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About Ardeshir Zahedi

The following is the chapter on "Aredeshir Zahedi" from Dr. Abbas Milani's book, Eminent Persians. Published by Syracuse University Press in 2008, Eminent Persians consists of two volumes, profiling 150 of Iran's most prominent figures in politics, economics, and culture between the World War II period and the 1979 Islamic Revolution. 

Ambassador Ardeshir Zahedi

"Iran's last king was his father-in-law. Egypt's last king was his mother-in-law's elder brother. A third king was his maternal grandfather; his own father might have become a king in August of 1953 but instead opted for the role of kingmaker. He personally knew eight American presidents– Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter and Bush senior– and for about a decade, ending with the Islamic Revolution, he was Iran’s storied ambassador to the United States. Elizabeth Taylor and Jackie Onassis, Liza Minelli and Barbara Walters were in the litany of notable women whose names were linked romantically with his. He was also one of the figures most reviled by the Iranian opposition as a participant in the “CIA coup” that toppled the government of Dr. Mohammad Mossadeq. That he was Iran’s ambassador to London and Washington precisely at the time when the Iranian student movement opposed to the shah was reaching the zenith of its power and the fact that he used all the instruments at his disposal– from tough talk and action to generous rewards– to disarm, or “co-opt,” the opposition, made him one of their favorite targets.

He is Aredeshir Zahedi, surely one of the most remarkable, and controversial, characters in modern Iranian politics. 

I once saw him work a room. His performance was a work of art, with an infinite variety of nuanced gestures, nods, smiles, embraces, and mots justes. To some ladies, he offered a nod; others got a handshake; a few received a perfunctory, but discernable, bow toward their slightly raised hands; still fewer had their fingertips kissed. Equally noticeable was his behavior with the waiters and others who served the guests. He sought them out, affably shook their hands and treated them with lavish tips and an endearing dignity. At the same time, rumors were widespread of his rough treatment of errant employees in his embassy or at the Iranian Foreign Ministry. When angry, it was said, he was capable of quite foul language. 

Zahedi’s current home, the Villa Les Roses in the lakeside town of Montreux, near Lausanne in Switzerland, is a treasure house of his past vocations, present avocations, and the nostalgia of exile. It is replete with reminders of Persia– rugs and photographs in the house, jasmine and roses in the garden. Pictures of kings and presidents sit side by side with those of family and friends and a bevy of beautiful, often famous, women, but though his love life was for years the subject of the media’s obsessive curiosity, he refuses to divulge any details of his amours, maintaining a chivalrous silence that adds allure and mystery to his already storied affairs. 

The largest image at Villa Les Roses is devoted to his father– an oil painting of General Fazolollah Zahedi in full military regalia. It was the general who purchased the villa not long after he had been forced out of power and out of Iran. On entering the villa, visitors encounter a simple glass case filled with the medals and honors Aredeshir has received. They include everything from an oversized red medal of the Soviet Union to the soft blue Taj, the highest honor of the Pahlavi era.

All around the house, even in its handsome stone-finished cellar, are documents and newspaper clippings, some neatly filed, others stacked in orderly piles. Zahedi is something of an archivist. Beneath the facade of a flippant playboy who, according to his critics, rose to power on his handsome looks, his family connections, his marriage to the shah’s daughter, and his ties to the Americans, there thrives a serious, disciplined retired diplomat, with a penchant for politics, a clear understanding of his “beloved monarch’s” weaknesses and strengths, an unbending resolution not to criticize the shah openly “since he is dead,” and yet an uncompromising and often harsh disposition toward many others in the royal family. Above all, he maintains a global network of loyal, often still powerful, sometimes colorful friends. In his salad days, some of these friends were more a liability than an asset, but like his father, he is famous for fidelity to a legion of past associates and present admirers. 

During his tenure as Iran’s ambassador to the United States, the monthly Washington Dossier, a “glossy magazine that circulates among socialites,” had at least one reference to Zahedi in each of its issues. In November 1970, he was profiled as “one of Washington’s ten perfect gentlemen.” In June 1978, he was on the cover of the magazine, “with Beverly Sills at his side.” Sally Quinn, the doyenne of the Washington social scene, called him the city’s most gracious host and most eligible bachelor. 

Even writers of pulp fiction and cheap airport romance novels have taken an interest in his life. One made him an unenviable central character in a paperback novel that is comically callous in both style and content. Called Power-Eaters, the novel, which claimed to be “the most erotic novel you will read,” chronicled the life of the shah, who wants to rule the world by first taking down Air Force One! One of the leading characters in the novel is “Razedi,” clearly modeled after Zahedi, with many references to the actual media stories of his life.

The actual Aredeshir Zahedi was born in Tehran in October 1927 (1307) or 1928 (1308). His maternal grandfather, Motamen-al Molk Pirnia, was one of his generation’s most venerable statesman and arguably one of the most authoritative Speakers in the history of Iran’s Majlis. Pirnia was also an unusually modern man. He sent his daughters, including Aredeshir’s mother, Khadijeh, to Europe for their education. That was where Khadijeh learned to play the piano. 

On his paternal side, Zahedi’s family were landlords in the city of Hamadan. A generation earlier, there had been some clerics in the family, and thus the surname of Zahedi, or “man of piety.” Aredeshir’s father, General Fazlollah Zahedi, was surely one of the more charismatic army officers of his time. He was already famous as a flamboyant officer, with a penchant for womanizing, when he married Aredeshir’s fiercely independent mother, Khadijeh. 

The inherently fragile marriage of these two assertive individuals was made more complicated by the fact that the general was often away on military missions. On such occasions, his bride lived with her father. It was during one of these absences that Aredeshir was born. It was a complicated birth, but mother and child both survived. Three years later, Aredeshir’s younger sister, Homa, was born. 

Their father was stern but kind, a disciplinarian, but averse to physical punishment. A mere angry look was all it took to silence the children. He was also keen on teaching his son the “manly arts.” No sooner could Aredeshir get on a horse than he was taught to ride; every morning he would be awakened at four in the morning for his lessons in riding and hunting. 

Aredeshir was only about seven years old when, to his great agony, his parents decided to divorce. He lived the next few years in his parents’ joint custody, spending time intermittently with his mother and father. While his mother’s house offered the serenity and security of doting and deeply cultured grandparents, his father lived a more eventful life and became, before long, “the true hero” of the young boy’s life, And as is often the case, admirations easily turned into emulation, or more accurately, emulation became a form of registering admiration. 

Never fully at peace with his parents’ divorce, Aredeshir found it even harder to accept the decision of both to remarry. It took him many years to warm to his father’s new bride, while his reaction to his mother’s second marriage was even angrier. In a letter written sometime in 1955, General Zahedi complains about Aredeshir’s “interference” in his “private life.” “Did I ever interfere in your private life,” he writes plaintively, “that you now see fit to interfere in mine?”

Aredeshir completed most of his early schooling in Iran. He was by no means a natural scholar; indeed his aversion to academic study would later become something of a political liability for him. When he was serving as foreign minister, for example, he was reported to have written “this pimp will not go to this embassy; send another pimp,” misspelling the word “pimp” (dayouth). His enemies made the error into a cause célebre and tried, unsuccessfully, to convince the shah that Zahedi was too illiterate to be foreign minister. His handwriting, too, was–and remains–all but indecipherable, and the syntax of his letters often left much to be desired. But the clarity of his purpose, and the surprising honesty and fearlessness of his utterances–which often, according to his father, turned into a cascade of rash words–more than compensated for any shortcomings in his orthography and penmanship.

Zahedi’s ability to communicate would be amply demonstrated in 1971 when the monarchy celebrated its twenty-five hundred years of rule in Iran with an extravagant desert party. Ministers and the media showered the shah with panegyrics about the magnificence and sublime wisdom of the celebration. Zahedi wrote a letter, harsh in tone, uncompromising in honesty, protesting to the shah that to keep things quiet during the festivities, hundreds of youths had been rounded up by SAVAK in all major cities, on the pretext that they were communists, and herded into makeshift jails. Only a few, he wrote, were known communists, while many were innocent kids. 

He also criticized the ceremonies for the extravagance of their cost, and for the decision to have the food served by Maxim’s of Paris. If we are such an old country, he asked, why then could we not serve some traditional Iranian dishes like kabab? Of course Zahedi began this letter, as he did all his correspondence to the shah, with profuse praise, calling the shah “The Shadow of my God,” and ended by offering “to kiss Your Royal Feet a thousand times.” The shah, perhaps understandably, did not respond to the letter. But there was no doubt of Zahedi’s loyalty or respect. Ironically, while in the letter Zahedi opposed the ostentatious celebrations and called for more simplicity, he is believed to be the person who tried (and failed) to make it a requirement for Iranians meeting the shah to kneel while kissing the king’s hands. 

Shortly after the beginning of World War II in Europe, Aredeshir’s father was named commander of an Iranian army division stationed in the vicinity of Isfahan. Soon the British, who had occupied Iran after Reza Shah had failed to expel German nationals from the country, arrested General Zahedi as a Nazi sympathizer. The general’s arrest left an indelible mark on the young Aredeshir. All through his later life as a diplomat, hints of a lingering tension with the British could be discerned in his behavior. The attitude of the British Embassy and Foreign Office toward him was equally rancorous. When given a choice in 1963 to become ambassador to either Rome or London, he chose the latter at least partly in the hope of “clearing the air between his father” and the British. 

In 1942, with his father in prison, Aredeshir and his younger sister, Homa, were sent to Tehran, where they spent the next three years. No sooner was Aredeshir registered at the Adab School than he began agitating against the British. In fact, he and a couple of his friends started a pro-German “party” that had its own Nazi insignia. 

In 1945, Aredeshir was sent to Beirut to continue his education. He enrolled in the Eslamiye high school, and it was there that he organized a political rally against the Soviet occupation of parts of Iran. Anticommunism would henceforth remain an essential element of his political vision. 

In 1946, he set out for the United States, where he ended up at Utah State University. He received a bachelor’s degree in agricultural engineering (the origin of his often-used title of Muhandess, or engineer). In one biographical document, he would later declare his specialty as “dairy farming.” His grades were mediocre, but the experience was formative. During the summers, he traveled around the United States all the way to Alaska, often working at menial jobs–from factory labor at canneries to busing at restaurants. To his father’s nagging annoyance, by then another of Aredeshir’s character traits had become clear. He was a spendthrift and generous to a fault. Having tried constant pleas, complaints, and advice on the value of money and the dangers of sycophantic fair-weather friends, the general put his wayward son on a tight budget. 

Aredeshir’s stay in the United States had another, crucial consequence. In 1949, when the shah traveled there, he visited Utah; Aredeshir for the first time spent some time with the monarch. It was the beginning of an enduring relationship, one that would last until the final days of the shah’s life. Through thick and thin, Zahedi would remain loyal to the shah. 

In 1950, Aredeshir returned to Iran and soon began to work for Point Four, an American aid program helping Iran develop its infrastructure. Point Four also sponsored programs to fight malaria and malnutrition. A year later, Dr. Mohammad Mossadeq became prime minister and was soon embroiled in a bitter battle with the shah and his supporters, particularly Aredeshir’s father, General Zahedi. Aredeshir became at first a pawn, and then an active participant, in this struggle. In an apparent attempt to put pressure on General Zahedi, his chief rival, Dr. Mossadeq arranged for the dismissal of Aredeshir from his job at Point-IV. Aredeshir was eventually arrested, on the charge of conspiring against the government. 

Aredeshir spent a few eventful weeks in prison. On one occasion he was slapped by Dr. Gholamhoseyn Sadiqi– Mossadeq’s erudite and otherwise prudent minister. Another time he was beaten by a soldier. Ultimately, he succeeded in escaping from prison. The physical scars and pain of the prison experience continue to live with him in the form of a disc badly damaged by the blow of a rifle butt. 

The events of August 1953 brought these simmering tensions to a boil. They catapulted Aredeshir to the center of Iranian politics and endeared him to the shah. At the same time, his role in these events made him, for the rest of his life, the bane of the opposition. 

According to a CIA report, during the events of August 1953, Aredeshir “served as a liaison between the groups of the Shah’s supporters and his father.” His own memoir of those fateful days, called Five Days of Crisis, offers a detailed but different account of events. On some points, the two narratives agree. On August 16, at around two o’clock in the morning, the shah’s supporters had realized that Mossadeq was not going to accept the shah’s decree dismissing him and appointing General Zahedi prime minister. Aredeshir, in full coordination with his father and their other allies, set out to make and distribute copies of the royal decree appointing the general prime minister. While the CIA’s account claims they masterminded every move, Zahedi maintains that he and the Iranian supporters of his father and the shah were in charge. 

Either way, it was a dangerous task. Mossadeq had declared martial law and a dawn-to-dusk curfew throughout Tehran. Zahedi hid the original of the decree under the battery of the military jeep he was driving, in case he encountered an inspection post. In fact, he was not only stopped, but the officer in charge recognized Zahedi’s face. There was at the time a reward of one hundred thousand tooman (about $33,000) for his arrest. The officer told Zahedi not to move; unbeknownst to the officer, not just Zahedi’s life but the fate of the shah hung in the balance. The officer took a few steps in the direction of his commander, then hesitated. He returned and told Zahedi to move on. According to Zahedi, it took him several years to find that officer and return the favor. Historians, obsessed with the roles of heroes and villains, often overlook anonymous participants like that officer whose actions, unassumingly, change the course of events.

After copies of the royal decree were made at the famous Sacco photo shop in Tehran, they were given to several journalists who had been invited to the hills in the outskirts of Tehran. Zahedi explained that his father was now the “legal prime minister” of the country. The American Embassy reports the events this way: “Late morning August 16, Correspondents Donald Scwhind, Associated Press and Kenneth Love, New York Times, went to hills north of Tehran…[General] Zahedi not present but son showed signed decree from Shah and gave Photostats of it to newsmen. Decree signed by the Shah… Zahedi’s son said father naturally in hiding; that coup not intended.”

By the next day, August 17, Zahedi had a meeting–his first meeting, in his reckoning–with Kermit Roosevelt, who had been dispatched to Iran to help topple the government of Mossadeq. Roosevelt provided Zahedi with a pass, allowing him to move around Tehran after curfew.

During the next forty-eight hours, Zahedi was constantly at work, trying to round up support for his father and for the shah, whose unexpected and precipitous departure from the country had badly damaged the cause of the attempt to remove Mossadeq. Nevertheless, the shah’s supporters, some driven by nationalist sentiments, others frightened by the specter of communism, and still a third group “encouraged” by generous cash payments from CIA operatives and their Iranian allies, were not altogether deterred. 

By the end of the day on August 18, both the American and British organizers of the anti-Mossadeq coup had decided that the attempt had failed. They must, they decided, “take a whole new look at the Iranian situation” and would “probably have to snuggle up to Mossadeq if we are going to have anything there.”

But Zahedi and his allies had not given up. According to Kermit Roosevelt, he too did not give up. On August 19, the tide turned. As Aredeshir has never tired of emphasizing, what happened on that morning was nothing less than a heroic national uprising in favor of the shah. The opposition, on the other hand, as well as many scholars in subsequent years, denigrate the events of the day as nothing more than a cynical coup by British and American intelligence agencies and their mercenaries. The fact that the clergy, led by Ayatollah Kashani, joined the ranks of Massadeq’s opponents helped seal his fate. What is clear is that by the end of the night, General Zahedi was the new prime minister, and Aredeshir was his indefatigable aide-de-camp, advisor, and emissary.

When the shah returned five days later, Aredeshir acted as a trusted courier between his father and the monarch. Each day, often more than once, he would travel between the court and the offices where his father was established, taking some of the more sensitive messages between the shah and his prime minister. He also acted as his father’s translator when the general was meeting with important English-speaking diplomats or dignitaries. He was eventually named a special advisor to the prime minister and civil adjutant to the shah.

During the next two years, while his father served as a powerful and controversial prime minister, Aredeshir was almost always at his side, serving as his special emissary for many important and sensitive discussions. At the same time he wrote, in Persian, his version of the events surrounding the August event, Five Days of Crisis. For the rest of his life, he has remained uncompromising in his belief that his report–often at odds with much of what his opponents, and sometimes even the shah’s supporters, claim–is the truth, and that other narratives are marred either by ignorance or by deliberate disinformation. 

Zahedi’s allegiance to his father, and his own growing closeness to the shah, came into heart-wrenching conflict in 1955 when his father was forced by the shah to resign and leave the country. After some brooding, and contemplating leaving Iran altogether, Zahedi decided to remain and work with the shah. His father had been a strong advocate of this decision. Aredeshir began to work, initially ad hoc, on the problem of helping the growing number of Iranian students studying abroad. A major change occurred in his life in those years when he married the shah’s daughter, Shahnaz. The two had first met when the shah traveled to Europe in 1955. There, in spite of objections from his wife, Queen Soraya, who disliked Shahnaz, the shah had met with his daughter. As Zahedi was part of his entourage, he was introduced to the young princess. Before long, the two were in love and decided to marry. But love in courts is never just a matter of hearts. There were many around the shah and in the royal family who were adamantly opposed to this union. In the tense weeks after the young couple announced their intention, a roadside bomb almost killed Zahedi. He came to believe that it was someone from the inner circle of the court, and opposed to the marriage, who had organized or paid for the plot. 

Among the objections raised against him, one was the charge that he consorted with “riffraff.” Zahedi told the shah about his circle of high school friends, among them a mechanic, and insisted that he would not give up his friends. The whisper on the street was that the shah wanted to endear himself to the Americans by having America’s “good boy” marry his daughter. Others suggested that the marriage was a gesture by the shah intended to make up for the way he had treated General Zahedi. But Aredeshir believes that, aside from the love he and his future had for one another, the support of the shah’s powerful mother was a determining force that enabled him to surmount the fierce opposition. In October of 1957, in a relatively simple ceremony, Aredeshir and Princess Shahnaz were married. Since relations between Soraya, then the queen, and Shahnaz had been tense and full of rancor, the shah had earlier attended the engagement ceremony only for a few minutes. For the wedding, however, he showed up and stayed longer. 

During the first years of their marriage, a comment by Princess Shahnaz raised eyebrows in the court, and put Zahedi in line to be the father of Iran’s future king. She claimed that absent a son for the shah, if she had a child, and it was a boy, he would be the legitimate heir to the Pahlavi throne. It was also the view of the American State Department at the time that “with the betrothal of Princess Shahnaz to Aredeshir Zahedi, it is now considered likely that any son of theirs would be the most promising claimant to the throne.”

Queen Soraya could not, in spite of repeated medical efforts, bear a child. Ultimately the shah divorced her and began a search for a new queen who, it was hoped, might bear him a son. As the shah’s son-in-law, one of Zahedi’s most consequential actions was his role in finding a new queen for Iran. It was Zahedi and Shahnaz who found a tall young Iranian girl, then studying architecture in Paris, whom they introduced to the shah. Her name was Farah. It was in Zahedi’s home that the original meeting between the shah and his future queen took place. 

In 1959, Zahedi was named Iran’s ambassador to the United States. This would be the first of the two terms he served in Washington. Ever since Nixon’s trip to Iran in 1953, the shah, as well as Zahedi, had had close ties to Richard Nixon. Zahedi’s tenure in Washinton was tumultuous and controversial. On the one hand, a rumor began that haunted him and the shah for the next two decades. It was said the shah illegally made a substantial contribution to the 1960 Nixon presidential campaign. Assadollah Alam, the shah’s trusted court minister, refers to these payments more than once in his Diaries. Zahedi, on the other hand, has repeatedly and emphatically denied any payment of money to any of the three Nixon presidential campaigns. 

There were other reasons that Zahedi’s first tenure in Washington was brief and troubled. The Kennedy brothers, particularly Robert Kennedy, despised the shah and on more than one occasion sheltered members of the Iranian student opposition. One such figure was Sadeq Gotbzadeh, who twenty years later would become Iran’s foreign minister under the Islamic Republic (and would then be executed on the charge on attempting a coup). Zahedi clashed with the Kennedy administration over the fate of these students. He insisted that because they were not attending school, they must be sent home to Iran, but the White House, strongly backed by Robert Kennedy and the Justice Department, refused. Eventually these tensions and changes in Iran, particularly the appointment of Ali Amini to the post of prime minister, led to Zahedi’s decision to return home. 

Before long, Zahedi had his next ambassadorial appointment, this time to London. It was, for many reasons, a tough assignment. His wife had wanted to go to Rome, preferring its sunny climate to London’s dark, damp weather. But London and Washington were the most important ambassadorial posts in Iran’s foreign service. 

Arriving in London, Zahedi set out quickly to “open a new chapter of cordiality between Britain and Iran.” He opened the Iranian Embassy in London to a wide array of political, cultural, and social figures. He paved the way for British firms–vehicle makers, for example, of everything from heavy tanks to automobiles–to return to Iran and expand the British share of the Iranian market. Members of Parliament, painters and writers, journalists and scholars were lavishly entertained either at the embassy or at glittering receptions in West End galleries and theaters. The British Foreign Office found his work in London surprisingly successful: “He did a remarkable job in London in his fashion. Inexperienced, not a profound thinker, and apt to be impetuous, his strictly professional performance at times left something to be desired. But he entertained incessantly and lavishly, was extremely generous, and had a remarkably wide circle of friends and acquaintances. He was better known in London than any of his predecessors…He did a lot single-handed towards putting Iran on the map.” 

Zahedi’s success as an ambassador came at a heavy price: his marriage to Shahnaz was on the verge of dissolution. Much has been written, from gossip columns to embassy reports, about the reasons for the breakup. But the truth has yet to be discovered; neither Aredeshir nor his estranged wife has provided details.

It is a measure of Zahedi’s political resilience that his power grew, rather than diminished, after the divorce. After three years in London, he received a call from the shah telling him that he would be soon named foreign minister. 

Zahedi showed his true mettle once he was appointed Iran’s foreign minister on January 5, 1967. To some, it was an occasion “to live down the playboy reputation of his youth and the ‘glittering’ reputation gained as ambassador to the United States between 1960 and 1962.” A report of the American Embassy in Tehran praised him for introducing “a completely new style, a new spirit of activism, and even flamboyance into the conduct of the foreign ministry…During the first few weeks of his tenure…[he] spent not only his days, but most of his nights there…[his] metallic blue Rolls Royce is still seen parked in front of the ministry at two o’clock or even later in the morning.” His only daughter, Mahnaz, was by then nine years old, and Zahedi had “disclosed that his only opportunity to be with his…daughter is at breakfast at 7 o’clock.” In the same report, the embassy officials indicated that the shah had been working to bring about a “possible reconciliation between Zahedi and…Princess Shahnaz.”

The British, on the other hand, offered a starkly different assessment of Zahedi’s first ministerial portfolio. They wrote that “since becoming Foreign Minister his inexperience and impetuosity added to his growing nationalism have made for difficulties in our dealing with the Iranians. In recent months his extreme nationalism particularly on Persian Gulf affairs have at moments seemed likely to do considerable harm to the Anglo-Iranian relations.”

Zahedi brought about a number of policy and personal changes in the Foreign Ministry. “He instituted a system of night duty officers,” requiring every “division to take turns at the vigils.” For the first time, he required “note takers present during talks with foreign diplomats.”

Of course not all was smooth sailing. His relationship with the prime minister, Amir-Abbas Hoveyda, was marked by tension bordering on animosity. From the first day of his appointment as foreign minister, Zahedi had made it clear that he would not take part in cabinet meetings, “as nothing important ever happens there.” Instead he regularly sent his undersecretary. Zahedi also quarreled with Hoveyda over the budget for the Foreign Ministry. When Hoveyda refused a request for more funds, Zahedi “won hands-down by appealing to the Shah over the head of the prime minister.”

Another facet of Zahedi’s tenure as foreign minister was his investment in attractive buildings for Iran’s embassies abroad. He clearly understood that architecture denotes power, and he used his personal influence with the shah to secure the requisite budget for these new symbols of Iran’s power and importance. In Tehran, he built a luxurious social club for the ministry, as well as a housing complex for employees. 

Those who worked with him in those years and took part in meetings write of his “unfailing pride,” and of his “no nonsense” attitude in his dealings with diplomats from other countries. “He was never intimidated.” He was known to eschew the decorous rules of diplomatic discourse when he was angry. After one meeting with Zahedi, the British foreign minister recorded that “he had been much disturbed by the tone of some of [Zahedi’s] remarks yesterday.” On another occasion, Zahedi received the ruler of a newly founded sheikhdom that had claimed ownership of one of three small islands to which Iran also had a claim. With ceremony, the new “sheikh” formally presented his written claim to Zahedi. “I will wipe my ass with this paper,” Zahedi responded, “and then flush it down the toilet.”

Zahedi was particularly critical of the British and their policy in the Persian Gulf. The “extreme nationalist” position he took on the question of Bahrain led to some confrontations between Iran and England. On March 12, 1968, for example, in a meeting with George Brown, Zahedi angrily complained of an incident in which British planes had flown threateningly close to Iranian ships in the Persian Gulf and stated that the next time Iranian ships would shoot down any threatening planes. Brown responded that “he understood the position that [Iran had a] historic claim [over Bahrain] which was on the table. He would however be surprised and disappointed if Iran thought of going to war to enforce her claim. If she did, many consequences would follow. Our position, and Mr. Brown said that he would wish to emphasize this, was that so long as our treaties remained in force and our forces were in the area, we would fulfill our obligations.”

It is not clear to what extent Zahedi’s occasional outbursts were at the behest of the shah, who wanted to play the traditional game of brinkmanship with the West, or resulted from his own impetuosity and nationalism. He would walk out of official ceremonies–once even when Queen Elizabeth was present–as soon as any British official used the word “Gulf” instead of “Persian Gulf,” or invited members of Bahrain’s ruling family to an official ceremony. On one occasion, he declared the British ambassador to Iran, Sir Denis Wright, persona non grata at the Foreign Ministry. The ambassador managed to reach Assadollah Alam, the minister of court, who appealed to the shah; the order was rescinded. In the meantime, when Wright tried to visit the Foreign Ministry office, no one was willing to meet with him.

Zahedi repeatedly complained to the Americans about the behavior of the British. His trip to Washington in March 1968, shortly after his heated encounter with Brown, was an example of this pattern. In his meeting with Dean Rusk, he asserted that “Iran [is] hurt by UK’s recent actions…He then mentioned the formation of FAA [The Federation of Arab Emirates, consisting of nine Persian Gulf mini-states, like Bahrain, Qatar, Dubai and Fujairah] accusing the British of double-cross.” Rusk was taken off-guard by the vehemence of Zahedi’s attacks and “hesitated to give off-the cuff-response to such serious and far-reaching problems,” but the Americans concluded they “would be disturbed if Iran and UK at odds.”

While insisting on a nationalist policy on the question of Bahrain, Zahedi pushed for a more moderate policy toward Egypt, and toward the rest of the Arab world. He often insisted, in his private pronouncements and public statements, that in the context of Arab-Israeli relations, Iran should be less identified with Israel. Indeed, the Israeli embassy in Tehran at the time considered Zahedi one of the chief opponents of full diplomatic relations between Iran and Israel. 

In March 1968, Tehran was awash with rumors of the imminent appointment of Zahedi as the prime minister. A report from the British embassy claimed they had “heard from a reliable source that Aredeshir Zahedi had let it be known to at least two prominent Iranians that he was going to become Prime Minister in the near future. Needless to say, we were thunder-struck by this item of information and could only speculate that–if it were really true–the Shah had decided on a thoroughly hard line on the Persian Gulf (which he could later jettison, together with Zahedi, if it proved a failure).

The rumors were false. Zahedi’s continuous clashes with Hoveyda, and his occasional confrontations with Alam, finally led in 1971 to Zahedi’s forced resignation. He had, on more than one occasion, written tartly worded letters to the prime minister, who had in turn shown them to the shah. The break came over a particularly harsh letter Zahedi wrote Hoveyda. Or, as he readily admits, “I had someone with good prose on my staff write it.” When the shah was shown the letter, he had his chief of staff call Zahedi to the court and ask him either to take back the offending letter or to resign. Zahedi was in no mood to compromise. He had been provoked by other attacks on him as well: SAVAK, for example, had reported rumors to the shah, not only about Zahedi’s part ownership of the Iran National Bank–it was said that he owned 50 percent of the shares, and that his interest was represented by his friend, Reza Daneshvar–but even about the routine loans he was receiving from banks. Zahedi refused to take back the letter. Instead he resigned, and as was his wont on such occasions, left Iran for Villa Les Roses. 

Indeed, this incident was not the first or last such occasion. But the shah arguably tolerated more from Zahedi than from anyone else. Zahedi’s outbursts, his many letters of resignation, his repeated angry and defiant journeys to Switzerland were invariably forgiven. For his part, despite these seeming fallings-out, Zahedi remained faithful to the shah until the shah’s death. The only exception to this tradition of royal tolerance, even affection, can be seen in the shah’s Answer to History, where he claims, “I was ill-served by Aredeshir Zahedi’s inaccurate reporting. He had been in Washington too long and was closely identified with the Nixon and Ford administration. He pretended to have access to the highest authorities [in the Ford and Carter administrations] but his reports could never be confirmed. His outgoing temperament was unsuited to the straight-laced Carter White House and I should have replaced him.” 

But in 1971, if more evidence of his special relationship with the shah was needed, it came when a few months after his resignation Zahedi was, for the second time, named Iran’s ambassador to the United States. Zahedi had been appointed, people whispered, because of his close ties to Nixon.

Zahedi’s second term in office as Iran’s ambassador coincided with a further large rise in Iran’s oil revenue and with the shah’s growing dissatisfaction with the Americans. Zahedi, using his private access to the shah, succeeded in increasing the “special budget” of the embassy, allowing him to shower the Washington establishment with heavy tins of beluga caviar, fine Persian rugs, and parties that became famous, or infamous, for the splendor of their hospitality and the glamour of their star-studded guest lists. Zahedi’s correspondence in this period shows his extensive contacts among members of Congress, and in the Departments of State and Defense. At the same time, Zahedi and the embassy were locked into an increasingly brutal battle with the growing ranks of Iranian students studying in the United States and opposed to the shah. 

As the dark clouds of Watergate began to gather on the horizon, the embassy began reporting on developments to the shah. In the first few months, Zahedi, like many in Washington, insisted that the whole question was a mere nuisance and would soon go away. But to Zahedi’s consternation, it did not go away and when Nixon was finally forced to resign in 1974, the ambassador wrote a note of profuse praise to the former president and characteristically included with it a large supply of caviar. Nixon was genuinely touched. In letters to Zahedi he thanked him for his “thoughtfulness.” Less than six years later, Nixon had a chance to repay the favor when he went to Egypt to participate in the funeral of the exiled shah. Other than Anwar Sadat, Nixon was the only head of state to attend the somber ceremonies. 

Nixon’s fall and the 1976 U.S. presidential elections posed a particularly difficult challenge for Zahedi and the embassy. Ever since the Kennedy years, the shah had been distrustful of the Democrats. Furthermore, Carter had made several critical remarks about Iran and the abuses of human rights in his election campaign. Once again there were rumors of the Iranian Embassy spending money on a U.S. election, this time on the Ford campaign. A Jack Anderson column had reported massive illegal payments to the Nixon reelection effort in 1972. Assadollah Alam, in his Diaries, and Fereydun Hoveyda, in interviews, affirmed that some contributions were in fact made to that campaign. But Zahedi fervently denies that he was ever a party or witness to such a transaction. In 1976, the efforts of a pair of American journalists to trace the Persian connection also came to naught. By then William Rogers, formerly Nixon’s secretary of state, was the embassy’s attorney. He, too, forcefully denied any wrongdoing by Zahedi or the Iranian government.

The election of Jimmy Carter made the shah nervous. When Carter traveled to Iran in 1978, however, he declared, in a profusely praiseful tone, that Iran was an island of stability and the shah one of the most important allies of the United States. The shah’s anxieties did not go away. The fact that Carter had appointed William Sullivan as America’s new ambassador to Iran, and that Sullivan had a reputation of going to hot-spots in Indochina and fomenting trouble, only added to these anxieties. Zahedi suggested to the shah that Iran should refuse to accept the Sullivan appointment, but the shah did not heed the advice. 

Beginning in 1978, with early signs of turmoil in Tehran, Zahedi was once again back in the center of Iranian domestic politics. As the shah became increasingly dependent on signs of support from the United States, Zahedi’s role in Washington took on more crucial dimensions. At the same time, he was needed in Iran to help give the shah confidence. When the situation deteriorated late in 1978, Zahedi made a now famous trip back to Iran. He met with the despondent and depressed shah and tried unsuccessfully to bolster the king’s courage. 

It was then that Zahedi learned for the first time the seriousness of the shah’s health condition. He insisted that the shah should immediately tell the nation about his cancer. “Iranian people are decent and forgiving,” he said. Increasingly he found himself at odds with the queen and her entourage. She had by then become the de facto center of power. He met with key officers in the armed forces and some of the shah’s most trusted guards, asking them, “the country needs you; are you ready to sacrifice for the country?” The officers all indicated their willingness even to die and lamented the utter “lack of leadership.” 

Zahedi was apparently contemplating a pro-shah coup–a repeat of the 1953 events. But the times had changed, and the West was already trying to come to terms with Ayatollah Khomeini. The press wrote about Zahedi’s belated attempt to “save the throne.” When the Carter administration sent General Robert E. Huyser to Iran, without even informing the shah and the government of his arrival, Zahedi suggested the general be arrested and put on a plane out of Iran. He recommended that the British and American Embassies, “as hotbeds of incitement,” be closed. The shah dismissed all these ideas as “naïve and childish.” At the same time, Zahedi met with different political figures and tried to coax them into forming some kind of coalition that could save the crown. 

It was all too little too late. Zahedi left Tehran for the last time in January 1979. When early in February the Iranian Embassy in Washington was taken over by new representatives of the Islamic regime, Zahedi quietly slipped away to his favorite hideaway in Montreux. He spent the next few months shuttling between Villa Les Roses and wherever the exiled shah happened to be. He visited him in Egypt, Morocco, the Bahamas, Mexico, Panama, and then Egypt again. He tried to use his extensive contacts around the world to find an entry visa for the shah and his family to some safe country.

In the meantime, he was beginning to have legal problems of his own. Ruhani, the new acting representative of Iran to the United States, declared in a news interview that documents in the embassy showed a pattern of expensive gifts, bribes, and even call girls provided by Zahedi to members of Congress. The FBI was called in to investigate, and on one of Zahedi’s trips to the States, he was served with a subpoena. “At six in the morning they came to the rescue. After a lengthy investigation, during which all florists, restaurants, and even houses providing “escorts” in the greater District of Columbia were searched, and all the bank accounts of the embassy, and of Zahedi personally, were scrutinized, the FBI concluded that while gifts were given, none broke the law. But something changed in Zahedi. “I never thought America could do this kind of thing to me, or to anybody.”

Zahedi’s troubles were not limited to the United States. About this time, he also had his last big row with members of the royal family, particularly the queen. It came immediately after the death of the shah. The queen, as she readily admits in her Enduring Love, wrote down what she called “the King’s deepest thoughts” and offered the resulting manuscript to the press and the king’s “last wish.” Zahedi was adamantly opposed to writing or advertising such a document. He even threatened to go to court. The court challenge never came; Zahedi was convinced of its futility. He returned to Montreux, to tend to his gardens and continue a life that is as generous as it is lavish."