An Ira­nian mom, an Amer­i­can dad — and then a revo­lu­tion.

The Washington Post Sunday - - OUTLOOK - RE­VIEW BY PETER FINN peter.finn@wash­ Peter Finn is The Washington Post’s na­tional se­cu­rity editor and a co-au­thor of “The Zhivago Af­fair: The Krem­lin, the CIA and the Bat­tle Over a For­bid­den Book.” Copeland will dis­cuss “Off the Radar: A Fa­ther’

Iran’s rev­o­lu­tion­ary courts seem an un­likely venue for a some­times-comic set­piece — 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 makeme 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 phone­line,” 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. “Dor­ageh. Two-veined. But the thing about veins is this: They all lead back to the heart from which they come.”


The Copeland fam­ily, top, in 1979, be­fore the oc­cu­pa­tion of Amer­i­can Em­bassy in Tehran. Ira­nian stu­dents, above, protest Amer­ica, set­ting fire to a U.S. flag.


OFF THE RADAR A Fa­ther’s Se­cret, a Mother’s Hero­ism, and a Son’s Quest By Cyrus M. Copeland Blue Rider. 350 pp. 27.95

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