White's statements were front-page news in the International Herald Tribune and big news around the world. The next day, Walter Annenberg, a wealthy Republican backer, placed a full page ad in the New York Times denouncing her. Also that day, the students in the embassy asked to meet her.
White was allowed into the embassy, where she met the students but not the hostages. Some of the students had studied in the United States and very much liked the United States, just not its government's interference in Iran. During her meeting with the students, a mullah came into the room briefly. He clearly exercised authority over the students without actually holding their loyalty. The relationship fit with accounts of the mullahs having co-opted an action they did not initiate. The students told White they wanted the Shah returned to stand trial. They wanted his money returned. They gave White some of the many documents they were piecing back together following their shredding by the embassy staff. In Argo we see photographs of the six employees who escaped being pieced back together. In Waking Up in Tehran we learn that the documents given to White included U.S. plans to bring the Shah to the United States three months before he was actually brought there for medical care, as well as documenting the CIA's presence in the embassy.
The hostage-takers in White's telling were, among other things, an early version of WikiLeaks. They "continued to publish reconstructed Embassy documents, eventually producing 54 volumes of evidence of CIA operatives ... manipulating, threatening and bribing world leaders, rigging foreign elections, hijacking local political systems, shuffling foreign governments like decks of cards, sabotaging economic competitors, assassinating regional, national and tribal leaders at will, choreographing state-to-state diplomacy like cheap theater."
White had herself become a news story. She stumbled upon "a life-size photo of me near the gates at the front of the U.S. Embassy, looking rather baffled, my fist raised tentatively into the air. I felt awkward about it, not least because an American reporter had urged me to strike that pose. I'd asked the desk clerk where he'd gotten such a thing. He told me that someone had apparently enlarged the news photo into life size billboards that were being posted all around Tehran -- at bus stations, the railway station, the Bazaar, and various other spots -- all the way from Shoosh Square in the south up to Damavand. I'd begged the Manager to take it down and he had obliged."
I asked White about Argo, and she said she'd watched it three times and taken notes. "As history," she told me, "it's worse than sloppy. The depiction of the students at the embassy is way off, as are several other thing. Public hangings were over with long before November 1979. They occurred mostly in February 1979, and were mostly the upper echelons of SAVAK. The six Americans were being rescued in January 1980, almost a year later. Those things were not happening. Just the opposite -- the Resistance was underway."
White finds fault with other details: "Even the suggestion that the students were using 'kids' or 'sweat shop children' to piece together the shredded embassy documents is wrong. They had high school and college students doing it, mostly their own younger brothers and sisters. Kids of the age shown would not yet have been able to read Farsi, much less English! There is no way such children could piece together those documents."
White objects to the general depiction of ordinary Iranians in the film: "Most troubling is the depiction of people in the Bazaar going after the Americans. That would never happen. Anyone visiting Iran would be treated as a 'guest.' The tradition of 'the guest' is so deep in Persian culture -- dating back to the caravans of the silk road -- that it reaches almost absurd proportions. But it precludes any such behavior as that depicted in the Argo Bazaar. Iranians, unlike Americans, don't blame the people for their government's policies. Iranian men, in particular, would never approach an American woman that way, with such aggression, and speak about politics. They might politely inquire why they were in Iran, what they thought of the country, and they might even offer them tea! They would never behave as depicted.
"Likewise, the banging on the car windows. On the contrary, cars were so thick in Tehran that crowds could not be in the streets at the same time. Also, the burning cars were long gone by January of 1980! In Argo, the crowds are shown shouting 'down with the Shah' long after the Shah was overthrown. The crowds in the streets were, increasingly -- as in my book -- from the Resistance!"
White continued: "There's another troubling depiction in Argo that I question, but I have no way to prove this. It's the scene showing mock executions. I doubt they happened. The reason I doubt this is that when the hostages were released, they had one ticker tape parade (as noted in my book) and virtually disappeared -- no talk shows, no endless interviews, no lecture circuits. Why? Wouldn't Washington have wanted to publicize the worst features of their ordeal? If the hostages had really been subject to that level of torture, why keep silent about it? A) Reagan's deal with the Ayatollahs? B) they weren't tortured. Both A and B would be my guess. The students voted on their policies. They were a mixed group, but torture had been ruled out. I believe that is the case. Captivity, obviously, is a human rights violation, but torture is something else. Again, however, I have no way to prove this definitively."
In the spring of 1980 Iran began bombing the Kurds in northern Iran with U.S.-made planes, and soldiers began deserting to the Kurdish side. The Iranian military attacked Tehran University, killing unarmed students, advancing a plan to islamicize the curriculum. The hostage crisis dragged on. President Carter launched an unsuccessful rescue mission.
"Interestingly," writes White, "most people suspected the truth even though they couldn't prove it: that the hostage situation was being deliberately prolonged -- and not by the students inside, but by those unseen forces typically referred to as 'they.' Why were the negotiations taking so long? The students had continued, of course, to print and publicly display copies of the embassy's classified documents, many of them meticulously re-assembled, pieced together strip by shredded strip. They revealed decades of clandestine CIA operations throughout Eurasia and the Middle East, conducted primarily out of this particular embassy in Tehran -- precisely the interventions and atrocities against Third World peoples described by John Stockwell's book. They also revealed ties with CIA on the part of certain powerful Iranian clerics dating back to the 1953 coup ". The students boldly sought publicity for the documentary evidence, but their efforts were repeatedly blocked by the regime. ... [I]f such documentary evidence existed and was published, it would destroy the current regime's credibility overnight. The students were being subjected to a news 'blackout,' and no wonder. Western media, for the most part, however, continued to refer to the embassy takeover as an action of Iran's government, something done by the regime, rather than by its critics, or by 'Iranians' as a whole. Negotiations to resolve the crisis were necessarily between the two governments, reinforcing the perception that the regime had initiated and endorsed the action -- instead of frantically trying to block it at every turn, fearing what would be revealed."
The next unusual request for a meeting that White received came from Khomeini's grandson. She agreed to meet with him. He asked her if Carter would lose the coming election if the hostages were still not freed. "We don't like Carter," the grandson told her.
The day Reagan was inaugurated, the hostages were freed. That week massive roundups of activists began in Iran. Crackdowns targeted anyone and anything "insufficiently Islamic." Arbitrary arrests were followed by executions of "infidels," including poets and leaders of the revolution. A May Day rally in 1981 was attacked. Pro-democracy and anti-Shah activists were going to prison in large numbers.
That summer, two men began standing all day, every day on White's street and watching her house. She and her husband made plans to leave for the United States. They attended one more protest, an anti-Khomeini rally on June 20th. Then things really got interesting. I'll leave it to you to read the book. I'll mention only this: White herself was the victim of a mock execution. She knows in a very direct way that mock executions happened and how and by whom they were employed.
She also knows what war is and what sacrifices in the struggle against war involve. The reason the United States should stop threatening war against Iran today is not that the United States has mistreated and abused Iran in the past. It is not related to the quality of Iran's current government. It is entirely related to the evil of war. There is nothing worse than war that war can be used to prevent -- not even greater war, something that war has always made more -- not less -- likely. Stephen Kinzer, in his book All the Shah's Men, relates a conversation he had with another grandson of Mossadegh:
"He told me that a few weeks before the 1953 coup, he attended a reception at the home of an Iranian diplomat in Washington and overheard the wife of Colonel Abbas Farzanegan, a military attache' who was on the CIA's secret payroll, boast that her husband was involved in a plot that would soon make him a cabinet minister. The next morning Mahmoud Mossadegh cabled this intelligence home to his grandfather. 'Later on, after the coup, I asked him if he had received my cable. He said, "Of course I did." When I asked him why he hadn't done something about it, he told me there was nothing he could have done. He said he knew full well that this coup was coming. His choice was to surrender or arm his supporters and call them out to civil war. He hated to think about giving up everything he believed in, but the other alternative was out of the question.'"
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