At home all over the world, historian chooses Shelter Island

PETER BOODY PHOTO | Historian and author Andrew Scott Cooper at his Island apartment and writing studio.

If you want to know how much of the hit 2012 film “Argo” is true, just ask the fellow you might have seen riding his bike down Manhanset Road toward the Project FIT gym most days before lunch this fall.

The author of a 2012 book called “The Oil Kings” and now at work on a sequel, Andrew Scott Cooper is an historian who spent seven years researching American-Iranian relations, delving into documents never before made public.  He’s interviewed protagonists who have never wanted to talk about Iran before, from former Defense Secretary James Schlesinger and bodyguards of Ayatollah Komeini to former National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft and Empress Farah Pahlavi, the widow of the Shah whose own policies helped foster the revolution that destroyed him — with some help from the U.S.

Leading a monastic existence while he works under deadline in a rented Hay Beach garage apartment this fall and winter, Mr. Cooper’s still untitled follow-up book picks up where “Oil Kings” left off: the 1979 Islamic Revolution and its disastrous impact on American security interests in the region.

Of Ben Affleck’s 2012 film about a zany yet successful CIA plot to extract a small group of Americans marooned at the Canadian embassy in Tehran in 1979, Mr. Cooper said of “the entire opening, the historical set up, I will venture to say that every date and every fact is incorrect.”

“There was this scheme to get people out but it didn’t transpire in the way Affleck said it did,” Mr. Cooper said during an interview in his one-bedroom apartment, where he works from 4:30 a.m. at a built-in work station framed by large windows and covered with carefully organized stacks of notes, transcripts, clippings and documents.

“Historians get upset because we understand the power of cinema and we just hope filmmakers will do a little fact-checking,” Mr. Cooper said. “The reality of it is so much more exciting and dramatic than anything you could write in a Hollywood shop.”

Americans, he said, have no idea there were 50,000 of their fellow citizens living and working in Iran when the revolution came, leading ordinary lives, their children attending American schools with cheerleading teams and marching bands. In fact, there’s a collective amnesia here about Iran and its revolution.

That national blind spot, and the decades it has taken for contemporary documents to be declassified, and surviving participants to feel comfortable sharing their memories, has meant Mr. Cooper’s work is the first to delve deeply into the minutest details of American-Iranian relations as well as the most sweeping political, economic and cultural aspects of the period and its aftermath.

A 44-year-old New Zealander who became a U.S. citizen a decade ago, Mr. Cooper wrote the first book in Greece, where a friend invited him to come stay while he worked. For this book, he wanted to be back in the U.S., on the East Coast for easier access to American documents and sources, but couldn’t afford a city place. A friend he met when he ran the alumni office at the Columbia School of Journalism in the mid-1990s guided him to Shelter Island; she has a place here and knew about the seasonal rental above her neighbor’s garage.

“It’s absolutely perfect,” he said of his clean, well-lighted place. Shelter Island is perfect, too. “What a luxury to be at this age and have a book contract and living on a beautiful Island and to be out riding your bike to the gym while other people are sitting in their offices,” he said.

“This is what I was born to do,” he said of researching and writing history. But it’s not a job that pays. Other than his contract advance, “I haven’t made a dime from the book,” he said. So this next book, he thinks, will be his last.

“I simply can’t afford it. It makes me happy and I love doing it but you have to be mad at some point to keep sacrificing over and over again.” With big student loans to be paid, he’s got his eye out for a university teaching job when the book is done.

He knew at age nine he wanted to be a historian. Born in 1969 in Wellington, the son of an electrician and homemaker, he can remember his fear and fascination watching the TV news and seeing women cloaked in black with faces hidden. There wasn’t much to read about Iranian history so he dove into other big topics, first on World War II and the Holocaust. Moving on in his studies he discovered “it’s all connected.”

Eager to see the wider world, he talked a Wellington newspaper and Radio New Zealand into getting him credentials to cover Bill Clinton’s election from Little Rock as a stringer — paying his bills by waiting tables and working as a gardener.

That gig inspired him to apply to the Columbia School of Journalism, from which he graduated in 1994. He soon landed a job as a researcher at the United Nations. From there, Human Rights Watch recruited him to come to Washington to work as an investigator.

After a few years and another research job in San Francisco, he came back to New York to take the position at the alumni office at Columbia. But in 2006, after three years, he decided to go back to school to study history — and the oil industry in particular. He entered the master’s program in strategic studies at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland.

“I finally concluded that I was really the happiest studying history, but wanted to do more than study; I had to find my own niche within the history profession,” he said. “It’s not easy. You have to stumble across something new … and I needed a very big topic. I remembered my interest in the Iranian revolution all those years ago.”

When he wrote a scholarly piece on the revolution and published it in the Middle East Journal, the Los Angeles Times reported on it with a piece headlined “U.S. May Have Role in Shah’s Fall.” The story went viral.

After writing “The Oil Kings,” he went back to New Zealand to get his Ph.D. and to teach. There he wrote the pitch for his follow-up book, for which Henry Holt and Company gave him a contract.

His book, he said, will cover all the geo-political connections as well as the details, including word for word accounts of discussions held by the president, the secretary of state and the national security advisor in the Oval Office.

“I can tell you hour by hour what was going on in the White House and the Shah’s palace,” Mr. Cooper said. “I can also tell you what the weather was like, what movies were playing in Tehran on a certain day … Details are important to me. Readers want to know what daily life was like; they want to be on the street with everything happening all around them.”