In 1979, my American father was imprisoned in Tehran and accused of being a CIA agent. He was the first American to be tried for espionage in the Islamic Republic of Iran. My Iranian mother defended him before the revolutionary tribunals. She became the first female lawyer in the Islamic Republic.
Thirty-five years later, I embarked on a quest to discover if the charges against my father were true: Had he really been a CIA agent––or an unfortunate man in the wrong time and place? The search took me through hairpin turns of espionage, courtroom drama and melodrama, and attempted escapes, all set along the seismic fault line between my two homelands. I am half-Iranian, half-American in an age where holding that contradiction has been a challenge.
The quest to know my father led me back to Iran last year. Returning as the son of an alleged spy wasn’t the safest idea, but the journey proved a worthwhile, thrilling one––rife with insights about my deceased father, and the misunderstood country that was once my childhood home. I think of Off the Radar as an intensely personal story that brings history down to a human scale, and bridges the gap between Iran and America, two countries that have demonized each other for too long.
Off the Radar
A Father's Secret, a Mother's Heroism, and a Son's Quest
by Cyrus Copeland
Blue Rider Press (2015)
LIBRARY JOURNAL: “The author weaves a tale full of uncertainty, tension and drama. The character that shines the most is Shahin, who fights with all of her strength, intelligence, and will as she tries to save her husband and family, not knowing for sure if he is truly a spy or not.
VERDICT: This brilliant, touching tale of espionage, discovering family, and balancing cultures is recommended for fans of memoir, spy stories, and Iranian culture.” (starred review)
BOOKLIST: “An expansive and eloquent memoir that reads like a real life spy story… There are lessons both personal and political in the legacy of strife that (Copeland) inherits, and Off the Radar explores both with pitch-perfect tone and deep emotion.”
KIRKUS: "Both a gripping personal story and an insightful historical-cultural study.”
MAX’S RADAR AFFAIR, the handwriting across the file said. I recognized my mother’s cursive––as well as her flair for drama. The story contained in this file had all the markings of a classical affair. Secret meetings. Unaccounted for hours. Divided loyalties. For thirty years, the file had lain dormant at the bottom of this box––which had followed us Copelands from Iran to Pennsylvania, through four suburban homes, to the dusty corner of the library where it now resided. In a strange way, I believe it was my father’s will that I found the file. Last week, a land prospector called with news of mineral rights that once belonged to my dad. “They’re yours if you can prove ownership,” she told my mother, who promptly dispatched me to the study to locate my father’s will. I was buried deep in the wilderness of boxed diplomas, old address books, photos, tax files and receipts, when from the bottom of a box of relics, the past coughed up a different nugget.
“Open it,” my mother said. Into our laps spilled several documents.
The first was a newspaper clipping dated November 27, 1979.
CIA AGENT SMUGGLING RADAR EQUIPMENT CAUGHT
Tehran––The Revolutionary Guards here arrested a CIA agent who was trying to smuggle eight console radar machines to the United States. Max Copeland, whose nationality was not identified yet, had booked eight boxes of radar equipment belonging to the Iranian Air Force at Mehrabad customs destined for the United States…
A succession of other documents fell from the file, their pages delicate and crisped by time. There was a formal rebuttal written by my father disputing the charges. An affidavit from Secretary of State Cyrus Vance. A packing list. A long letter from my mother to Iranian president Banisadr––a review of which brought tears to her eyes.
“You know, of course, your father was a CIA agent,” my mother suddenly volunteered.
It was not the first time I’d heard her say this. I suppose a review of salient facts did suggest a career in intelligence: low-profile jobs in defense and high tech industries. Broad knowledge of Iran. And he was caught up in an international incident that somehow never got any play beyond those couple paragraphs in the Tehran Times. But a CIA agent? I remember him as an academic whose greatest hours were spent in the company of books. A hunter. A mindful adventurer who could never quite get enough of mountain ranges, seascapes, and the oddities of different cultures. It irked me, hearing her call Dad a spy.
“Tell me about Dad’s arrest,” I said.
“Why must we talk about the past when you know it gives me a headache?” she replied––never mind that the past was all around us, splayed out in an accordion of yellowed documents. “Anyway, haven’t you heard this story enough times?”
I knew the tale well enough, but somehow it had never sat right. My father was too sincere to traffic in government secrets. His love for Iran was genuine. But ever since the CIA had organized a revolution in 1953, Iranians have come to distrust the motivations of Americans. Just a couple of years ago three American hikers had been accused of espionage after “inadvertently” crossing into Iran. It was of course a perfectly ridiculous claim –– every bit as absurd as their choice of destination –– but it prompted my mother into her latest act of volunteer diplomacy. She drew up a letter to Hillary Clinton offering personally to negotiate their freedom.
“I sacrificed much more for your father, a real life spy, so why shouldn’t I defend these innocents?” she said.
It didn’t cross her mind that at eighty, she might no longer have the connections needed to pull it off. But even today, you cannot underestimate her.
Sadly, she did not hear back from Secretary of State Clinton. Or maybe she never got around to mailing the letter. But that afternoon for the gazillionth time, she recounted the events leading to my father’s capture and resulting trial.
Through the years, with each retelling, I felt a deeper regret that I didn’t know my father better. All children have unresolved questions about their parents, of course, but this was no trifling matter. Was he a spy? Then it struck me: I had a file on my father. If he were a CIA agent, they’d have a file on him too.
That week, in a bid to put the past to rest once and for all––for myself and my mother and sister––I filed a Freedom of Information Act request with the CIA. Passed into law by President Clinton, the act allows previously classified documents that were more than twenty-five years old to be released. If my father were a CIA agent, his file would certainly meet these guidelines. A dead agent doesn’t worry about his cover being blown, right? I also filed inquiries with the FBI, the Department of Defense and the State Department, and President Carter. A flurry of letters flew out from New York into the world, each a bid to open my father’s long dormant past. I held out hope that someone, somewhere knew something––and, like the file I’d unearthed, that thing would fall gracefully into place.
Which just shows you how much I know about the world of intelligence.
While waiting for responses to come in I began writing this book. My mother’s story is easy to tell for she is an ardent, often glittering storyteller. My father’s was trickier––the dead tell no tales. He was a notoriously private man. The story of his capture, imprisonment, and trial I pieced together from journals, notes, memories, and shards of conversation I recall from quieter moments. But much of his interior life and motivations had been shrouded from me.
While writing, a curious thing happened. At times I heard his voice in my head, which was lovely and disconcerting. I began to feel closer to him.
I have an American father and an Iranian mother. I have the blood of The Great Satan and The Axis of Evil in my veins. 1979 was the year that launched the Iranian revolution and Islamic fundamentalism on an unready world, and in revisiting that year and its dramatic events, I saw how the fracture between the two countries was written into my parents’ marriage––and played itself out in microcosm while Iran and America did battle. Our story was a prism. While all eyes were on the hostages, our crisis played out in jail, in court, across international borders––and in private.
Was my dad a spy? Were the charges leveled against him true? Were my father alive today, he’d have pushed up his glasses and said in a voice that left little room for discussion, “Cyrus, I don’t want to talk about it.” But we Copelands had an adventure, a tale that goes back three decades to the fault lines between Iran and America. And it needs to be told...
This book can be purchased from Amazon.com.