Last week, at his villa in Switzerland’s lakeside Montreux, a notorious figure of the Middle East’s near history closed his eyes to the cruel world and discreetly drew his last breath. Instead of a family announcement, Iran’s official media sources disclosed the demise of Ardeshir Zahedi, who had forged critical connections between Tehran and the West, especially the U.S., since before 1979.
Ardeshir Zahedi, who was born as the son of one of Reza Shah’s most prominent generals, Fazlullah Zahedi, in Tehran in 1928, traveled to the U.S. where he studied for a university degree. He first tried his luck with the ivy-league Colombia University in New York, however, his English was declared insufficient which sent him packing to the state of Utah, where he studied agriculture. In 1949, he met and struck up a friendship with Iran’s young Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, who was on a visit to Utah, kick-starting a whole new era in Zahedi’s life.
Long live the Shah?
When Iran’s nationalist Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh was overthrown with a CIA-planned coup in 1953, the main culprit on the ground was General Fazlullah Zahedi. After Mossadegh’s reign, whose only crime was to “nationalize Iran’s fuel, disobeying the U.S. and U.K., General Zahedi was brought to the prime ministerial seat. Ardeshir, who was 25 as tensions came to a boiling point, of course, sided with his father, and, by default, Shah Mohammed Reza. His loyalty to the Shah was so strong that after two years, when his father was deposed of his position because he had grown too “powerful,” he stood by Mohammed Reza. His loyalty was crowned with a reward that came in the form of the Shah’s daughter, Princess Shahnaz Pahlavi, whom he married in 1957. Princess Shahnaz was the offspring of Mohammed Reza’s marriage to Princess Fawzia, who was the daughter of Egyptian King Fuad and the sister of King Farouk. By stepping into such a marriage, Zahed, forged a kinship with yet another royal family, albeit deposed at the time.
Cementing his admiration to the shah by becoming his son-in-law, Ardeshir began climbing the steps of the Iranian foreign ministry with lightning speed. After being denied entry into one of America’s most prestigious universities because of his “insufficient English,” he served as ambassador to the United States between 1960 and 1962 and, then, took up the same position in London. Zahedi, whom British intelligence reports referred to as "inadequate and unsuccessful" during his embassy tenure between 1962 and 1966, divorced the Shah's daughter during the same period. Strangely enough, instead of pitting the Shah against him, it only brought the two closer. Ardeshir Zahedi was then appointed to Iran’s Foreign Ministry in 1966; seven years later, he was appointed to the Washington embassy, where he remained until the ousting of the Shah.
Ardeshir Zahedi's career in foreign affairs, which continued unabated from 1960 to 1979, signified a period when the political and economic alliances between Iran and the West reached strategic dimensions. The glamorous parties he threw at his embassy residence in Washington rivaled the flapper generation. These parties, where all kinds of moral debauchery were exhibited and many embarrassing details were subsequently revealed, brought together the period’s stars of politics, art and cinema. “I combine business and pleasure,” said Zahedi, noting that these parties had led to the signing of multi-million-dollar deals.
However, this trajectory led to a strange conclusion in the U.S.: These colorful shebangs, which Zahedi organized to contribute to the image of Iran, ironically led the decision-makers in the U.S. capital Washington to come under an illusion where Iran was concerned. Jimmy Carter, who visited Tehran just before the fall of the Shah, praised a dictator who had turned the streets into a bloodbath, saying "You have created an island of stability in one of the more troubled areas of the world.” We would only have to wait a year before we saw how far from reality his words really were. It is right here that the claim that the “U.S. plans everything, and everything goes as it plans” has proven to be nothing more than an urban legend.
After 93 years in the journey we call life, all the parties are now over for Ardeshir Zahedi. What remains is valuable lessons for those who closely study history.