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Tuesday, August 4, 2009

The Tehran Conviction, by Tom Gabbay (hardcover, $24.99)

You can poke and prod at things at random and suddenly find that the pieces fall together to form a whole. It's scary and humbling. Three of the most thought-provoking books I've read recently have turned out to be related in theme. Perhaps I didn't pick them at random from a pile of teetering books after all. Perhaps a word or phrase in the summary squirmed subconsciously to pull my interest towards this book or away from that book. All I know is, I picked these books with inattention rather than intention, but this is what I found.

The Secret Speech
, by Tom Robb Smith, is about the Soviet Union after Stalin's death. There is turmoil as Krushchev and his cohorts manipulate history to denounce Stalin's reign and begin another type of imperialistic advance for the Soviet Union.

The Dead of Winter
, the third book in Rennie Airth's trilogy stretching from World War I to World War II, deals with the waning days of World War II in England. A new Europe is on the verge of being born. The second book in Airth's trilogy is titled, The Blood-Dimmed Tide, and refers to Yeats' famous poem, "The Second Coming," written after World War I:

Turning and turning in a widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the center cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
Surely, some revelation is at hand . . .

The Tehran Conviction is one of the best novels I've read this year. It is a fictional spy story set in a palpably real Tehran of 1953 and 1979. At the end of the novel, Tom Gabbay, too, quotes this poem.

This is what brings all these books together.

• In 1953 the world was on the verge of the Cold War between two former allies of World War II.

• Krushchev's Soviet Union and Eisenhower's United States sought influence in the same critical spots around the world.

• The U.S. avidly developed the CIA as a Wizard of Oz, a behind-the-scenes manipulator of global events.

• The old world order had begun to change, as the sun finally set on the far-flung British Empire.

• Iran's prime minister, Mohammad Mossadegh, and his backers had thrown out the British representatives who were controlling the large and lucrative petroleum business in Iran, hoping to return control of the enormous profits to the Iranians.

• In 1953, Operation Ajax was a real CIA-backed program to overthrow the democratically elected government of Mossadegh. The Americans were seeking to reinstate the West's interests in Iran's oil fields and supported the Iranian military in deposing Mossadegh.

• In 1979, the American Embassy in Tehran was taken over by protesting students, leading to a hostage crisis that eventually involved unfriendly Iranian religious forces.

This is the background that brings us to The Tehran Conviction.

The fictional Jack Teller is a tough, legendary participant of prior covert government operations, but he is working as a bartender in New York when the story begins. He is enticed to travel to Tehran as a CIA agent to help run Operation Ajax. Gabbay's description of the 1953 Tehran is compelling. East and West cultures and ideologies collide, but the U.S. has not yet significantly added to the volatility of the country. The majority of the people of Iran sees Mossadegh as a progressive and enlightened leader. However, he tolerates the Soviets in Iran, and this provides the wedge the CIA will use to drive public opinion away from him. We see the country and its people through Jack's sympathetic eyes. He befriends Yari Fatemi, a powerful man in Mossadegh's cabinet, and must grapple with his conscience to use this friendship to dethrone Mossadegh.

In 1979, Yari's sister confronts Jack in New York to rescue her brother from an infamous Iranian prison. To rectify a wrong that the 1953 story slowly unfolds throughout the book, Jack agrees. Gabbay does a wonderful job of alternating these two stories, and history comes to life for his readers.

Gabbay's CIA characters describe American arrogance, idealism, and patriotism. His Iranian characters describe cultural confusion, religious conflict, and the difficulty of maintaining integrity in the face of chaos and terror. In many ways, The Tehran Conviction is the political child of Aird's and Smith's books.

And as for Yeats' apocalyptic vision: our involvement in the Soviet Union's incursion into Afghanistan, Western imperialism that left its mark on every continent of the world, and the Iranian deposition were part of the widening gyre of U.S. involvement in the Middle East, and surely we can recognize that what the U.S. created in its innocence and naiveté did not hold.

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