Arabian Shakes explores the icy relations between the U.S. and Iran in world premiere of ‘All the Shah’s Men’ in San Francisco

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Kermit Roosevelt (Christian Haines) leads the coup that removed the democratically elected leader of Iran in 1953. “All the Shah’s Men” examines that event and the relationship since then between the United States and Iran. (Arabian Shakespeare photo)

The United States of America has long prided itself on its democracy. Freedoms, the constitution, and the right to vote are hallmarks of American values built from the founding fathers, and despite the difficulties with this ideal faced in this country at present, fair and free elections are a right that should never be taken for granted.

In 1953, the democratically elected prime minister of Iran Mohammad Mosaddegh was locked into a major confrontation over oil with Great Britain. The United States was asked by Britain for their assistance in dealing with Iran and did so in the form of a government overthrow, a coup led by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency.

The United States’ involvement was a curious choice, considering that both governments mirrored each other’s democratic ideals. And when Mosaddegh was replaced that same year by Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the Shah of Iran, that nation was catapulted into anger and unrest. The unrest finally bubbled over in 1979 during the Iranian revolution. It was then that Pahlavi’s reign ended, and Iran’s monarchy was destroyed for good. Yet since 1979, a series of fits and starts between both nations have continued to make relations and progress difficult for everyone involved.

The Arabian Shakespeare Festival is taking on a gargantuan project, a piece that will shed some light onto what really happened because of this coup. “All the Shah’s Men,” based on the book by Stephen Kinzer and adapted by San Jose State University theatre professor Matthew Spangler, is receiving its world premiere for three weeks in San Francisco beginning Thursday, May 3rd. The show focuses on those events of 1953 and all that has come as a result.

Iranian-American actor Farshad Farahat is playing multiple roles in the show, including Mustafa, the CIA agent who helped lead the coup, as well as the overthrown Mosaddegh. He was a newborn in 1979, so he missed seeing a lot of the controversial stands the United States took with respect to his home country. But there hasn’t been a time where he or his people have not felt the effects of the imperfect and mistake-ridden foreign policy, mistakes that continue reverberating to this day.

“Personally, to be honest with you, the low point of the relationship between the United States and Iran is now,” said Farahat. “Iranians are banned from entering this country and are constantly facing a hostile regime here.”

Spangler spent hundreds of hours researching the U.S./Iran relations before diving into this specific story. He found that this involvement by the CIA was effective, but ultimately grossly miscalculated.

“I really tried to get a sense what these (C.I.A. agents) were like, but it’s tricky because you are creating a point-of-view you don’t necessarily agree with,” said Spangler. “I don’t want the play to be an apology for what happened, or a whitewashing of the events.

“I wanted to get inside the head of those behind the coup and try to figure out how they rationalized to themselves that it was good to do. It’s counter to the values of American democracy.”

Director Vickie Rozell was not terribly well-versed in the coup, an action led by the grandson of Theodore Roosevelt, but shakes her head at what came about as a result of those actions.

“We had a positive relationship before this coup, and we were brought in to be a voice between Iran and Britain,” said Rozell. “To realize what happened and how the Shah was unleashed on the people of Iran, it’s no wonder how terrible our relationship is now.”

It’s a relationship that constantly rests inside the world of a simple question – what if?

“One wonders how different the world would have been if we would have taken different action instead of couping their leader out of power,” said Spangler. “Iran saw us as a friend going into 1953, but no longer did after that and certainly not after 1979.

“What’s sad about that is it could have been very different.”

Farahat, known for his role as the zealous guard who attempted to stop the members of a covert mission from leaving Iran in the 2012 blockbuster film “Argo” understands how difficult it is in this toxic political climate to open diplomatic channels, but certainly does not want to give up trying.

“The roots of understanding are very important, and we need to look at why we got here and how we got here,” said Farahat. “I think this show above all shows the roots of our relationship, and by recognizing these issues we face, we can start to find solutions.”

WHAT TO KNOW IF YOU GO

The Arabian Shakespeare Festival presents “All the Shah’s Men”
Based on the book by Stephen Kinzer
Adapted for the stage by Matthew Spangler
Directed by Vickie Rozell
May 3rd – 20th
Royce Gallery
2901 Mariposa Street, San Francisco, CA 94110
Tickets range from $15 – $35
For tickets, call (408) 499-0017 or visit their official website

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