When the Foundation commenced its Oral History of Iran program in 1982, it was the first of its kind in Iranian studies and a pioneer in source material preparation for the study of Iranian history based on structured interviews with participants and witnesses. The Islamic Revolution of 1979 had resulted in an exodus of the nation’s leading figures, not only in politics and government, but also in business, finance, industry, education and the arts. It seemed to us at the Foundation for Iranian Studies a most important and challenging task to set about recording the memoirs of these individuals.
Interviews cover a wide range of issues. In certain cases, topics of special interest have determined the choice of the interviewees. This includes the revolution, Shah’s military policy, SAVAK, the Rastakhiz Party, US-Iranian relations, the Confederation of Iranian Students, the women’s movement, religious minorities, the Shiraz Art Festival. In other cases, the interviews were led by the personalities of the individual actors involved in the shaping of the events constituting contemporary Iranian history. Priority has been given to men and women whose experiences have not been previously recorded in books and articles or in other oral history programs, though this rule has not been allowed to hamper the collection of important information or insight not previously recorded.
Production of oral history memoirs of value rests on a number of prerequisites. A primary requirement of good oral history production is a belief on the part of the program directors, the interviewers and interviewees that individual experience is inherently important. In societies where individual experience is valued only as it serves the collective, or where destiny or the will of some higher authority is held as the final arbiter of human existence, oral memoirs, if contemplated at all, are likely to be considered antisocial, if not subversive and heretical. Thus, individuals experiences are excluded from the construction of the collective culture.
Another requirement is the freedom of the interviewer and interviewee to speak honestly and openly without fear of reprisal. Unfortunate as it may be, In the 1980s and after the only place where recollections of Iranians could be openly relayed and safely recorded for the sake of historical study was outside their own country. The memoirs recorded in this collection, therefore, are records of events, personalities, and developments in a wide variety of fields in twentieth-century Iran, seen from the vantage point of life in exile. English historian C. V. Wedgwood once wrote, “History is lived forward but it is written in retrospect. We know the end before we consider the beginning and we can never wholly recapture what it was to know the beginning only.” In the case of those interviewed for the Oral History of Iran Program, knowing the end involves recollections that are bound to be colored by the intense and complex experiences and emotions of the subjects.
The spontaneous and personal character of oral history allows this intensity to be captured in a way rarely achieved in other fields of social science. The Foundation’s program has taken care to preserve it in the texture of what it has recorded and transcribed by remaining faithful to the oral quality of the interviews. On the other hand, it has also tried to achieve an objective balance by recording a wide variety of experience, testimony and opinion. The transcripts prove a fascinating read. They provide colorful anecdotes the likes of which are often absent from articles and books. Moreover, they provide information that often fills the gaps found in other scholarly endeavors. They also have their share of trivia. That is why the collection is particularly useful to students who are familiar with Iranian history.