Peter Finn is The Washington Post’s national security editor and the co-author of “The Zhivago Affair: The Kremlin, the CIA and the Battle Over a Forbidden Book.”
By Cyrus M. Copeland
350 pp. 27.95
Iran’s revolutionary courts seem an unlikely venue for a sometimes-comic set-piece — this one involving a hapless American defendant facing charges that he was a spy for the “Great Satan” and his royalist Iranian wife who quotes the Koran so she can out-imam the cleric-prosecutor. This formidable woman also manages to charm the judge and befuddle witnesses, including a couple of revolutionary guards. And following the inevitable guilty verdict, her audacity obtains an unimaginably light sentence: 20 years of home detention, not death by execution.
Her husband, after all, had scrawled “Death to Khomeini” on the wall of his cell.
Cyrus M. Copeland recounts this episode in “Off the Radar,” a warm, absorbing and sometimes strange memoir of his bicultural family. It is a quest to rediscover his late father, Max Copeland, the first American to be tried in Iran after the 1979 revolution, when the shah was toppled, an Islamic republic was established and U.S.-Iranian relations were poisoned by a wealth of mutual sins.
Max’s ordeal, until now at least, was a very tiny footnote to the 444-day hostage crisis and to the cases of all the other Americans who have since found themselves in those unforgiving revolutionary courts, most recently our Washington Post colleague Jason Rezaian. Through his father’s private writings, his mother’s memories, and his own recollections and investigation, Copeland, a former advertising executive in New York, has delved imaginatively into his family’s historical drama. Joining him requires some blind faith. In the revolutionary court scene, for instance, Copeland quotes the judge, the prosecutor and the witnesses without apparent benefit of a transcript. And ultimately the reader has to reckon with the fact that this is a work of reconstructed memory, 35 years on.
Copeland’s exploration of his family’s past is partly animated by his acceptance of the original Iranian allegation that his father was, in fact, a spy. “You know, of course, your father was a CIA agent,” his mother, Shahin Maleki Copeland, tells him as the story begins.
By this, I think she means that he was a CIA officer under nonofficial cover, not that he actually assisted the agency in some informal way while overseas. But it’s never entirely clear, and the question of Max’s relationship with the CIA tumbles through the narrative like a bad penny.
For multiple reasons, I came away convinced that Max was not in the CIA, but — given some of the logic at work here — that may just make me part of the conspiracy to hide his true status. At one point, the author notes that Max lived “a mere forty miles from Langley,” as if that were evidence of something.
Copeland tracks down the son of a former CIA agent who was in Iran at the same time as his father. The son also works for the agency and said he would like to talk about the “old days.” I would have thought this a lead worth pursuing, but instead Copeland takes it as “the least smooth way of asking someone on an intelligence-gathering date.” He gives the CIA employee an e-mail address he “rarely used, then promptly deleted it.” “In the days following I noticed a strange clicking sound on my phone line,” Copeland writes. “Was it the CIA — or my paranoia?” In the end, I found it best to smile at the conspiratorial thread rather than pull at it; there’s so much more to enjoy in this piquant, kaleidoscopic story.
Max was from Oklahoma and met Shahin, from a prominent Iranian family, after they both arrived in Washington in the fall of 1957, as students at Georgetown (Shahin) and George Washington (Copeland). Max went on to manage a program that sent American academics to teach in the shah’s Iran, and eventually the country’s allure drew him, too.
The couple married and in 1974 moved to Shiraz — “the City of Wine and Roses” — more than 500 miles south of the capital, Tehran. The author’s mother was a principal at an international school, and his father worked for Hughes Aircraft, one of many American defense contractors in the country.
Max loved Shiraz. He hunted in the nearby mountains and on weekends sat with merchants at the bazaar. He converted to Islam. He had “only a cursory knowledge of Farsi” but made up for it “with curiosity and enthusiasm.” This uneventful but pleasant existence was upended when Ayatollah Khomeini landed in Tehran in 1979. The revolution caused most expatriates to flee. At Mehrabad Airport, “there is an exodus of blue-eyeds and their Samsonites rushing toward the gate, clutching their tickets,” Copeland writes. “We are half-Iranian. We stay.”
Max was hired to close out the affairs of some of the expatriates who had worked for Westinghouse, another defense contractor. He shipped home their household goods or sold them off to pay their debts to landlords and others. He did a nice job. A Westinghouse executive asked him to move to Tehran. “There is some material we need sent back,” the executive said. “Electronic systems. Anti-aircraft weapons. Tracking systems. That kind of thing. . . . This is a matter of some — sensitivity.”
You can see where this is going.
Max was more patsy than operative, and Westinghouse’s cynical opportunism was breathtaking. A month later the Tehran Times reported his arrest under the headline “CIA AGENT SMUGGLING RADAR EQUIPMENT CAUGHT.”
Over the next several months, Max was a tangential figure in the hostage drama, including the escape of several U.S. diplomats that was dramatized in the movie “Argo.” In a harrowing episode, in the depths of winter, he attempted an escape through the Kurdish region of Iran into Turkey. Eventually, the indomitable Shahin orchestrated his exit. She persuaded an old friend who was a member of the regime to approve an exit visa.
Cyrus Copeland eventually returned to Iran and Shiraz, a city where he spent five years as a child. He remarks that Iranians have a word for people of two cultures. “Do-rageh. Two-veined. But the thing about veins is this: They all lead back to the heart from which they come.”