The Larger-Than-Life Persian Diplomat Who Understood How to Manipulate the American Media

November 22, 2021 | Martin Kramer
About the author: Martin Kramer teaches Middle Eastern history and served as founding president at Shalem College in Jerusalem, and is the Walter P. Stern fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

On Thursday, Ardeshir Zahedi, the shah of Iran’s last ambassador to the U.S., died at the age of ninety-three. During Zahedi’s tenure, the Persian embassy became known around Washington for its lavish, star-studded parties; he regularly rubbed elbows with the likes of Eva Gabor, Gregory Peck, Andy Warhol, and Elizabeth Taylor (with whom he was rumored to have had an affair). But Zahedi was no mere sybarite, writes Martin Kramer; his flamboyance was in fact part of a carefully crafted strategy:

Zahedi persuaded Americans that the richer Iran became, the more stable it became, and that selling it arms on a massive scale would spread that stability. He so charmed and mesmerized America that it failed to see the weaknesses of his master, Mohammed Reza Shah. Zahedi even created space for the shah to beat the revolution—had the shah wished to do so.

Zahedi’s life is more than a juicy story. It demonstrates the vulnerability of American policy to foreign manipulation. . . . Zahedi was astute enough to grasp something fundamental about Washington. The 1960s had liberated the city. The Kennedys had brought glitz and glamor to Washington, and helped to meld the world of politics and entertainment. . . . He would turn Iran into a splashy luxury brand, by turning himself into a celebrity.

One might think that the journalists, at least, would ask some very hard questions, and a few did. But Zahedi succeeded in anesthetizing much of the media too.

When revolution did arrive, Zahedi helped get the shah out of Iran, and joined him in exile:

Zahedi later settled in a villa inherited from his father in Switzerland. Even into his nineties, he continued to write the occasional Washington Post op-ed, assuming the posture of an Iranian patriot, who argued that pressure on Iran was counterproductive. He published a partial memoir in Persian and English, and shipped his papers to the Hoover Institution at Stanford, assuring his place in the work of future historians.

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