While Siena Saint James Is Not a Spy is a work of fiction, it does allude to certain historical events. Just like I gave some backstory on where the idea came from, I thought I’d also share a bit more about the history referenced in the book!
There is a lot of history in Siena Saint James Is Not a Spy. Between the art, the Israel trip, and Siena’s random references, going into each one just isn’t practical. If you want more detail on everything, definitely get the paperback vocabulary edition!
Nevertheless, I wanted to expand upon the Iran element since it’s not really taught in schools, yet it bears enormous significance to modern geopolitics.
Israel and Iran are such enemies today, you’d never know that when a horrific earthquake struck the Qazvin province of Iran in 1962 – killing more than 12,000 people – the Israelis were among the first on the ground to help.
Israel “airlifted in six tons of medicines, tents and blankets, while Iranian expatriates in Israel…raised large sums of money [for the earthquake victims],” according to IranWire.
This is even more remarkable when you consider the historical context. Israel had been a modern state for just 14 years, and many who lived there were Holocaust survivors who arrived with nothing. Having fled one genocide, they returned to Israel only to have their neighbors try to drive them into the sea in 1948 and 1956 (and 1967, and 1973…)
But Iran didn’t participate in those wars, and when tragedy struck, the Israelis remembered that. Did Israel have a selfish motive in wanting to solidify a friendship in the region? Sure. But regardless of the reason, Israel provided literal tons of foreign aid, and Iran was grateful.
The friendship continued to be mutually beneficial. When Iran was considering ways to rebuild Qazvin, they actually gave the contract to Israeli architects, who brought the area to life in ways never seen before. Israel had experience making previously uninhabitable land arable since a good percentage of the territory they were apportioned in 1948 was malaria-infested swampland (which they figured out how to drain) or desert (where they developed new irrigation methods). Using lessons they’d learned back home, the Israelis went to work in Qazvin.
Apparently the shah himself came to the grand unveiling of one of the towns they rebuilt, to celebrate the Israelis’ use of water where the land had long been barren.
Following the completion of reconstruction efforts in Qazvin, the region [began] to produce various fruits and vegetables in such abundance that Iran was exporting much of the new produce to neighboring countries. “The cost of tomatoes in Tehran had gone down to one-tenth of the price from before the earthquake,” he says, “because Israeli water technology and new methods of growing had been taught to the farmers in Qazvin.”
The rebirth of Qazvin didn’t happen overnight, so hundreds of Israelis actually lived there with their families for years. This naturally created friendships and relationships and everything else.
In Siena Saint James Is Not a Spy, Amir’s family lived in the Qazvin region during the earthquake, hence their positive attitude towards Israel!
When will we learn? For some reason we just love meddling with foreign governments, and it often comes back to bite us in the butt (ahem, Afghanistan).
The story is no different when it comes to Iran. A conspiracy theory for decades, the CIA now openly admits it helped the Brits overthrow Iran’s democratically-elected leader, Mohammad Mosaddegh, in 1953.
Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, who assumed control with Mosaddegh out of power, was much more westernized. This suited us since we were in our “anyone who isn’t super pro-America will definitely join the Soviet Union” phase (a probably justifiable fear).
At first, it seemed like the meddling paid off. The shah implemented massive reforms in 1963 to modernize Iran, which would quadruple the per capita income over the next twenty years, double national literacy rates, and make huge strides in giving women equal rights (by letting them vote and hold public office, for instance). Relations with Israel were good (hence the Qazvin partnerships referenced earlier), and this economic boom provided an additional strong friend in the region for us.
BUT there can only be one top dog. In consolidating power, the shah posed a direct threat to the traditional powers-that-be, the clerics. He undermined their authority in every way, bulldozing opposing political parties, creating a secret police to silence dissenters, and censoring all media opposition. And he posed more than a political threat; in creating secular divorce courts, for instance, he undermined their religious legitimacy.
And the shah’s authoritarian measures created enemies beyond the clerics. The Washington Post writes:
With all other forms of opposition cut off, the mosque became the focal point where a wide variety of dissident elements could coordinate their attacks on the shah…Students opposed to the repression and leftists wanting major changes in economic orientation all grouped under the umbrella of the conservative church, the one organization the shah has been unable to subdue.
On their own, none of the other dissident organizations could cause the government much trouble. Only the mosque, with its traditional hold on the masses, could do so.
All of this comes up during Siena’s argument with Reza at Lilith’s country house. I love that scene and must have rewritten it five times to get it just right!
There’s a valuable lesson to be learned in the 1979 revolution, and indeed, basically every revolution throughout history.
Overthrowing a bad leader does not guarantee the next one will be any better. In fact, chaos often creates a situation where the most ruthless party rises to the top, making the people even worse off than they were before!
That’s exactly what happened in Iran. By 1979, a strange alliance had formed between Islamists, communists, students, farmers…Basically, groups you wouldn’t normally expect to be politically aligned.
But align themselves they did, and the Ayatollah Khomeini quickly rose to the top of the power structure. When the shah fled the country in January of 1979 in response to months of increasing unrest, the ayatollah quickly seized control.
The ayatollah originally promised to uphold the constitution and protect democratic freedoms, but everything changed the moment he actually gained power. In his “elections,” 98% of people (lol) voted to create a theocracy governed by the laws of Islam, as he interpreted them.
The mood grew increasingly punitive. Statues of the shah and his family were desecrated and destroyed. The shah’s generals and supporters were executed. The people wanted to see the shah executed, too, but by then he was receiving cancer treatment in the United States. The U.S. wouldn’t return him, so students who supported the ayatollah stormed the U.S. Embassy.
A handful of employees escaped, but more than 50 Americans were held hostage for 444 days. The Iranians told the media they were treating the hostages with respect, but the hostages told a very different story when they were released. They were beaten, kept handcuffed and in solitary confinement for weeks on end. The captors told one man that they would kidnap and dismember his disabled son, then send “pieces” of the child to his mother.
U.S. President Jimmy Carter mounted a rescue, but it failed. Eight U.S. servicemen died in the attempt, and their bodies were paraded through the city. Khomeini was emboldened by Carter’s ineptitude; Iran’s apparent strength against a superpower rallied others behind his cause.
To make a long story short, violence breeds violence. Khomeini had already created the revolutionary guard to act as “guardians” of the revolution, essentially creating his own secret police. They tortured and killed people just like the shah’s secret police did. And the revolutionary guard took it a step further, involving children in ways I won’t go into here (read A Time to Betray if you want a firsthand account of life inside the revolutionary guard).
Khomeini made women’s rights all but nonexistent. It started with segregating schools and requiring women to wear the veil, escalating to a full-fledged morality police where improperly veiled women would be whipped 74 times. The marriageable age for girls was lowered to 13, and now it’s not uncommon for girls as young as 10 years old to be married off with a father’s permission. Child marriage is on the rise…I can’t keep going down this road or I’ll start fuming.
The Iran-Iraq war started in 1980, and Iran was so desperate to win that they recruited child soldiers. To clear minefields, they’d line children up, have them hold hands, and made them walk across. “You might blow up,” they admitted. “But don’t worry! If you do, you’ll go straight to heaven!”
Iran has been gunning for nuclear weapons for years now, and they are frighteningly close. Thanks to the Iranian nuclear deal of 2015 – when we provided billions of dollars in sanctions relief in return for the Iranians’ word that they’d play nice – they’re closer than ever. Can you guess where they put that money?
Thank God the Israelis keep sneaking in and blowing things up.
Bloomberg warns that Iran “has enriched uranium to 84% purity, just short of the 90% needed for a nuclear weapon…how long it would take to amass enough weapons-grade uranium for a bomb if Iran went full-speed ahead — may be less than two weeks.”
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is facing a domestic crisis back home, which is rather concerning since he’s basically single-handedly been preventing Iran from blowing the rest of us to smithereens since 2015.
All of this, as you know, is where the bad guys in Siena Saint James come from!
This post is getting quite long, so I’ll wrap it up by saying that the people of Iran have been protesting for months after Mahsa Amini, an Iranian woman, was arrested and probably beaten to death for wearing her veil “improperly.”
More recently, over 1,000 schoolgirls have been poisoned. The regime is promising the people justice, but it’s pretty clear that they’re behind it, or their supporters are.
Honestly, I don’t know what we should do about it. Our meddling rarely works, and it’s morally dubious to boot. The CIA shouldn’t be interfering with foreign elections.
But it’s hard to stand by while people fight for freedom. Personally, I think any foreign policy we’re willing to own up to (once it’s operationally safe to do so) is A-OK. Bomb the reactors and nuclear factories, by all means. Sanctions relief is off the table. But a good rule of thumb is, if you have to lie to the American people about it for decades, it’s probably not a good idea. It’s hard to understand how the CIA can get away with stuff like that.
Beyond that, we also have a lot of power as private individuals. We can absolutely express our support and donate and do anything else we feel called to do.
But at the end of the day, the people of Iran have a right to determine their own future. There’s no need for history to repeat itself.
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