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World: Yankees Who Did Not Go Home

5 minute read

For 30,000 Americans, a life of isolation and rising tension

Tehran-based employees of Bell Helicopter International sported grimly humorous T shirts last week. They were emblazoned with the slogan KEEP A LOW PROFILE and a row of bullet holes across the chest.

Macabre as the garments seemed, the wonder was that there was any joking at all among the 30,000 U.S. citizens remaining in Iran. For most of them—Government employees, military advisers, businessmen, technicians, teachers—life has been a matter of steadily rising tension, isolation and harassment as the anti-Shah demonstrations have taken on an ever more anti-American tone. Most have endured it anxiously but stoically. Says a U.S. oil executive in a southern oil-producing region: “So many of us have sent our families away and are half packed that there aren’t many more measures we can take.”

If the Shah were to go, of course, there could be a mass exodus, especially if a new regime proved actively xenophobic. For now, Americans generally try to stay off the streets and out of harm’s way. Such precaution has become more and more sensible as they have been increasingly subjected to threats, insults and assaults by Iranians angered at Washington’s support of the Shah. Many Americans have received threatening letters, shoved under a door or placed under a car windshield wiper. One anonymous letter warned several American families in the central city of Isfahan: “If you think of yourself as a human being, quit your job as soon as possible and leave our country. Otherwise you will be blamed for the consequences.”

Other forms of intimidation have been more direct. School buses full of American children have been stoned. One executive’s Cadillac was burned, while an Exxon employee narrowly escaped injury in southerly Ahwaz when a Molotov cocktail was hurled at his car. The entire U.S. community was thrown into its deepest shock two weeks ago by the assassination of Oil Executive Paul Grimm in Ahwaz.

Almost as nerve-racking as the worries about physical safety is the overpowering sense of isolation. Communications in Iran are unreliable, with the result that the country has become a vast rumor mill. Says an elementary school teacher at the U.S. compound of Shahin Shahr, near Isfahan: “We alternate between panic and being very blasé. Some days we don’t get a thing accomplished.” Desert picnics, once popular, are now regarded as too big a risk for families to take. Says one American housewife: “It’s a big social event to sip coffee and listen to the BBC.” Armed guards patrol the gates and grounds of American compounds, and at Shahin Shahr, colored flags alert residents to the state of security in the complex: a red flag flown means danger, yellow advises caution and white means all clear. Since the system was initiated some time ago, the white flag has not been used.

Although the country’s rigorous curfew has cramped social life, it did not prevent Jerry Hoagland, manager of the Tehran Inter-Continental Hotel, from throwing a party for Christmas. He simply invited his Christmas dinner guests to stay overnight. Those Americans who do not have 300 spare rooms at their disposal, as does Hoagland, are forced to adjust their schedules accordingly. Says American Vice Consul Michael McNaull: “If you want to give a dinner party, you have to ask people for 5 p.m.”

To cope with the swirling rumors, the U.S. embassy in Tehran originally set up a “pyramid system” of communications involving the 450 American corporations doing business in Iran. Key embassy staffers were assigned to pass on news to seven preselected executives, who, in turn, were to call seven of their employees. These employees would then call other members of the American community. But the exodus of Americans (more than 5,000 so far) caused the links in the chain to be broken, and now many firms, like Grumman Corp., have set up their own information networks.

Even before the turbulence, U.S. citizens, particularly those outside Tehran, held themselves aloof from Iranian society, concentrating on their work and mixing almost exclusively with other Americans after hours. In “golden ghettos,” like Shahin Shahr, Americans are even more isolated by their impressive salaries (often four times as high as those of Iranians) and comfortable suburban houses that are unpretentious by U.S. standards but lavish in Iranian terms. Within their compounds, Americans enjoy free schooling, recreational facilities, medical clinics, movies and even belly-dancing classes.

Not long ago, in an effort to overcome this insularity, one U.S. firm proposed a 30-to 50-hour orientation course for new employees of 100 American, European and Japanese companies. It would have included elementary Farsi, a brief history of Iran, and a cultural and sociological introduction to the country. Not a single company would agree to underwrite the cost, citing the uncertainties of Iran’s economic and political situation. The results are painfully obvious. Says one U.S. economist: “Iranians want to know why Americans don’t want to develop roots here. There’s a lack of mutual trust.”

Economic uncertainty is expected to take a severe toll among Iran-based Americans, no matter what happens politically. U.S. firms anticipated doing $3.8 billion worth of business in Iran this year. That total has been drastically slashed. Last week, for example, the Iranian government canceled a $575 million contract with Bell Helicopter to produce 400 helicopters by 1983. Previously the Shah had decided to postpone a $1.4 billion contract with Grumman and Hughes Aircraft to produce F-14 fighters for his air force. American Bell International, engaged in a ten-year project to provide Iran with a $14 billion telecommunications system, is contemplating a reduction of its American technical staff from 900 to 300. Still, given the size of their investments in Iran, most U.S. businessmen have been inclined to sit tight, and hope against hope. Says a General Electric executive: “There are so many commitments here that it’s hard to believe there will be a drastic turnabout.”

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