Iranian Oral History Project | Harvard University Center for Middle Eastern Studies


Back in the autumn of 1980, Edward Keenan, then dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences at Harvard University, asked whether I would organize an oral history project on Iran. As a historian, Keenan saw certain similarities between the Russian and the Iranian revolutions and considered the immigration to the West of hundreds of former Iranian officials to be an exceptional opportunity to collect and preserve valuable historical data.

I was not familiar with the field of "oral history" at the time. In 1972, I had persuaded my father to meet and talk with an older friend about his life while a tape recorder was running. The result was an autobiography, of which a small quantity was printed and distributed within the family. In 1975, as my mother was dying from cancer in a hospital in Tehran, I spoke to a tape recorder as I drove to and from the hospital twice a day. The resulting transcript of ten hours of tape recording is still too painful for me to read and decide about its future.

As Keenan and I continued to discuss the matter over the next twelve months, it became clear that with the resources then available it was difficult to make an in-depth study of the internal workings of Iran's regime under the Pahlavis, as few reliable primary sources were available. This was so because of the autocratic nature of Iran's political system, Government papers, documents, and reports were (and still are) infrequently prepared prior to major decisions and subsequent to important events. Moreover, the relevant documents that were produced were not preserved systematically and, in cases where they did exist, were not normally available to researchers.

Other sources of information were equally deficient. Newspapers, for example, were under government censorship. A small number of former public officials, had written their memoirs or given detailed interviews. Few of those who had, presented objective accounts of public issues; fear of the authorities had impelled them to self-censorship.

Publications produced by exile groups tended to be one-sided and ideological. The main source of relatively objective data regarding internal Iranian politics was the diplomatic dispatches of foreign embassies, which had their own obvious and inherent limitations and, after several decades, were only partially available. For these reasons it was clear that recording the memoirs of former leaders of Iran would be a worthy endeavor. Thus, the Iranian Oral History Project was launched in September 1981 at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies, Harvard University.

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Project Aim

The primary aim of the project was to collect and preserve personal accounts of individuals who played major roles in important political events and decisions in Iran from the 1920s to the 1970s. We deliberately chose to concentrate on political history, not because we did not appreciate the value of social, economic, and cultural history, but because we wished to provide increased depth with our limited resources. More specifically, the project attempted to provide three kinds of data:

1) A better picture of the way the Iranian political system actually functioned from the point of view of the actors involved - for example, how decisions regarding foreign and domestic issues were reached and implemented.
2) Circumstances behind major political events and decisions.
3) Additional details regarding the background, character, and career of key political figures of the period.

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Master List

At the beginning of the project a master list of approximately 350 potential narrators was prepared. The list, limited to individuals who could shed light on Iran's political history, included leaders of nearly all political groups, parties, and institutions. More specifically, the list contained the names of members of the Qajar and Pahlavi dynasties; all living former prime ministers; key members of the cabinets, the legislative branch, the judiciary, the media, and the private sector; leaders of the tribes, political parties, and opposition groups, (including those who for a time held office in the Islamic Republic of Iran); commanders of the armed forces; top officials of the security agency (SAVAK); and foreign leaders and diplomats who played major roles in Iranian politics.

It was neither possible nor even necessary for our purposes to interview everyone on the master list, thus we settled on the smaller number of approximately 150. Yet the composition of the group we actually interviewed was such that the following three conditions were, in my opinion, satisfied:

1) In many cases, more than one version of major political events and decisions were recorded.
2) Three important historical periods in recent Iranian history, namely, 1941-1953, 1954-1962, and 1963-1978, received sufficient attention.
3) A fair proportion of individuals from each political group and institution was represented. For example, 25 percent of those interviewed had been in opposition to the previous regime.

An analysis of the list of narrators indicates that the largest proportion, 23 percent, belonged to various political organizations (both legal and illegal) and the legislative branch . Members of the executive branch, which included cabinet-level civilian officials comprised 22 percent, followed by military and security officers, 16 percent; members of the Intelligentsia (comprising of political writers, university professors, and journalists), 11 percent; members of the diplomatic corps, 9 percent; private sector, 9 percent; the Imperial Court, 6 percent; and the judicial branch and the legal profession, 5 percent. Ten of the narrators, or 8 percent, were women.

Assignment to the above categories has been somewhat arbitrary, as many interviewees belonged to more than one category. Take Chapour Bakhtiar as an example. He belonged to the executive branch as the last prime minister of the old regime in 1979. As a key member of the National Front, he could be placed in the second category of political organizations. Having worked for a number of years in the private sector, he could be considered part of that group. However, he was counted among members of the executive branch because that is where he had made his greatest impact on history. The same general line of reasoning has been followed with the other narrators.

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During the first two years of the project, the oldest and most prominent individuals on the master list were interviewed first. High priority was assigned to this group for several reasons. First, the oldest had the lowest life expectancy. Second, members of this group had the least hope of returning to power in Iran and would therefore not only be more willing to participate but also be more forthright in their accounts. Third, the early participation of the more prominent political figures, who also tended to be older, did increase the likelihood that potential narrators of lesser rank would be encouraged to participate in the project. Finally, to give the project staff greater perspective and background material in preparation for subsequent interviews, it was useful to record the events chronologically.
An analysis of the ages of narrators recorded indicates that 21 percent were 75 years old or older, 33 percent were between 65 and 74 years old, 29 percent between 55 and 64, 12 percent between 45 and 54, and 5 percent less than 45 years old. The youngest person interviewed was a thirty-year old former leader of the Cherik-ha-ye Fadaii-e Khalgh and the oldest, born in 1901, had been a prominent landowner, Majles deputy, and cabinet minister.

An analysis of the place of birth indicates that 48 percent of the Iranian narrators were born in Tehran, while those born in Mashhad comprised 8, Esfahan 6, Tabriz 6, and Rasht, 3 percent of the total.

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Formal Agreement

Before the commencement of the initial interview, a formal letter of agreement was signed between the narrator and Harvard University. To encourage maximum cooperation, the respondents were given the option of specifying a period of time before which their memoirs would not be open for review. Approximately 60 percent of the narrators placed no restrictions on their memoirs. Another 3 percent of the memoirs will become available without restrictions by the year 1990. Of the balance, 11 percent are closed during the life of the narrator, while 8 percent require permission of the narrator for direct quotations.

Two narrators declined to sign the University's release form. Instead, one of them, the leader of a major opposition organization, released his memoirs to the interviewer -- orally on tape. Another narrator wrote a release on a blank piece of paper in the name of his interviewer rather than Harvard. A third narrator placed the following restriction on his memoirs: "The memoirs will not be given access to under any circumstances without my permission (written) or my wife's (written) for as long as I or she are alive, married or divorced or separated or in case of our death or disappearance for ten year."

Because 40 percent of the participants have placed certain restrictions on the use of their memoirs, Harvard's Houghton Library, which held Trotsky's papers under seal for several decades, has been designated as the repository of the transcripts. The commitment by the University to honor the various conditions set by the narrators opened many doors to our interviewers which would otherwise have remained closed by the inherently cautious Iranian politicians. Nevertheless, there were those who declined to participate.

As was expected, we were met with suspicion by some of our Iranian narrators. This was especially true during the initial year of the project. At first we tried earnestly to dispel the notion that our effort was an undercover operation. Gradually, however, we realized that for those who harbored such doubts, explanation was futile. On the contrary, it seemed that the conspiratorial attitude at times worked in our favor as some narrators wanted to speak with us precisely because they believed we had a direct line to Washington. As more and more prominent and diverse groups of individuals participated, the project became increasingly accepted as genuine and academic in purpose.

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Interview Procedure

In the early phase of the project, we were fearful of recording self-serving speeches and opinions by those who wanted to clear their own records and assign blame to others for the revolution. Therefore, at the outset of the interviews, we stressed that we were not seeking opinions and that our primary aim was to record recollections of experiences. Only in special circumstances, and when questions were formulated in advance, did we ask for the expert opinion of specific narrators.

A certain amount of opinion-giving was inevitable, but the interviewers could often reduce the ratio of opinion to concrete data by posing questions that brought the respondents back to their own experiences. The interviewers attempted to validate the reliability of important statements by asking narrators to specify whether their testimony was based on first-hand observation or on second-hand sources.

The interviews were conducted in Persian or English, depending on the particular narrator's preference. Twelve of the 126 narrators were recorded in English. The length of interviews ranged from one to forty-three hours. The length of 22 percent of the memoirs was between 1 and 2 hours, 28 percent between 3 and 4 hours, 17 percent between 5 and 6 hours, 12 percent between 7 and 8 hours, and, finally, 21 percent were 9 or more hours long. The average length of each memoir was, however, 6.4 hours.

Most of the interviews were conducted at the residence of the narrator. Some, however, were conducted at our offices in Cambridge, and a few in restaurants or hotels at the request of the individual concerned. Forty-six percent of the interviews were conducted in France -- mostly in Paris --, 13 percent in the Washington, D.C. area; 12 percent in England, 10 percent in Cambridge, Massachusetts, 7 percent in California, and the remaining 12 percent in Switzerland, New York, Haiti, and Austria. Although we were unable to organize interviews in Iran, memoirs of a small number of individuals who lived in Iran were recorded while visiting abroad.

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Two-Phase Interviews

When possible, interviews with major political figures were conducted in two phases. In phase I, the interviews were unstructured and impromptu, allowing the individuals the opportunity to present their own biographies and to stress those aspects of their political lives that they considered significant.
The limited biographical sources were a major reason why we decided to begin with an open-ended approach rather than with a predetermined set of questions. The data available rarely gave us sufficient details regarding the narrators' career paths, let alone the nature of their relationships with other political figures and the extent of their participation in various events and decisions.

In phase II of the interviews, specific questions were posed which were formulated in advance (taking into account the data presented in phase I). These questions covered major events and decisions in which the narrators had participated, as well as possible omissions and ambiguities contained in the transcripts of phase I. Moreover, in phase II, the interviewers asked the respondents to offer greater detail about the role, function, and mode of operation of the institutions with which they were most familiar -- that is, the cabinet, the Imperial Court, the Majles, the judiciary, the military, the political party, the media, the clergy, and so on. In phase II, the interviewers attempted to clarify and complete information already obtained and to collect new data.

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Single-Phase Interviews

Narrators with somewhat limited experience in Iranian politics spent less time presenting their own biographies. These interviews, like those in phase II, were more structured. The narrators were asked to focus on highlights of their careers that intersected with major events and decisions of the period.

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Recollections About Others

The narrators were also asked to describe their experiences, if any, with major political figures of the period, including monarchs, prime ministers, opposition leaders. Here again we did not seek opinions regarding these individuals; rather our interest was focused on their recollections relating to specific meetings, events, and conversations. This part of the interview did not yield the anticipated results. Many narrators simply repeated the same facts they had already recalled, or would offer only a few generalities about the political figure in question. Also, because this section of the interview was left for the end, we often ran out of time and patience before our mission had been completed. Nevertheless, researchers using the Iranian Oral History materials will not only find a vast amount of material concerning individuals who were interviewed, but also a good deal of information about a large number of other historical figures.

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Role of the Interviewer

A few words should be said about the role of the interviewers. First, all our interviews were conducted by five Iranians who had a good grasp of contemporary Iranian history. In fact, 50 percent of the interviews were conducted by the director of the project, 40 percent by the staff member in charge of processing the tapes, and the balance of 10 percent by three others. Thus, 90 percent of the interviews were conducted by two individuals who had listened to all the previous recordings. This arrangement, we believe, was instrumental in building a collection that is interrelated -- as each new interview was built on the vast collection of data presented by previous narrators.

In planning the interviews, we assumed the following attitude in setting our minimum expectations: The memoirs to be recorded should be at least a good substitute for an autobiography that would have been written, if the narrator had had the time and interest to carry it out. Thus, the main task of our interviewers became that of encouraging the narrators to expand or contract their accounts depending on their historical significance and on whether they had been discussed in sufficient detail by previous narrators. Our interviewers tried not to be interrogators, antagonists, or partisans. On the contrary, the interviewers' task was to listen sympathetically and to assist the individuals to present their personal accounts as completely and coherently as possible. They did their best to refrain from pressuring the narrators into speaking about topics they would rather avoid. At the same time, our interviewers did not volunteer opinions, nor did they unnecessarily agree with the narrators' statements. One of the most complimentary comments made about our interviewers came from the general who had prosecuted Mohammad Mossadegh in 1953. The interviewer, a staunch Mossadegh supporter, was aware of the challenge ahead -- to keep a lid on his emotions and to maintain an objective stance. At the end of the interview, which the general had obviously enjoyed, he turned to my colleague and said: "Jan-e man rastesh ra begou, tow Mossadeghi boudi?" ("I beg you to tell me the truth. Were you a Mossadegh supporter?")

We learned the hard way to avoid interrupting the narrator's train of thought, especially in case of the older individuals. Once the "senior" narrators were diverted from their "beaten tracks," many of them lost their orientation. During the time it took them to regain their composure, they sometimes made statements of fact that were clearly erroneous. We tried to leave until the latter part of the interview those questions that took the narrators chronologically backward or forward, as well as those introducing new topics. However, we did ask clarifying questions about the subject being presented, i.e, "When was that?" "What was his first name?" "Where did that occur?"
In the meantime, we came to welcome, rather than be apprehensive about, moments of silence. Some of the more valuable revelations recorded came forth following a relatively long pause.

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Knowledge and Cooperation

We found a wide difference among our narrators in two respects: their ability to offer new historical data and their desire to present it for recording. On one end of the spectrum were those who were able to offer a great deal of information about major unrecorded historical events, and on the other end were those who had retained little of what they had once witnessed and experienced. This was truer of the older narrators, who seemed to recall earlier events more vividly than those that had taken place more recently.

Ability to recall the details of important historical events was one factor in the equation. The other factor affecting the quality and utility of oral memoirs was the degree to which the narrators were willing to place their recollections on tape. Looking at these two factors as a matrix, we found four general groups of potential narrators. The first and most valuable group were those who had abundant unrecorded historical information and great desire to present it for posterity. It was truly exhilarating to interview narrators in this group.

In direct contrast to the first group were narrators with little information and little desire and those with little information and great desire to present it. Improved pre-interview research, together with a preliminary meeting with the potential narrators, eventually reduced the number of individuals in these categories. Nevertheless, there were occasional disappointments. The challenge posed by the narrator who had little information was to abort the interview diplomatically as soon as the evaluation had been made. Because we rarely scheduled more than two hours of interviewing for the initial session, the worst possible outcome was to record a few hours of data of little historical value.

Needless to say, things were never so simple as these generalizations imply. Although lack of desire to cooperate could be discerned by curt -- sometimes evasive -- answers early in the interview, it took more time to determine how much the particular narrator actually remembered. The task of evaluating the respondent's level of knowledge was even more troublesome. The problem often stemmed from the fact that what some narrators were willing to tell was at odds with what the interviewers had expected to record.

Our greatest challenge among the four groups of potential narrators lay with those with a great deal of historical information but little desire to present it. After encountering a narrator in this category, we tried to determine the reason for the apparent reluctance to be recorded. The number of reasons encountered was as great as the number of narrators they represented. To try to make sense of this complex question we found it useful to analyze the problem within a cost-benefit framework. "What will I possibly gain out of this interview compared to its possible costs for me," was a thought that must have run through the mind of the reluctant narrator.

On the questions of cost, some potential narrators seemed worried about accusations of disloyalty to the regime they once served. A member of the Pahlavi family said that because she could not tell the whole truth about the past, she preferred not to say anything at all. Another member of the royal family said "We have enough enemies as is and don't wish to add to them by giving this interview." A former senior cabinet minister said that he had worshiped the Shah throughout the nearly two decades that he had served him. When the Shah left Iran in January 1979, knowing that the regime would collapse as a result of his departure, he [the narrator] became totally disenchanted with the former monarch. To record his memoirs, from the new perspective, would open him to charges of disloyalty which he was unwilling to face.

Others were concerned about hurting their future options if they talked about the past. Still others expressed a fear for their relatives and possessions in Iran. A few felt so uncertain about their own past actions that they did not want to expose themselves to further criticism. A number of former high officials who are specially known for their competence, integrity and intellectual prowess refused because, in my opinion, the revolution had - psychologically speaking - hurt them deeply. Some older political figures refused on ethical grounds. They seemed to feel what had transpired between them and others must be buried with them. There were also those who had lost their confidence and were fearful of appearing to be less than the image they had projected while in office. To counter these sometimes formidable obstacles, we talked to the political figures about the individual's obligation to the history of Iran. We also appealed to their sense of self-interest: to the promise of a place in history -- a kind of historical immortality. Most controversial political figures were aware of critical statements made against them. Participation in the project gave them a chance to answer these allegations. An often persuasive argument was to point out that their recollections could remain closed for as long as they wished. Prospective narrators were told that Trotsky's papers were under Harvard's lock and key for many decades and that theirs would also be safe. These arguments often worked, but, as mentioned above, there were potential narrators who were not persuaded.

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Increasing Objectivity

Undoubtedly some narrators attempted to use the opportunity provided by this project to present a self-serving version of their past actions. A number of precautions were taken to deal with this possibility. First, a major criterion used to prepare and revise the list of potential narrators was diversity of political point of view and position. Among the individuals we recorded, one can find nearly every shade of political opinion imaginable: royalists such as General Mohsen Hasheminejad, former commander of the Imperial Guards; Daryoush Homayoun, journalist and former minister of information; Mahmoud Foroughi, advisor to the former crown prince; leaders of the National Front like Karim Sanjabi and Dr. Mehdi Azar; Mojaheds such as Massoud Rajavi, leader of the Mojahedin-e Khalgh Organization; Fadaiis such as Ali-Reza Mahfoozi; Tudehis such as Dr. Fereidoun Keshavarz, and Mostafa Lankarani; SAVAK officials such as General Hassan Alavi-Kia, former deputy director of SAVAK and Gen. Manouchehr Hashemi, provincial director and head of the anti-espionage department; and Islamic militants such as Said Rajaie-Khorassani, representative of the Islamic Republic of Iran at the United Nations. We also interviewed a number of individuals who participated in government immediately after the revolution, among them, Admiral Ahmad Madani and Abolhassan Banisadr.

The second precaution taken to reduce self-serving statements was to inform the narrators that a diverse group of political figures was being interviewed -- giving names of one or two individuals who shared their views and one or two who did not. Our experience indicated that when narrators realized that they were not speaking in a vacuum and that their statements would be compared with those of others, they were more forthright -- especially regarding what they said about others. They tended to be less objective about themselves.

Two examples may illustrate this point. A former deputy head of SAVAK, later in charge of its European operations, was interviewed a few days before a former leftist student leader who had been active in Europe in the '60s and had later worked in the Persian Service of Radio Peking. The two men obviously knew each other very well. They were both told of the interview with the other. In these interviews certain questions raised by one narrator were also asked of the other.

Another case in point was a series of interviews conducted with two former cabinet-level officials who were bitter rivals. Both individuals were told that the other would be (or already had been) recorded. An interesting side light to our project was that we often found ourselves speaking with individuals who would rarely talk to one another.

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The administrative and clerical work of the project was carried out by a staff which included a processing supervisor, two transcribers, a staff assistant, and a research assistant. Each tape is 60 minutes in length, producing approximately 22 pages of text in Persian, or 40 pages in English. Not all of the tapes have been transcribed; memoirs of six narrators totalling 25 hours have been left in audio form. The remaining recorded interviews have been transcribed, verified, retyped, and indexed in English.

The transcripts are unedited except for those corrected by the narrators themselves, a practice which we did not encourage. Recent transcripts were typed in written Persian rather than in spoken Persian. Miram for example is written as miravam. We adopted this procedure after a few narrators found the literal transcription of their oral statements to lack sufficient dignity.

Each one-hour tape makes up a separate unit with its own transcript numbered consecutively for each narrator. The index refers to the narrator and his/her tape number. The general index enables the researchers to locate the material they seek quickly and efficiently. Each tape or transcript also has its own individual index. Also, approximately 20 hours of the Persian tapes of six narrators have been translated into English. They comprise approximately 560 pages.

Copyright 2003 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College (Harvard University)
Dr. Habib Ladjevardi
Iranian Oral History Project
Center for Middle Eastern Studies
Harvard University
1430 Massachusetts Avenue
Cambridge, MA 02138
617.495.4232 (tel)