On American TV in the 1980s, the only Iranian who was a bigger star than Hossein Khosrow Ali Vaziri was Ayatollah Khomeini. They appeared on different channels: Khomeini, the cleric turned autocrat, had a recurring role on the nightly news, while Vaziri—a pro wrestler better known as the Iron Sheik—could be seen in various syndicated and pay-per-view broadcasts. But the two men played variations of the same role. Both were heels.
In wrestling-speak, heels are villains, there to excite an audience’s resentment and anger. Wrestling audiences are typically male, which means a heel can rile a crowd by exploiting male insecurities. Iron Sheik’s ’80s contemporary Ravishing Rick Rude played off these feelings with his sculpted torso and Selleckian mustache, while Million Dollar Man Ted DiBiase mocked working-class values by playing a smug, rich jerk who literally threw cash at people.
Iron Sheik and Khomeini were political heels, taking aim at America’s macho belief in its omnipotent goodness—a raw nerve in the wake of Vietnam. Supporting the students who took hostages inside the U.S. embassy in Tehran, the dour, ascetic Khomeini was Carter’s heel, then Reagan’s. Iron Sheik was a foil to Hulk Hogan. He would enter the ring with his “Russian” partner Nikolai Volkoff (actually a Croat, Josip Hrvoje Peruzovic). Volkoff would bellow the Soviet national anthem, then Iron Sheik would take the mic to summarize his unique value proposition in Persian-accented English: “Rush-aw, number vun. Eee-run, number vun. USA, khack-tfff.” (Khack-tfff is how you spell Iron Sheik spitting on America.)
In 1984, Iron Sheik lost the heavyweight title to Hogan, who reinforced the national importance of his victory by releasing a hard-rock anthem titled “Real American.” Sheik’s chic faded with Khomeini’s; the Ayatollah died in 1989. When Saddam Hussein became TV news’ new heel of choice, Vaziri took the more Gulf War–sounding name Colonel Mustafa, another cartoonish persona. But the character fell flat—Hussein was already a cartoon.
For the last few decades of his life Vaziri, who died in June at the age of 81, lived in Fayetteville. His public renaissance came when he took the Iron Sheik character to Twitter. Many of the kids glued to their TVs on Saturday morning in the ’80s were now adults glued to social media. He endeared himself to them, and to a younger generation, by savvily hating things people on Twitter like to hate (e.g., Mondays), liking things people on Twitter like to like (e.g., Steely Dan), and exuberantly sprinkling the f-word into his all-caps tweets.
By being an ironic Sheik on Twitter, Vaziri didn’t just revive his public profile. He transformed himself from heel to hero. That he may not have written his own tweets didn’t matter. If anything, it helped. In 2023, being successful enough to have a marketing team manage your personal brand is about as real American as it gets.
This article appears in our August 2023 issue.