This Is Fucked Up

By Alex Finley

They had way more style during the bubonic plague, but it was pretty fucked up, too.

You ever stop and look around and just say, wow, this is really fucked up?

That’s how I spend about ninety percent of my time now, when I’m not washing my hands or disinfecting light switches. It’s weird, isn’t it? How quickly dystopia befell us? And it’s really fucked up, right?

Remember six weeks ago, when we used to be able to make plans? Remember how fucking glorious that was? Hey, you got summer plans? You planning to go to the gym later? What are your weekend plans? Let’s plan to see each other! Remember that? Remember when the future existed?

Ah, having a future to plan. What a luxury that was. 

The only thing my family and I plan now is meals. Our lunch conversation is about what we will make for dinner. That’s it. We can’t get any further into the future than that. 

We have no idea what the future will be like, or when it will begin. When will we be able to travel farther than the grocery store? When will we see our friends in person, rather than waving from a screen? More than the physical confinement, we struggle with this mental confinement. This constant holding pattern. Who can focus? Who can start new projects? Who can finish old ones? Will they matter anymore? Will projects from a few weeks ago be relevant or relatable in a post-coronavirus world? 

And what till that future look like? Will we ever touch each other again? See each others’ smiles? Or is our future a staggered line of people in masks standing six feet apart? 

I’ve had friends send me selfies in their new masks. I’ve seen pictures proudly posted on Instagram and Pinterest to show off pink paisley homemade masks, finely stitched, pandemic oeuvres. 

People, making our own masks in order not to die is not cute. It’s not normal. It’s really fucked up.

My husband found masks in a shop recently and returned home triumphant. “I found masks!” he yelled from the front hallway that is now our airlock, where we peel off any potentially contaminated clothing and drop shopping bags to be hosed down with disinfectant. I opened the packet. They were sew-it-yourself masks. My mother sewed her own wedding dress. This is not a talent she passed down to me. But, I mean, I had time, right?

So, I sewed my own mask. 

Remember the movie The Nightmare Before Christmas, whose main character has a baseball head with a mouth that looks like it was sewn by a three-year-old? That’s my mask. Rudimentary stitches in various thread colors that would make Frankenstein tell me not to quit my day job. It sags funny around my cheeks, kind of like I shoved an airplane vomit bag over my nose, mouth, and chin and secured it with some rubber bands around my ears. It looks like a horse’s feed bag. I could carry snacks in there.

This is most definitely not my mask.

But again, how fucked up is it that I have to wear hazmat gear to go to the grocery store in the first place? 

I live in a city, so our groceries are small, and even though they limit how many people can be inside at once, it’s a fucking mess in there, all of us performing a Covid-19 ballet. Imagine a Swan Lake pas de deux, if the swans feared avian flu. Someone steps toward me, and I leap back, pinning myself against the shelf before spinning around to turn my head away from him. I duck under an arm and sidestep an employee stocking wine (thank god!) before pulling back into an aisle, where an old woman twirls and moves away, leading a young man to waltz around her through a narrow aisle, where he meets a young woman who dances backwards as he approaches. We need six-feet-wide tutus to mark our space. We’re probably all smiling apologetically as we hop past one another, but who can tell given that we’re all wearing our stupid fucking masks.

But we’re all in this together, right?

You know those uplifting videos that were circulating when this dystopia started? How we were all keeping each others’ spirits up by singing opera from the window or playing piano from our balconies? So inspiring, being together alone.

None of those people are my neighbors. Not a single one of my neighbors has talent. 

One guy sat on his balcony and clipped his nails. That’s what we’ve got.

I’m not judging. I’ve been completely useless. I haven’t learned calculus or written a best-selling novel or 3-D printed a ventilator I invented. My family doesn’t want to sit together, let alone sing a funny rendition of Les Miserables together. We have the time for everything, but the patience for nothing. My sixteen-year-old son has not left the house in more than a month. The kid should be hanging out being stupid with his friends and figuring out who he is, not listening to his mother say ridiculous things like, “Hey, guess who I just ran into in the kitchen? Your dad!” We’re hilarious, but I understand when he says he never wants to see his parents again once this lockdown ends. 

When it ends. Sometime. In a future we can’t yet conceive.

Pretty fucked up, right?

The View From Spain

aerial photography of high rise buildings

Photo by Aleksandar Pasaric on

By Alex Finley

Growing up, my school was only ever canceled for snowstorms.

My son has had school canceled for snowstorms, windstorms, floods, an attempted coup, political protests, and now a pandemic.

My family and I moved to Barcelona from Rome last summer. It has been surreal and agonizing to watch my former home fall to the virus, while people in my new home carried on with their regular lives, somehow thinking Spain would be different than Italy. As Spain woke up to the crisis and slowly rolled its lockdown regulations into place, I watched the United States, where I am from, somehow think it would defy the odds.

My husband and I have had flashbacks to 9/11. Then, our apartment in Washington DC looked out on the flight pattern leading into National Airport. Before that tragic day, we would sit on our balcony and watch the planes come in, two minutes apart. After, we noticed the absence. The sky was empty.

Unlike then, there are no burning buildings now. There is no snowstorm. No hurricane. No shooting in the streets, as during an attempted coup we experienced. We don’t see the threat. We don’t see inside the hospital five blocks from our new home, where Barcelona’s first coronavirus patient was admitted less than a month ago. We don’t see the desperation on the doctors’ faces as they must choose who lives and who dies. We don’t see the hotels being converted into hospitals in Madrid. We don’t see the patients suffocating, wanting to rip tubes out of their own throats. But as we knew when those planes hit, we know the world is about to change.

It comes like a wave. You know, conceptually, that it is coming. Each day, you hear the tallies of infections and deaths. But you cannot comprehend the reality of what this pandemic will entail, even for those who manage not to get sick. And when it hits, it hits fast, crashing down on society.

First, my son’s soccer training was canceled. Then there were rumors about school closing the following week. Why wait five more days, if you know there is a threat? My husband and I discussed keeping our son home. In the end, the government made the decision to close schools the following day, much to my relief.

I was angry at the Spanish government for dawdling. Why did Spain think it would be different than Italy? With a full week of evidence and data out of Italy, Spain bickered and devolved into political battles. On March 8, the government encouraged everyone to go out in the streets to celebrate Women’s Day. Thousands marched in Madrid, Barcelona, and across Spain. One week later, we were in lockdown, the health care system cracking under the burden.

Throughout each day, we track the numbers. Less than a week before I wrote this, we were at fewer than 2,000 cases. Within two days, it had nearly doubled. When I wrote this a week ago, we had more than 9,000. And now as I edit it, we have more than 30,000. I check in on our elderly neighbors, who are afraid to open the door. They speak to me from a window. Going food shopping or taking out the trash is a respite from being cooped up in the apartment. We joke with our friends that we plan to borrow their dog, since walking pets is one of the few legitimate reasons to go outside. At least one person ran an advertisement offering to rent his dog for this purpose. These dogs are going to be exhausted.

Sometimes we watch a movie or exercise or dance in the kitchen. For a glorious period, everything feels normal. Then the movie ends and we come back to reality. Again, it is the absence that is most striking. The silence outside. The absence of life and energy in this normally vibrant city. We can’t leave our house and a war is being fought just up the street at the hospital.

Each night, we join the entire city, all of us on our terraces or hanging out our windows, to applaud the health care workers. We only moved here a few months ago. I don’t know the woman in the bathrobe on the terrace below me, or the young girls in yoga clothes on the rooftop across, or the young man banging on a pot from the next building over. But in that moment, we are one community. We are together. We are part of something bigger than ourselves. I wonder if the doctors and nurses five blocks away hear us. I hope so.

I understand that no one in the United States understands. We didn’t either, despite what we saw in Italy. But it is real, and it is coming.

My husband and I have done crises. Too many, in different countries. Once our son was born, we always had in place an emergency plan for him in case something were to happen to us. When I was working for the CIA in Europe and my son was a toddler, the Agency had a stream of intelligence suggesting terrorists were planning an attack in Europe, possibly in the city where we were. I remember the look on the face of the director of my son’s daycare. She thought I was crazy when I handed her the phone number of my parents in the United States. Just in case, I told her.

Now my son is old enough to take care of himself, to a point. We sat down the other day to discuss what to do if his father and I are in the hospital. We are in a new country. Who does he call? I showed him where his passport is, explained how to get money. How does he get to family in the United States? This is a discussion I had with my teenager, growing up in the time of Covid-19. I long for a simple snow day.





Welcome to Part 4 of my 4-part series, Iran: They Think We’re Great! in which I look at the history of US-Iran relations and attempt to explain how we got where we are today: each on the other’s shit list.

It’s all part of my effort to bring history and geopolitics to people who want to sound thoughtful at dinner parties but find The Economist too uppity. I’ll be releasing a new segment each week, but if you’d like the whole essay now, sign up for my newsletter and I’ll send it to you! It’s that easy!

Missed Part 1? Read it here.

You also missed Part 2? Wtf is your problem? Read it here.

You didn’t seriously miss Part 3, too? Ugh, here.

Want more Finley? I aim to please. Check out my novel, Victor in the Rubble, a satire of the CIA and the war on terror. It’s been called “wickedly funny!” and “a delight!” And don’t miss my other series, including The Intelligence Community: Smart People Looking at Computers and High Heels, Wigs, and Flamboyant Robes (or…Dictators). You can find all my writing here.

And now: Part 4


(Part 4)

Last week, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, aka Scary Mullah With Beard, had successfully overthrown the autocratic Shah of Iran and un-ironically named himself Supreme Leader. Pretty quickly, Khomeini’s supporters wanted to give the Americans a nice thank you present for their help in their history. After all, they had just gotten rid of the Shah, and who had put the Shah in power in the first place?

I’m Only Holding You Captive Because I Love You

On February 14, 1979, a group of about 150 Islamist radicals stormed the US Embassy in Tehran and took the staff hostage. The standoff ended a few hours later when Khomeini supporters intervened and called on the radicals to back off. The incident, known as the St. Valentine’s Day Open House, triggered a drawdown of embassy staff and led to the worst series of Hallmark Valentine’s Day cards ever (“I want you more than I want Death to America!” “You’ve captured my heart, and the rest of me. Seriously, are you ever going to let me go?” “You had met at ‘Salam, get on the floor, I’m taking you hostage.’”)

Unfortunately, Hallmark would have even less fun with the sequel.

On October 22, 1979, US President Jimmy Carter accepted the Shah into the United States for cancer treatment. The Iranian people were not pleased and thought maybe the US was once again planning to force him into power (seriously, guys, paranoia?). A large group began demonstrating outside the US Embassy in Tehran. Then a few decided to put their wall-scaling skills into practice.

On Novemer 4, 1979, students stormed the US Embassy in Tehran. Given the relatively quick resolution of the February 14 incident, most people at the embassy thought the standoff would pass in a few days. With hindsight, of course, it’s easy to see that that outlook was, well, charitable. Even though the students themselves had planned to take over the compound for only a few days, their actions proved so popular (with people outside the embassy, that is) that they were emboldened. The students held 52 American diplomats hostage for 444 days (we, the Great Satan, were already using the number 666).

Affleck Oscar

Ben Affleck won an Academy Award for his role rescuing American hostages in Iran.

In a big fuck you to Jimmy Carter, the hostages were released January 20, 1981, immediately after Ronald Reagan was sworn in as president. Six other American diplomats, who had managed to escape the embassy compound during the initial mayhem and hide out at the Canadian ambassador’s residence, had made it home a year earlier, thanks to Ben Affleck, who parlayed his success into superhero status.

So, to recap: we overthrew Mossadegh to install the Shah. Then Khomeini overthrew said Shah and his supporters took American diplomats hostage, fearing we were going to re-install the Shah, because we had done exactly that 26 years earlier.

For the next 30 years, the US and Iran acted kind of like two teenagers who wanted to hate-fuck each other. They passed notes through intermediaries, occasionally cooperated—quietly—on projects of mutual interest but then would spectacularly hurt the other just to get his attention or re-establish dominance. They’d have an occasional détente followed by playing really hard to get. Like any Good versus Evil dichotomy, each side needed the other to survive. What would the Jedis be without the Empire? The Allies without the Axis? Sam without Diane?

I know your next question: In the US-Iran dichotomy, which side is Good and which side is Evil? Depends where you begin.

Look at the Iran-Contra affair: In the 1980s, Hizballah, financed by Iran, kidnaps a bunch of Americans in Lebanon to protest American presence in that country’s civil war, thinking hey, this is Iran’s turf. The Reagan administration sells American weapons to Iran, which was under an arms embargo because Iran had taken American diplomats hostage in 1979 (because the US supported the Shah and had overthrown a legit government 26 years earlier to put the Shah in power), to get Iran to lean on Hizballah to release the American hostages who were taken hostage to discourage retaliation from the US for the bombing of the Marine barracks and US Embassy in Lebanon, which were bombed to keep the US from interfering in a civil war Iran believed was under its tutelage, not the US’s.

Confused? Don’t be. Both the chicken and the egg came first. And they’ve both been broken and scrambled and cooked into the worst omelet you can imagine, complete with beard hairs and, now, highly enriched uranium, which complicates things and makes for a glowing omelet.

Affleck Iran crowd

Ben Affleck is taller than all Iranians.

I feel like maybe I got sidetracked for a moment.

Anyway, President George W. Bush lumped Iran in with North Korea and Iraq in his Axis of Evil speech. When the United States then invaded Iraq, Iran couldn’t be too sure they wouldn’t be next (again, paranoid?). President Barack Obama, on the other hand, aimed for engagement and worked with the UN Security Council plus Germany to negotiate a deal allowing some Iranian nuke shenanigans but not much in return for access to Western money. Yay! Capitalism! This Iran Deal is either the best negotiated deal ever or the beginning of the end that will leave us all dead in a glowing puddle of radioactivity, depending on who you ask.

But all of that is at the government level. In terms of the people of each country, the story is a little different. Most Americans conflate the Iranian government and the Iranian people, and they conflate all of them with terrorists (Islam and burkas and beards, oh my!). They look at Iran and see scary religious people who hate democracy and freedom and dancing, as if Footloose took over a whole country of non-white non-American people (totally not scary when white American people act that way). And don’t even bother trying to get most Americans to compare and contrast Khomeini and his successor as Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei. There’s, like, a one letter difference and that’s it. They fail to recognize the Iranian population is very educated and balanced, and many Iranians really love the United States (oh, and many of them are already here, living among us! Shhhh!). Many also really like the idea of democracy and have been fighting for it in Iran.

Green movement

Iranian pro-democracy protesters were embarrassed to learn the color green was already being used by environmental groups for their revolution, but went ahead with the theme since the green flags, banners, and balloons had already been ordered from Oriental Trading.

The Iranian people made one of their biggest pushes to gain more say over their government in 2009, with the Green Movement, in which many people believed that the reelection of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was fraudulent. Iran saw some of the largest protests since the revolution. Many American politicians criticized President Barack Obama and wondered why the United States didn’t support the Green Movement to help it succeed in overthrowing the government. The general response from American foreign policy types was: Remember 1953? Because Iran certainly does.

Supporters of this latest push for regime change make clear their beef (and definitely not their pork) is not with the Iranian people. Indeed, they want to support the Iranian people and help them to overthrow their own government. Of course, this is what Kermit Roosevelt made it look like at the time he overthrew Mossadegh in 1953, so fair enough if some Iranians are wary (or again, paranoid?). Not sure they will like the outside influence in any case. They’ve had enough of it. But that might not stop the US. (Also, it is again rather ironic that we are discussing regime change and supporting influential groups in Iran, when our president refuses to acknowledge Russia just tried the same thing here.)


This mural, painted on a wall of the former US Embassy in Tehran, depicts Iranians’ worry that America isn’t getting enough to eat.

So to recap: when discussing Iran, avoid the words “overthrow,” “regime change,” and “shave.”

It’s all just a game of brinksmanship, played out over and over again for the last four decades. Are we right or are they? Are they wrong or are we? The answer is simple: yes.






Welcome to Part 3 of my 4-part series, Iran: They Think We’re Great! in which I look at the history of US-Iran relations and attempt to explain how we got where we are today: each on the other’s shit list.

It’s all part of my effort to bring history and geopolitics to people who want to sound thoughtful at dinner parties but find The Economist too uppity. I’ll be releasing a new segment each week, but if you’d like the whole essay now, sign up for my newsletter and I’ll send it to you! It’s that easy!

Missed Part 1? Read it here.

You also missed Part 2? Wtf is your problem? Read it here.

Want more Finley? I aim to please. Check out my novel, Victor in the Rubble, a satire of the CIA and the war on terror. It’s been called “wickedly funny!” and “a delight!” And don’t miss my other series, including The Intelligence Community: Smart People Looking at Computers and High Heels, Wigs, and Flamboyant Robes (or…Dictators). You can find all my writing here.

And now: Part 3


(Part 3)

Last week, we discussed the Iranian people’s growing hatred of the Shah of Iran. One guy in particular was especially pissed: Ruhollah Khomeini, who would become the first Scary Mullah With A Beard with whom we Westerners would become acquainted. He thought the Shah’s reforms were pushing Iran to become too western and he didn’t like the rights they afforded to women and non-Muslims. He was so vocal about it that the Shah kicked him out of the country in 1964. I like to imagine he promptly joined the Beatles on their world tour, singing backup on “I Want to Hold Your Hand (but I Can’t)” and When I Saw Her Standing There (I Averted My Eyes).”


This is a photo of Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. I will not make a joke because I do not want to die.

The Last To Know

Back in Iran, things were going swimmingly, at least according to American intelligence agencies. In a sign that American intelligence officers likely only had sources close to the Shah, rather than sources among the people, a CIA analysis in August 1978 said Iran “is not in a revolutionary or even a pre-revolutionary situation,” and a US Defense Intelligence Agency cable from September 28, 1978, stated that the Shah “is expected to remain actively in power over the next ten years.” Today, we would say, “The intel on that was not 100 percent.” I am guessing they only had sources right at the top. Because who is always the last to know a ruler is about to be overthrown? The ruler who gets overthrown.

Khomeini did not, in fact, join the Beatles (how different would history have been? I’m guessing we’d all be saying, “Ringo who?”). Instead, he fomented from abroad for change in Iran. At first, he did his fomenting from right next door in Najaf, Iraq. But after too much fomenting, Iraq expelled Khomeini—and his beard—in 1978. Given how deeply pious and anti-Western he was, he went to…Paris. Wait, what? Did he want tickets to the Moulin Rouge? Did he want to eat frogs’ legs, as revenge for Kermit’s manipulation of Iran’s democracy?

Khomeini actually wanted to go to Algeria. However, that country’s president at the time, Houari Boumediene, was in a coma, which made accepting an international pariah as a guest a little complicated (although it’s a great premise for a film, “Weekend at Houari’s”). The French, for their part, were a wee bit more cynical about the Shah’s peacocky rule and American support of it. They decided to hedge their bets and let Khomeini foment from Paris. The Shah figured Khomeini was too far from Iran to do much effective fomenting. But foment he did. And it was powerful. Plus, France had a much better communications infrastructure than Iraq. Getting his message of foment to Iran was now easier. Basically, there was a lot of fomenting, and now with a French accent.

Also, Western TV was like, Yo! Who is this dude with a beard who hates oppression? In a way, Khomeini was an early reality TV star, a pioneer of sorts. As he gained popularity, he went total Survivor and started conspiring to vote the Shah off the island. Only in this reality show, long beards were not considered hipster, and the religious tones were a little worrisome to some. Khomeini wanted to give the revolution a democratic uprising look rather than a religious one. He partnered with leftists and nationalists so the movement could put forward its best secular, clean-shaven face. The nationalists in particular were keen to see the Shah go and, as they were mostly Mossadegh supporters, feared for some crazy ass reason that the CIA would push a countercoup to keep the Shah in place, LOL like that would ever happen. In any case, the non-religious or less religious factions went along with Khomeini, thinking they would get to influence how the government would be formed after the Shah was gone. Welp, funny story about that.

The uprisings pushed the Shah to leave Iran on January 17, 1979. He knew he was never coming back. He left his last prime minister in place to deal with what was coming. The prime minister allowed protests, released political opponents, and allowed Khomeini back in the country, maybe hoping it would buy him some goodwill. It didn’t. Khomeini denounced the prime minister and the government and named his own. The Iranian people had traded the Shah for the Supreme Leader.


Screen Shot 2017-09-20 at 10.11.12 AM

Leader of The Supremes (left), Supreme Leader (center), Taco Supreme (right)

Scary bearded guy threw us Westerners for a loop. What was this religion that sounded more like a swear word that really cool British exchange student had taught us over beers one night? Shite? What is this?

Khomeini made it clear from the beginning he wasn’t going to be super accommodating to the nationalists and leftists and others who had helped in the revolution. Instead, he went full theocracy. He advanced the idea of Guardianship of the Islamic Jurist, meaning (at least in Khomeini’s interpretation) that an Islamic jurist—in this case, Khomeini (surprise!)—is responsible for the people. Khomeini set up God’s Government, with himself as Supreme Leader, overseeing the Council of the Guardians, who would be experts in Islamic Law. Only he could say what He wanted. Going against Khomeini was going against God. Yikes.

guardians of the galaxy

The Council of the Guardians fights to protect Iran from fanatical anti-Islamic forces. Unfortunately, they are not allowed a killer soundtrack.

Next week: I’m Only Holding You Captive Because I Love You



Welcome to Part 2 of my 4-part series, Iran: They Think We’re Great! in which I look at the history of US-Iran relations and attempt to explain how we got where we are today: each on the other’s shit list.

It’s all part of my effort to bring history and geopolitics to people who want to sound thoughtful at dinner parties but find The Economist too uppity. I’ll be releasing a new segment each week, but if you’d like the whole essay now, sign up for my newsletter and I’ll send it to you! It’s that easy!

Missed Part 1? Read it here.

Want more Finley? I aim to please. Check out my novel, Victor in the Rubble, a satire of the CIA and the war on terror. It’s been called “wickedly funny!” and “a delight!” And don’t miss my other series, including The Intelligence Community: Smart People Looking at Computers and High Heels, Wigs, and Flamboyant Robes (or…Dictators). You can find all my writing here.

And now: Part 2


(Part 2)

Rise of the (Pea)Cock

When we left off last week, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill had convinced US President Dwight Eisenhower that Iran’s democratically elected prime minister, Mohammed Mossadegh, needed to be overthrown because he was a raging communist (oh, and because of the minor detail that he wanted to nationalize Iran’s oil industry). Eisenhower called on the CIA, which called on Kermit the Frog Roosevelt to boot Mossadegh without anyone knowing who was doing the booting.

Kermit the Spy launched TPAJAX, an operation that was a mix of covert influence and propaganda, with false flag operatives and dissidents and paid protestors and a lot of cash, all thrown together to create massive chaos. The plan consisted of choosing a replacement for Mossadegh—one who would, of course, be more amenable to American demands—building support for the would-be new prime minister and the Shah, and whipping up protests and anger against Mossadegh. Basically, it was a giant mind fuck on the Iranian people: False news stories directed at strategically targeted groups, coordinated talking points from high-level US officials bashing Mossadegh, and planned and coordinated protests among anti-Mossadegh factions. (Years later, when Russia would launch a similar influence campaign to affect US elections, the United States would remember AJAX and have a good laugh at the irony of history.)

In an effort to be fair and balanced, Kermit gave the Shah a choice: participate in the coup or be deposed. Being such a strong leader, ready to fight for the rights of his people—even if it meant enormous sacrifice on his part—he pretty damn quickly agreed to cooperate and signed the agreement that would replace Mossadegh with a CIA-chosen military leader. That’s what was best for the Iranian people, or something like that.

On August 15, 1953, Mossadegh received the Shah’s decree dismissing him as prime minister. But Mossadegh was obstinate and refused to accept the order. His supporters flooded the streets, giving the Shah one big “Bye, Felicia!” The coup had failed. The Shah fled to Baghdad and then to Rome, because eating pasta and gelato is a great way to sooth yourself after a failed coup. Washington sent a message telling Kermit to come home. And that was it.

Or so it seemed. Remember, these were the beautiful days before instant communications, before Washington could micromanage every aspect of an operation.

As it turns out, Kermit decided to ignore the cable from CIA headquarters telling him to stand down. On his own volition, the little frog kept pushing. On August 19, Mossadegh turned himself in. A new, pro-American government was now in charge in Iran.

The Iranian people were thrilled that foreigners had yet again come to show them the light, this time by removing the very person they had democratically voted for. That was very kind of the democratic United States to remove him, they all thought.

Shah coronation

It’s hard to believe it now, but Shah Pahlavi, seen here crowning his wife Empress of Iran, had trouble relating to most people in his country.

The Shah—who took the CIA-engineered coup to overthrow an elected and popular prime minister as a sign that the Iranian people really loved him—preened atop the Peacock Throne. He began implementing a number of modernization programs, including giving women the right to vote. He was the first regional leader to recognize Israel (spoiler alert: this Iranian sentiment would eventually change). He also released his not-so-delicate intelligence services, known as SAVAK, on anyone who dared voice dissent, or anyone who even stood next to someone who voiced dissent. Or even that person’s neighbor. Or even that neighbor’s cousin across town. Or even that neighbor’s cousin in another country. Basically, everyone. Everyone was oppressed.

But the US was happy because the oil was flowing again. Hooray! Sure, the Shah was a dictator, but he was our dictator. Plus, he had really spiffy uniforms. We propped him up with tons of weapons, figuring he would stabilize the region on our behalf. The Shah felt empowered, however, figuring the US needed him more than he needed them. He controlled the oil, after all. As world leaders courted him and Iran’s economy boomed, the Shah’s ego got a little big for his pantaloons.

Peacock throne

Despite being covered in rubies and emeralds, the Peacock Throne is remarkably buoyant.

Turns out, all the SAVAK oppression was hiding the fact that many Iranians viewed the Shah as a puppet of the West. They also really didn’t like SAVAK. Distaste for the monarch grew, even though peacock, when prepared just right, is actually quite delicious. His subjects began to see him as corrupt—a $100 million celebration to mark the 2500th anniversary of the Persian Empire, complete with chefs from Paris’s famous Maxim’s restaurant, didn’t help—and it seemed nobody was benefiting from all those reforms he had launched.

One guy in particular was especially pissed. Ruhollah Khomeini, who would become the first Scary Mullah With A Beard with whom we Westerners would become acquainted.


This is a picture of an adorable puppy, because no way am I risking a fatwa by putting an image of Scary Mullah With A Beard.

Next Week: The Last To Know



Regime change in Iran is all the rage again. The Trump Administration is ready to say Iran is not complying with the Iran Deal (even though the intelligence community says it is). And the White House recently circulated a report from the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies calling for toppling Iran’s ruling clerics, and others–from Sen. Tom Cotton to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson–seem to be on board with the concept, at least. (Interesting to note, by the way, that FDD are some of the same people who brought us the invasion of Iraq because of yellowcake in Niger, so this ought to be just as fun.)

But before we go overthrowing governments, I thought it would be a good idea to step back and take a closer look at Iran’s history. How else can we Americans understand what we think is best for them?

Iran: They Think We’re Great! is a four-part series that looks at the history of US-Iran relations and attempts to explain how we got where we are today: each on the other’s shit list.

It’s all part of my effort to bring history and geopolitics to people who want to sound thoughtful at dinner parties but find The Economist too uppity. I’ll be releasing a new segment each week, but if you’d like the whole essay now, sign up for my newsletter and I’ll send it to you! It’s that easy!

Want more Finley? I aim to please. Check out my novel, Victor in the Rubble, a satire of the CIA and the war on terror. It’s been called “wickedly funny!” and “a delight!” And don’t miss my other series, including The Intelligence Community: Smart People Looking at Computers and High Heels, Wigs, and Flamboyant Robes (or…Dictators). You can find all my writing here.

And now (finally!): Part 1


(Part 1)

Tehran Conference

I know, none of these men are Iranian, which is kind of the point.

Would You Like Tea With Your Lube Job?

Located in the exotic Middle East, Iran has a rich linguistic history and a strong tradition of poetry. It is one of the most educated countries in the world and has made enormous contributions to human civilization for more than 9,000 years. Despite this, we in the West generally know Iran as the Country Led By Scary Mullahs With Beards Who Call Us The Great Satan.

You read that right, they think we’re “Great”!

But alas, as countries, we are very far apart, not just geographically, but emotionally and politically. But it wasn’t always thus.

Flock of Seagulls

The Western rock group Flock of Seagulls lamented Iran’s geographic distance with the famous lyrics, “Iran, Iran so far away,” and encapsulated the feeling of so many US-Iranian nationals who’ve visited there recently: “I couldn’t get away.”

The story of modern-day Iran started much like the morning of so many maids working in the New York Sofitel: with unwanted advances from a foreigner.

The British first discovered oil in Iran in 1908. Having no historical context for just how much this was going to fuck them in the future, Iranians were happy to have this wonderful natural resource under their feet. The Brits would extract the oil and give Iran a (small) share of the proceeds, likely while patting their Iranian partners on the back and calling them “Ol’ Chap.” Indeed, the Brits were being super cool about the whole arrangement, making it clear Iran was an independent state and not a colony under British rule—as long as Iran didn’t act out too much.

That didn’t last long. Iranians began advocating for a better deal, as if the oil belonged to them just because it was, you know, located in their country. The British, being British and acting like they owned most of the world (because at that point they basically did), refused to negotiate.

The problem came to a head in 1941, after the Iranian monarch of the time, Reza Shah Pahlavi, flirted a little too openly with Nazi Germany. Fearing Iran would cut off the oil supply the Allies desperately needed to continue fighting Germany, Britain and the Soviet Union decided on a very subtle course of action: They invaded Iran. Reza Shah was shipped off to South Africa and his son, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, became the second (spoiler alert: and last!) monarch in the not-so-long line of the House of Pahlavi.

Shah of iran

Like so many great world leaders, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi earned his position and the admiration of his people by being born into the right family.

Self-Determination For All (LOL JK!)

After the war, the United States and Britain talked about everyone being free. High on having just wiped fascism out of Europe, Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill promoted the idea of self-determination, saying people should be free to choose their own government and have control over their own country. They didn’t mean that literally, of course. Fuck no. It was more like a wink wink nudge nudge kind of thing. You do you, and we’ll keep taking the oil.

A charismatic statesman named Mohammad Mossadegh decided to change all that. Elected as Prime Minister of Iran in 1951, he fomented a nationalist movement and made the grave error of stating (out loud!) that he planned to nationalize Iran’s oil. Can you imagine the gall of this guy, thinking Iran’s oil belonged to Iran? The Brits and Americans felt slighted. They yelled about how they had paid for all the infrastructure to extract the oil. They pointed out that they were the ones who had trained Iranians how to extract the oil. Surely, they had a say in the whole thing?

But Mossadegh was having none of it. For some reason, he thought oil in Iran should belong to Iranians.

Churchill, who had just become Britain’s prime minister again after leading the opposition and drinking for six years, approached the administration of President Dwight Eisenhower and asked the United States to overthrow Mossadegh, presumably because the British were too proper to do such distasteful work themselves. While the covert plan was in reality about oil (most Western foreign policy is), Churchill was not so crass as to say that out loud. Rather, he used a tactic sure to resonate with Eisenhower: He whispered, “COMMIES!” over and over while pointing at Mossadegh.

But who could handle such a delicate operation? Overthrowing a government and making it look like a popular uprising is no easy task. The CIA turned to a veteran spy with years of experience in the Middle East: Kermit Roosevelt.

I know what you’re thinking with a name like that. Nepotism, am I right?

Oh, you mean “Kermit.” Yes, it’s true. People used to actually name their children that. The fact that he was Teddy Roosevelt’s grandson was irrelevant. Kermit was to be the quiet, hidden force behind the coup. Long before Pepe the Frog, Kermit was about to help install a government.


It’s not easy being green, or covertly overthrowing a democratically elected government. Long before Pepe, Kermit was involved in regime change.


Next week: Rise of the (Pea)Cock


Welcome to part 7 of my 7-part series on dictators, an irreverent guide to some of history’s worst people and part of my effort to bring geopolitics and history to people who want to sound thoughtful at dinner parties but are too lazy to read The Economist.

I’ll be releasing a new segment of this essay each week. If you’d like the entire essay now, please join my mailing list and I’ll send it to you. It’s that easy!

Missed part 1? Read it here.

You also missed part 2? Read it here.

Damn, you also missed part 3? What’s up with that? Read it here.

Seriously, you never read part 4? That’s messed up. Read it here.

Part 5, too? What the fuck is wrong with you? Read it here.

For fuck’s sake, read part 6 here.

Want more laughs? Check out my novel, Victor in the Rubble, a satire of CIA and the War on Terror. One reader “thought it would be funnier,” but agreed it was “still a very enjoyable book.” I hope you’ll check it out. In the meantime, enjoy learning about dictators!




(Part 7)

On the other side of the world, South America’s most “charismatic leader” (aka dictator) was the late Hugo Chavez of Venezuela. Chavez tried to take over the country in a coup in 1992 but failed. So he turned to the electoral system instead, and oddly enough, it worked.

Chavez was less interested in spending his country’s money on himself than in running its economy into the ground while shouting about imperialist pigs (that’s us). The United States was responsible for everything bad. Not sunny on Margarita Island today? Blame the United States. Venezuela takes narco money even though it has tons of oil? Blame the United States. Opposition leaders talking shit about you? Jail them for planning a coup backed by the United States. Chavez even blamed the United States when he got cancer. Basically, anything wrong in the world is the fault of the United States.

He was rather poetic, a manner he skillfully employed as the spiritual leader of La Revolución Bolivariana, promoting a blend of populism and socialism that also required that he have mythical status.

He cultivated this image by always being on television. He was on television for hours a day. I’m not sure he ever took a pee break. By some estimates, he spent 40 hours a week on TV. His ministers were required to attend the broadcast, and sometimes El Presidente made policy on the show. Once on TV he ordered troops to the border with Colombia (a move that was necessary because of, you guessed it, U.S. domination in Colombia), like if Nene Leakes used her reality show platform to bomb Kim Zolciak (for liking the United States).

I’m not sure how Chavez ran the country when he was so busy being both Hoda and Kathie Lee and his ministers were like Oprah’s audience waiting for their favorite things. But it worked, if by “worked” you mean the country ran out of everything.

Even though Venezuela has lots of oil and sold most of it to the United States (we may be imperialist pigs, but even a socialist has a soft spot for greenbacks), Venezuela has excelled at lacking enough dollars to purchase anything on the international market, which is particularly awesome when you factor in the fact that Venezuela produces very little of its own. Soon, store shelves were empty. The people Chavez was fighting so hard for were in deep shit, literally, because they had no toilet paper. And you know whose fault that was? Ours, the imperialist pigs, the only ones buying oil and providing any cash to the country.

Admittedly, being a Chavista can be complicated.

So instead of allowing his people to think logically, Chavez appealed to their need for spiritual fulfillment and took on the role of religious icon overseeing the revolution. He also had really cool friends like Sean Penn.


Sean Penn explains how Hugo Chavez had the Venezuelan people by the balls.

Venezuelans ate up this legend Chavez created, maybe because they didn’t have any food. When he exhumed the body of Simón Bolivar, the popular revolutionary leader who led the fight for independence of much of South America from the Spanish, in a clear attempt to ride the dead socialist’s coattails, Chavez live-tweeted the somber ceremony, telling his adoring followers, “That glorious skeleton must be Bolivar, because his flame can be felt. Bolivar lives!”

Bolivar still lives, now in the form of Chavez’s ghost, which shows itself at politically expedient times. After Chavez succumbed to the cancer rays the United States shot at him, he appeared to his anointed successor, Nicolas Maduro, as a little bird. You know what the little bird told Maduro to tell the people? That they should vote for Maduro or risk being cursed. And like hell if the people were going to take that risk, considering all the other deep shit they were in already, and not listen to the little talking bird. Maduro won the election.

Maduro also said that Chavez went to Heaven and told Jesus to pick a South American Pope. Chavez really has some pull.

Who can blame Maduro for turning to miracles? This bus-driver-turned-politician has, after all, been running the economy on a wing and a prayer. Maduro has cracked down on the shop owners who create long lines outside their stores by refusing to stock their shelves with the products they can no longer buy because their currency is worth less, literally, than toilet paper.

Venezuela has even had to start importing oil, despite its vast supply, from the imperialist pigs up north. When even Cubans look at your country and wince, it may be time to rethink your life choices.

Often dressed in a bright yellow, blue, and red zip up sweatshirt that makes him look like a member of the Romanian Olympic gymnastics team, Maduro lacks the charisma of a dictator and I’m guessing he won’t last as long as Chavez did. As a wise Venezuelan once told me, the problem isn’t that Maduro is a former bus driver; it’s that he doesn’t know how to drive.


Nicolas Maduro, after perfectly landing a triple back flip with a twist for the Romanian Olympic gymnastics team.