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Irrepressible Iranian diplomat Ardeshir Zahedi dies at 93

Ardeshir Zahedi, who as Iran’s ambassador to the United States has hosted some of Washington’s most lavish and star-studded parties and drew his cachet in part from his closeness to the shah, died Thursday in exile in his villa in the lakeside town of Montreux, near Lausanne, Switzerland. He was 93 years old.

The state-run Islamic Republic of Iran news agency announced the death without giving details.

Mr. Zahedi had been hospitalized for five months with Covid, John Ghazvinian, a historian of US-Iranian relations at the University of Pennsylvania, said in an interview. He said he received an email from Mr Zahedi eight months ago in which Mr Zahedi told him about his Covid and said he also fell and fractured his leg and had several seizures. pneumonia.

As Iran’s two-time Ambassador to the United States, in the early 1960s and through most of the 1970s, the flamboyant Mr. Zahedi was best known for his extravagant entertainment at one of the world’s most famous embassies. ostensibly named Washington, a four-story, 46-bedroom Georgian-style brick mansion with 14 fireplaces and terraced gardens.

“Sir. Zahedi’s parties included bands, fresh orchids, 24-karat game prizes, caviar, and champagne, with guests like Henry A. Kissinger, Andy Warhol, and Elizabeth Taylor chatting in the checkered Persian Hall. embassy blues, ”The New York Times reported in 1994. Her wide orbit also embraced Barbra Streisand, Frank Sinatra and Senator Barry Goldwater.

The Washington Dossier, a now defunct monthly corporate magazine, called him “one of Washington’s 10 perfect gentlemen.” He was also one of her most eligible bachelors and an irrepressible bon vivant. Any night he could lead a conga line through the halls of his embassy. Or he could be in town with Jacqueline Onassis, Liza Minnelli, or Barbara Walters, although he was most often romantically linked to Ms Taylor.

But behind his image as a playboy of the Western world, as he has been called more than once, Mr. Zahedi has played a central role in consolidating the power of Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi. Mr. Zahedi, who was the Shah’s son-in-law, was closely associated with influential businessmen and politicians, and he knew eight US presidents, from Truman to senior Bush.

During his tenure as Ambassador in the 1970s, his connections helped grease many trade agreements. Iran sold large amounts of oil to the United States, bought billions of dollars in American weapons and technology, and served as a platform from which the United States projected its influence across the Middle -East. Mr. Zahedi helped bring the two countries into such an intimate relationship that Mr. Kissinger, the Secretary of State, has come to describe the Shah as “the rarest thing in international relations, an unconditional ally”.

Many in Washington were so charmed by Mr. Zahedi that they fully believed his assurances that the Shah was secure in his power. President Jimmy Carter was among those deceived. Mr Carter visited Iran at the end of 1977 and praised the Shah for creating “an island of stability” in a troubled region.

Barely a year later, the shah’s regime collapsed, resulting in one of the greatest disasters in American foreign policy, when Iranian students seized the United States Embassy in Tehran in 1979 and took over. held hostage over 50 Americans for 444 days. The shah was forced into exile and the crisis helped overthrow the Carter presidency.

While Mr. Zahedi was at the height of his popularity in Washington, he too, as one of the Shah’s closest allies, was forced into exile. Over time, he became more and more outspoken against US warmongering and sanctions, and he ridiculed the Trump administration’s threats against Iran as “a pressure tactic shrouded in warmongering folded into a pipe dream.” .

Mr. Zahedi’s nationalism made him love him very much. After his death, Iranians of all political factions hailed him as a great man.

There have even been calls on social media for his body to be sent back to Iran for a state funeral, an unprecedented turn of events for such an important person in the Shah’s inner circle. After the 1979 revolution, those who had not fled were executed.

Ardeshir Zahedi was born in Tehran on October 16, 1928. His father, General Fazlollah Zahedi, a charismatic officer in the Iranian army, was instrumental in consolidating the shah’s power and later became prime minister.

After World War II, Ardeshir came to New York to study at Columbia University. But he found the classes too large and his English too weak, and in 1946 he enrolled in the College of Agriculture at Utah State University. He received his bachelor’s degree in agricultural engineering in 1950. When the shah visited Utah in 1949, the two met and began their lasting relationship.

After graduating, Zahedi returned to Iran and worked for a US aid program that helped the country develop its infrastructure. A 1953 coup d’état supported by the CIA and Britain and led by General Zahedi’s army strengthened the shah’s power as monarch and elevated the general to the rank of prime minister. Ardeshir Zahedi acted as a special messenger between them.

In 1955, the shah feared that the popular general would pose a threat to his own position and pushed him to step down, sending him to serve as ambassador to the United Nations at his European headquarters in Geneva. Ardeshir chose to stay in Tehran and work with the shah, and in 1957 he married the shah’s daughter, Shahnaz.

The two had a daughter, Mahnaz Zahedi, who is his only immediate survivor.

Mr. Zahedi was appointed Ambassador to the United States for the first of his two terms in Washington in 1960, but his tenure was troubled from the start. Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy despised the Shah, according to “Eminent Persians” (2008), a book by Abbas Milani, an Iranian scholar at Stanford University and a close friend of Mr. Zahedi. Kennedy, wrote Dr Milani, even sheltered members of the Iranian student opposition. Mr Zahedi urged the White House to send the students back to Iran since they were not going to school, but President John F. Kennedy refused. These tensions led the Shah to recall Mr. Zahedi after only two years.

The Shah then appointed him Ambassador to Great Britain, where he served from 1962 to 1966. He opened up Iranian markets to British manufacturers and entertained extensively at the Iranian Embassy in London. The British saw him as “inexperienced, not a deep thinker and likely to be brash,” wrote Dr Milani, but they also felt that he single-handedly elevated Iran’s position in the world.

Mr. Zahedi and his wife divorced after seven years, but rather than falling out with the Shah, Mr. Zahedi only became closer to him and was appointed Minister of Foreign Affairs in 1967. During this period, he drove a metallic blue Rolls-Royce and, believing that architecture denotes power, he persuaded the shah to invest in modernizing Iranian embassies abroad.

Over time, Mr. Zahedi, who could be temperamental, erupted in so many explosions and personal clashes that he was forced to resign as Minister of Foreign Affairs in 1971. But he remained loyal to the shah, and despite the shah’s reluctance, he renamed it that year. as Ambassador to Washington. There, Mr. Zahedi resumed his lavish parties and practice of dousing his contacts with heavy boxes of beluga caviar and thin Persian rugs.

But at the same time, he was locked in an increasingly brutal battle with the growing ranks of Iranian students who were in the United States and opposed the shah.

As the Islamic Revolution swept through Tehran, the Shah fled in 1979. (He died in 1980.) Mr. Zahedi quietly slipped out of the city. In exile, he wrote his memoirs and curated his father’s enormous collection of papers, which he transferred in 2009 to the Hoover Institution at Stanford University.

The embassy, ​​where champagne once flowed and footmen hovered behind every chair, was briefly overtaken by operatives from the Islamic Republic, who spent four hours pouring more than 4,000 bottles of alcohol down the drain. The embassy is still closed.

“It’s ironic,” a former reveler told The Times in 1980, “for the greatest artist of all, there was no farewell party.”

Stephen kinzer contributed reports.

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