Ardeshir Zahedi, Iran’s extravagant ambassador to the United States during the reign of the Shah, who enthralled Hollywood stars and politicians with lavish parties until the Islamic Revolution in 1979, died Thursday at the age of 93, Iranian state media reported.
Whether to see Henry Kissinger or to chat with Barbra Streisand, Zahedi was so memorable in Washingtonâ€™s social scene that a newspaper described him as both the â€œplayboy of the western worldâ€ and â€œthe capitalâ€™s coveted bachelorâ€. He was romantically linked to Elizabeth Taylor.
But when the revolution broke out and Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, terminally ill with cancer, fled the country, the Iranian embassy in Washington, which hosted Zahedi’s noisy parties, was abandoned and should stand empty for the next 40 years. The revolution swept through the country and installed the Islamic theocracy that rules the nation today.
“Iran and America needed and need each other, and it is in their interest to pursue a new and constructive approach in their relations,” wrote Zahedi in 2020 from Switzerland, where he finally settled. “It is governments that must be ready to make sacrifices, show goodwill, remove artificial barriers, and demonstrate their sincerity and desire for reconciliation.”
The state Iranian news agency IRNA ascribed Zahedi’s death to “old age” without going into detail. Other semi-official news outlets in Iran, as well as the BBC’s Persian service, said he was recently ill without elaborating on it.
Zahedi was the son of General Fazlollah Zahedi, the man who brought to power a CIA-backed coup against the country’s elected prime minister in 1953 and cemented the young Shah’s rule. For those who later overthrew the Shah and stormed the US embassy in Tehran, this coup represented the US original sin that led to the ensuing four decades of hostility.
Zahedi would marry Shahnaz, the Shah’s first daughter. Although this marriage only lasted seven years, the Shah viewed Zahedi as another son and trusted advisor. Zahedi was to serve as ambassador to the United States and Great Britain, as well as Iranian foreign minister, before returning to Washington as the Shah’s top diplomat.
At that time, the Shah had rapidly modernized his country with its oil wealth and expanded its military with weapons made by America. The US saw it as a bulwark against the Soviet Union and operated secret listening posts in Iran to monitor the enemy of the Cold War.
Zahedi, single again and back in Washington, plunged into the capital’s social scene. The Iranian embassy has become known as “the number one embassy for extravagance,” wrote Barbara Walters in her memoir. The guests chewed on caviar and drank champagne.
However, during the celebration, Zahedi maintained close ties with the Nixon and Carter administrations. Together with ambassadors from Egypt and Pakistan, he helped solve a hostage situation in Washington in 1977, in which two people were killed and over 140 prisoners were freed.
But the Shah, who had both curtailed and confused all disagreements as his country became increasingly turmoil, felt increasingly isolated and fled. His departure and the following month’s revolution ended 2,500 years of monarchical rule across Persia.
Although Zahedi was sentenced to death at home and later settled in Switzerland, Zahedi acknowledged the suffering that led to the revolution and pushed for reconciliation between Iran and the US, even amid recent tensions over Tehran’s failed nuclear deal the world powers. He dismissed President Trump’s maximalist campaign targeting Tehran as “a pressure tactic wrapped in combat in a chimera”.
“It has no sustainable vision and is based on the naive assumption that the overthrow of the Islamic Republic will miraculously lead to a pluralistic and pro-American order,” wrote Zahedi in 2019.
The Iranian embassy, â€‹â€‹with which he has charmed so many, stands empty to this day and becomes one Props in a 2019 online video by former US special envoy for Iran Brian Hook.
“We look forward to the day when we can return the keys to this message to a truly representative Iranian government that is not motivated by a hateful, antiquated revolutionary ideology, but by the interests and will of the great Iranian people,” said Hook. Hook said in the video that once the furniture and carpets are in the embassy they will be placed in temperature controlled storage.
Zahedi’s liquor cellar did not survive the revolution, however, when representatives of the Islamic Republic, who briefly ran the embassy, â€‹â€‹poured more than 4,000 bottles of scotch, champagne, and other beverages down the drain.
“It took four hours of uninterrupted pouring to dispose of all the alcohol,” said an embassy publication at the time.