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The Iranian Oral History Project

Center for Middle East Studies, Harvard University
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Reviewed by:
Sumaiya Hamdani
George Mason University
March 2003

The Iranian Oral History Project (OIHP) is a rare example of an online oral history database on the Middle East. The project started in 1980, a year after the Islamic Revolution of Iran, with the intention of recording testimonials from individuals who played important roles in Iran’s history between 1920 and 1979 and from Iranians and others about conditions and events leading up to the revolution. Of the 150 interviews, 42 are available online, although only eight are in English (the rest are in Persian). The OIHP website features an alphabetical index to the recorded interviews, including format (transcript or audio) and location information; users can also search by subject or date. An introduction explains the goal, process, and circumstances of the interviews.

The Islamic Revolution of Iran was a highly significant event. It was the first Islamic revolution in modern history, straining US-Iranian relations and causing fear of similar changes throughout the Middle East and North Africa. The revolution continues to impact current events, making the testimonials on this site, especially those related to politics, timely and informative. The interviews cover the history of Iran from the 1920s to the 1970s, a period when Iran went through the process of modernization under the Shahs Reza and Muhammad Reza. Stresses related to that process are thought to have led to the revolution. The interviewees not only held important positions in the state, military and economy, they were almost all western-educated. This indicates that the revolution was a reaction as much against their policies as it was against the worldview of this elite. Exploring their impression of changing circumstances in Iran during this time is instructive of what the Islamic revolution sought to change.

Four of the eight interviews in English are with Iranians and four are with American and British officials. The Iranians include the wife of the chief of intelligence, a minister of labor, a minister of economic planning, and a surviving prince of the dynasty that was replaced by the modernizing Shahs of Iran. The Americans and British officials include three diplomats and an American Harvard professor prominent in the field of Iranian history. Taken as a whole, these interviews provide a glimpse of the close relationship that used to exist between Western governments and the Iranian government, and perhaps illuminate the strong reaction against the U.S. after the Islamic revolution. The interviews also provide a glimpse into the lifestyles and culture of the Iranian elite before the revolution, their many experiences abroad, and the strong influence of the West on their worldview.

Students can use these interviews as primary sources for research on Iran and the Middle East in the 20th century. They can also gain insight into the personal perspective and involvement of individuals in major historical change and events. In addition, the interviews can help make familiar what is often presented as alien to the experience of most Americans.

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