail. But as Ervand Abrahamian and others have noted, “the crowd” is an important feature in Iranian politics.

Since the establishment of the modern Iranian state by the Safavids, the Shia clergy have been an essential aspect of the Iranian political scene. Their relationship with the secular authorities has been mutually supportive, and since the Islamic revolution they have become the secular authorities. In both 1829 and 1924, in my view, secular authorities encouraged the clergy to stir up crowds to help cement the power of the government. In 1829 the Russians were seen as the foreign danger; this danger was blunted by the attack on the Russian Legation. In 1924 the British were the perceived danger, and the Baha’is were to be the scapegoats. Imbrie’s death in this sense was an accident as well as a mistake. But in my view, in both cases the rousing of the crowd was a deliberate effort by government to emphasize the necessity of maintaining its power.


What is your best memory from the time you were in Iran?

This is hard for me to put into a few words. My first impressions, which have endured, were that Iran was a beautiful country full of beautiful, welcoming people, eager to be a part of a world much larger than the New York suburbs I had just left or the Tehran which was to be my adolescent home. In this context I recall an early evening during the summer of 1961 when I was 18. My mother’s eldest brother Arthur had come to visit us from the States. I took him that day to visit our local bazaar where people thought he was Iranian and were surprised when I answered their questions in my terrible “Farsi-amrika’i.” We stopped at a bakery and watched the hanging of the loaves of naan-e sangak on pegs on the wall, hot from the oven. The aromas and tastes were magnificent, and in my mind they evoked as well Arthur’s youth in the “melting pot” New York of the era of World War I. The experience lives in my head as a delicious moment of brotherhood and peace. 


Turning to today, what we are seeing in the US,  is there a surge in violence since Trump began his bid for the presidency? There is a lot of anti-Semitism and Islamophobia in this country. Mosques have been burned down and Jewish cemeteries have been desecrated. Can you compare this to the desecration of Baha’i cemeteries in Iran?

There is much in our history that seems to violate the founding ideal of the Republic, “That all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.”

Is there a surge in violence now? Certainly media reports suggest so. Mr. Trump’s words seem to encourage people who disagree with “equal protection of the laws.” Mosques have been attacked. Cemeteries have been vandalized. Murders have been committed. Responsible reporting of these horrors has been deprecated by the White House as “fake news.”

But I also note that casual anti-Semitism in America never went away. Many American Christians claim that “some of their best friends are Jews,” and I have overheard 7- 11 clerks complaining of customers trying to “Jew them down.” Also, as I told students in the early 1990s, after the “Red Menace” of the Soviet Russia and Red China had dissipated, as if by magic a “Green Threat” – Islam – emerged in public discussion. American hostility to Islam (a remnant of the Crusades) and anti-Semitism (implicit in much Christian theology) is not new. These horrors did not begin with Trump.

Nevertheless, I do not think that the current viciousness in American public life, should be compared to Iran’s treatment of its Baha’i population. Whatever encouragement America’s nasty people take from Mr. Trump’s rhetoric, there has been to my knowledge no official suggestion that anti-Islamism and anti-Semitism are licit, legitimate, or desirable. In Iran, on the other hand, anti-Baha'i sentiments and activism is officially sanctioned.   Iran has yet to come to terms with the contradiction between this practice and the tolerant idealism it sees in one of its founding documents, the Cyrus cylinder, which recognized the right of all subjects of the King to worship their own gods in peace. 


Do you still teach? 

I retired from teaching at the beginning of 2012. In my 39 years at Boise State, I considered myself a “utility outfielder” in the history department, responsible for courses in the history of “western civilization,” modern France, modern Germany, twentieth century Europe, the Middle East, the history of Islam, as well as the history of Iran, particularly in the modern era. Looking backward at my career, I am thankful that my broad preparation in the history of America, Europe, Islam, and Iran has given me insight that perhaps a narrower focus might have overlooked. I hope that my Iran-based understanding that all humans live in a single world was reflected in my teaching. 

Maidan-e Tajrish:  Mercedes buses and automobiles, and laborers for hire for 5 tomans per day.   Summer 1961Maidan-e Tajrish: Mercedes buses and automobiles, and laborers for hire for 5 tomans per day. Summer 1961 (photo credit: Michael Zirinsky)


Near Bazaar-e Tajrish, IranNear Bazaar-e Tajrish (photo credit: Michael Zirinsky)