Reviews by Alec Chambers

Review of Shirley, Know Thine Enemy

Shirley, Edward. Know Thine Enemy: A Spy's Journey Into Revolutionary Iran. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1997. ISBN 0-374-18219-1

Edwin Shirley developed a fascination with Iran and ancient Persia in his teenage years and it has stayed with him through his college years, his nine years with the CIA, a career writing for a number of respected US magazines, and up until his return from Iran to Turkey in a secret compartment of a truck (at which point he briefly expressed an understandable fondness for Turkey). Here, he tells of his private, unofficial and unannounced trip from the Turkish border to Tehran via Tabriz and back. He spent many hours in the cramped and uncomfortable secret compartment where he had a lot of time to reflect on what he knew of the country, what he had learned of it, and what he had learned about himself.

The book starts as he is about to cross the Turkish border with Iran in the truck of a pseudonymous Hosein. The crossing procedure takes four hours and he uses the time to explain how he came to this point in his life. His first contact with the Iranian "man on the street" was when he dealt with many disaffected Iranians, often former Revolutionary Guards or soldiers, and a few women, often young widows, when he operated under the cover of the visa section of the US consulate in Istanbul. He befriended many of these people to glean information from them. In the cases of some of the women he also prevented them from falling into prostitution, a common fate for refugee women in Turkey. In return for information, he tried to put the best possible spin on their visa applications. Some of these people were talked into going back to Iran to supply information. His epithet among the Iranians was "the Angel" indicating that he must have been reasonably successful at getting their visa applications approved.

He uses one of his cases, a one-legged former Pasdaran he calls "Ahmad" to show how he developed relationships with these people as he looked for recruits. Ahmad is also our introduction to Shirley's understanding of Iranians. It is a complex view that doesn't change that much in the course of the book. It is well-grounded in extensive study of the history of the country and of Islam. It is perhaps here that he makes his only significant misstep. I asked an Iranian friend to read the book and he was impressed by the depth of Shirley's knowledge and understanding of Iran, but he found that his understanding of the relationships between the sexes amongst the revolutionary youth of Khomeini's Iran was too Americanocentric, perhaps too simply carnal. It is as if he has understood the pleasure of the relationship, but not the ecstasy.

The second chapter is a step backwards in time. In it he tells of the one occasion on which he entered an Iranian consulate in Germany. He had tried to obtain a visa to enter Iran, but was turned down. The chapter is about the conversation he had with a polite but inquisitive and persistent Iranian business man. On the surface, they talk about his interest in Iran, but below that Shirley is trying to control the conversation the way he was trained to do so as a case officer with a source. It is a fascinating example of applied psychology and is perhaps a unique case of such a conversation being described in so much detail.

The remaining chapters cover events on the road and the narrative is chronological. Shirley is tense, and has the good sense to be worried about the consequences for himself and his helpers should he be caught. The mullahs are not likely to be gentle with a former CIA officer in the country without permission. Discretion is the better part of valor, and although he does finally spend a few hours in Tehran, he leaves as quickly as possible.

The bulk of the book covers the trip to Tehran. As they roll through Iran, Shirley and Hosein pass the time in sometimes intense discussion on life, the universe and everything and we learn a lot about what matters to an average working Iranian. Some of the places they pass give rise to a passage about historical events that help shaped Iran over the centuries and that are unknown to most of us. A prolonged conversation with Ahmad's sister helps us to understand the position of women in Iran and the difficulties that her generation faces after so many of its men were fed to Iraqi cannon. Over a glass of tea with friends of Ahmad in Tabriz we get an impression of how Iranians look at the US from behind the ritualized anti-American chants and so on. The reader learns much about the daily life of the average Iranian, and of how it has so much in common with the struggles of daily life throughout the world. It is a world far removed from revolutionary fervor, but it is not one devoid of pride in the success of the Islamic Revolution.

Shirley was not there on behalf of any intelligence agency, that much seems clear, but intelligence does play an important part as one of the sub-topics of the book. Particularly, it deals with two dilemmas with solutions that Shirley did not like and that played roles in his decision to leave the CIA. One revolved around the question of whether the case officer should be a generalist or a specialist, and the other was around the problem of freedom of action of case officers. The
competent generalist case officer, it is argued, who is given the right questions to ask can deal well enough with sources in any part of the world. Shirley argues that a specialist who really knows the people he is dealing with and understands what makes them tick can be a much more effective case officer, even though his utility is limited to only one or a few countries. The CIA has always required case officers to have field experience outside their main area of expertise to obtain promotion, and this certainly has its merits, but it also has its drawbacks. The specialist argument also has merits and drawbacks, although they are almost exactly opposite to those of the generalist argument. As it is, the generalist is the order of the day. The generalist may be able to function well enough if given freedom of action.

This brings us to the second problem: top-down management is too often the case and just about every question has to be sent up the chain of command and the decision made far from the action has to be acted on, no matter how poor it may seem in the field. Shirley quotes one senior officer as liking case officers in their 30's with a mortgage and a couple of children because the are in no position to do anything except follow orders. This may be good for the senior officer, but is it good for US intelligence?

One question never really gets answered: why did Shirley really take such an outrageous journey? Was he trying to prove a point to his top-down generalist detractors in the CIA? Is he just an incurable romantic adventurer? Was he looking for some excitement or just curious?

This book stands at a nexus of several genres: the explorer as adventurer in an exotic or hostile land like Sir Richard Burton's Pilgrimage to Mecca or Doughty's Arabia Deserta; the travelogue as social commentary like Pond's examination of the Soviet Union in From the Yaroslavsky Station; the Bildungsroman, a polemic, and the memoirs of an intelligence officer. The result is rich in information, insight, and opinions. His differences of opinion with senior officers are about important points that need to be aired and discussed. Any one of the chapters may be worth the price of the book for the observations it gives us on a country that has become a mystery to so many in the west.

 

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