The Iranian Oral History Project of Harvard University’s Center for Middle Eastern Studies recently published the text of an interview with Ardeshir Zahedi, the last shah’s son-in-law who also served as his ambassador to the United States and the United Kingdom and as his foreign minister. Zahedi died in 2021 at the age of 93.
The interview was conducted by Habib Lajevardi in January 1992 at Zahedi’s villa in Montreux, Switzerland, on the condition that the interview would be published only after Zahedi’s death. Now, almost a year and a half after his death, the text of the 27-hour interview was published, revealing new details about the contemporary history of Iran under Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi.
Ardeshir Zahedi was the son of General Fazlollah Zahedi, who replaced the nationalist Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh following the 1953 coup d'état that was supported by the US and the UK.
The interview starts with how his father, or “papa” as he calls him, came to know his mother, the daughter of Hossein Pirnia, also known as Motamen al-Molk, the speaker of the Iranian parliament twice, from 1914 to 1925 and from 1928 to 1929. The story goes that, in 1924, when Reza Khan, the future monarch who was at the time a general and the prime minister, wanted to enter parliament in full military uniform but Pirnia prevented him from doing so.
In his interview, Zahedi mentions this event but says that later his family grew close to Reza Khan who took over the throne in 1925.
Ardeshir Zahedi was born in Tehran in 1928. Quoting his relatives, he says that when he was about to be born the doctors said that his mother had little chance of surviving a natural childbirth, and a caesarean section was necessary to save the mother. At the time, his father was in the northern province of Gilan as the military commander of the province, and his maternal grandfather did not want to endanger the life of General Zahedi’s grandchild. Instead, he risked the life of her own daughter and did not allow the caesarean section.
“For several days my grandmother and my aunts and others prayed…and eventually it was agreed that they would pull me out by force and, as a result I became known as the ‘long earlobe’ because apparently they pulled me by my ear," Zahedi says jokingly.
He says his name on his birth certificate was Ardeshir and his religious name was Fazlollah, like his father, but originally they wanted to name him Dariush. “my father was a friend of General Yazdanpanah who had a son by the name of Dariush who had recently died. So, to spare him discomfort, he sent a telegram, congratulating the birth of ‘Ardeshir’,” Zahedi says.
The Clergy Opposed the Shah’s Marriage to an Italian Princess
Ardeshir Zahedi was not only the son of Iran’s prime minister after the 1953 coup, but the shah’s son-in-law as well. He married Shahnaz, Shah’s daughter from his first marriage to Princess Fawzia, daughter of Sultan Fuad I, king of Egypt. Nevertheless, he had close relation with the Shah even before his marriage to Princess Shahnaz and witnessed significant moments in the monarch’s private life, including when Shah divorced Fawzia and married Soraya Esfandiary-Bakhtiari in 1958 and then divorced Soraya and married for the third time a year later.
According to Zahedi, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi was supposed to marry Princess Maria Gabriella of Savoy, the daughter of Italy's last king, Umberto II: “Eventually it was agreed that His Majesty would meet Princess Gabriella, the king’s daughter, in one of his visits to Europe. The meeting took place in Geneva, Switzerland, in…one of the houses where my father lived. His Majesty liked her very much. She was an educated girl and, at the time, was studying at the university. But then a few problems came up. One was that Italy’s former king was not very happy about it. It was because he was a devout Catholic and definitely wanted her daughter to marry a Catholic. Well, that made [her marriage to] a Shia king impossible. Little by little, this issue became more serious. At the same time, the sister of the [Italian] king and a couple of their relatives were invited to visit Iran and His Majesty asked me to go to the north and arrange accommodations for them…”
But things did not go so smoothly. Mohammad Reza Shah was the only Shia king in the world and the clergy in Qom were opposed to his marriage to a Catholic girl. His first wife was the daughter of the Egypt’s king but Princess Fawzia was a Muslim so the problem of religious affiliation did not arise: “What happened was that first I received a message from [Grand] Ayatollah Broujerdi through the Friday Imam that said ‘If this news [plan to marriage to Princess Gabriella] is true, it is not the right thing to do and His Majesty must not do it. His Majesty is a Shia king.’ On the other hand, some who were for [the marriage] found a solution: ‘Well, let him marry but the children must be free to choose whether they want to be Catholic or not until they turn 18.’ Such arguments were going on in Iran and it was at this point that Ayatollah Behbahani sent for me…He conveyed to me both the message of Ayatollah Broujerdi and his own view [and said] that ‘this is not right. If his majesty goes ahead with it he would be risking his own throne and we would oppose it vehemently.”
Building a Modern Foreign Service
Ardeshir Zahedi was Iran’s ambassador to the US twice and to the United Kingdom once. He also served as the foreign minister during a period when Iran called its foreign policy “independent national policy”.
Foreign ministry is one of the oldest government institutions in Iran but it owes its modern structure to Ardeshir Zahedi. During his five-year tenure as the foreign minister, he changed its charter, elevated the status of the ministry at the royal court and the cabinet and prevented direct relations between individuals within the government and even withing the royal family with foreign embassies. He even donated some of his properties abroad to the foreign ministry so that ministry officials would “maintain their prestige”, as he puts it, during their foreign visits:
“Let me tell you, no ministry has the right to contact foreign embassies unless it is through the foreign ministry because they were often engaged in wheeling and dealing. It stunk. One time, for example, Prince Shahram, son of Princess Ashraf [Shah’s sister] had gone to the Romanian embassy, asking for a commission for some deal between the two countries. I told this to His Majesty…He became very angry and told me to summon him, admonish him and punish him. I summoned him and told him not to do these things again…I kept him at the foreign ministry for a few hours even though I loved him like my own son. Or Mr. [Reza] Ghotbi [Empress Farah’s cousin] had gone to meet the Argentinian ambassador about, I don’t know, meat or something. The long and the short of it, many such things happened.”
It was under Zahedi that the inscribing and recording negotiations with foreign parties and archiving them started as a routine task and these archives turned into a rich and important source of the history of Iran’s foreign relations. It was also ruled that a representative of the foreign ministry must be present at the foreign visits of Shah and the prime minister to inscribe the negotiations. He himself was present at Shah’s foreign visits.
“Once something funny happened,” Zahedi reminiscences during the interview. “Mr. Michael Stewart, British Foreign Secretary, was in the presence of His Majesty and was talking. At one point, he said ‘Off the record…’ He was talking about the secession of Bahrain [from Iran] …His majesty laughed and said Ardeshir says that ‘off the record’ has ‘no meaning for you.’ Then we laughed and, of course, I explained why I had said such a thing. Afterwards, I told His Majesty ‘You really disgraced me.’ He laughed a lot. I said ‘It is not important.’ But I really believed in what I said.”
Zahedi’s interview for the Iranian Oral History Project took place in 1992, not even 15 years after the 1979 revolution, but he still had fond memories of the time before the revolution:
“Little by little, the foreign ministry became even more dear to me than my child. I was not thinking about my wife or my child. I worked there for 18 or 19 hours. I was witness to a foreign ministry that…was working so hard for the advancement of its country. I took pride in it. At nights, whenever you passed by the foreign ministry, you saw that the lights were on and everybody was working. It had turned into a 24-hour foreign ministry because you cannot tell the world that ‘you, who are awake, must wait because I want to sleep.’ That is why there was somebody on the watch for 24 hours a day. A deputy was there from eight in the morning till four in the afternoon. The week after, he would be there from four in the afternoon till midnight. Then a much smaller group of people were in the foreign ministry from midnight to eight in the morning. One of the deputies was on the watch at home and he could be called at any time. Sometimes, in critical situations, he had to stay at the foreign ministry itself. We had built a room with a shower.”
Providing Iranian government organizations and especially the foreign ministry with modern equipment had a priority in those days. It was during this period that they got the foreign ministry an encrypted messaging device. Zahedi says that once, when Shah was visiting Ethiopia, he got an encrypted message that Robert Kennedy had been assassinated and he told Shah the news. Then the Ethiopian emperor became angry and admonished his own minister as to why he had to get the news from his guest. Then “we flew from there to Rome and His Majesty went from Rome to America.”
“We Could Have Prevented the Revolution”
Ardeshir Zahedi was both one of the Shah’s most loyal supporters and one of the most important critics of his government and policies. Until he died, he only referred to Mohammad Reza Shah as “His Majesty” but, at the same time, he did not hide his criticisms. “We could have prevented the revolution if we had the mettle,” he says in this interview that was to be published only after his death.
He did not believe that the US, the UK or France had any role in toppling the Pahlavi dynasty and in replacing the Shah with Ayatollah Khomeini. Below is his most blunt criticism of the Shah.
“I have a very simple question. If my hand is not injured, no germ can enter my blood. If this hand of mine is injured and the germ enters the wound, it can give me tetanus and kill me but even then there is a cure. So, let’s say that Britain or America or France had a scheme, what about us who claim that we are Iranian patriots? How about us who say that we have had a monarchy for 2,500 years?...How come we are demoralized within a few seconds and in the end we put [our country] on a silver platter and present it [to Khomeini]? I believe that if had the mettle, if we had the right establishment, if this tree had strong roots, it would not have been uprooted so easily.”
Zahedi directly criticizes the Shah and says that he violated his oath and he ought to have remained in the country: “We witnessed how the country was lost so easily…His Majesty was afraid that a military government might overthrow him…What did I tell him? I told him: ‘Your Majesty, have you forgotten that you took an oath in the parliament? Have you forgotten that you went to Persepolis and took an oath to Cyrus [the Great]? You cannot just leave now.’”
Of course, considering everything that was happening in Iran at the time, Zahedi says that the revolution could have happened even if the Shah had remained in Iran: “If Shah had remained, he could have been destroyed. But let me tell you this selfishly and shamelessly: The Shah, to whom we had sworn [allegiance] should have remained there so that we could have remained as well. He ought not have left. If His Majesty had not left, Khomeini would not have dared to come to Tehran.”
It is worth listening to the 27-hour interview of Ardeshir Zahedi with Habib Lajevardi. His tone is honest and audacious and sometimes he uses word that are close to being offensive. His love for the Shah is especially evident in tape no. 21, about when the Shah, in the last hours of his life, is in a hospital in Cairo. It is perhaps one of the most painful parts of the interview.
As the interview shows, Zahedi was extremely respectful of Mohammad Reza Shah till the end of his life but he was also blunt and unsparing in criticizing him and blaming him for the current sorry situation in Iran. Perhaps that is why he did not want the interview to go public while he was alive. Nevertheless, in his last years of his life, in more intimate gatherings and even in some of his public pronouncements, he explicitly criticized the Shah for his policies and for leaving the country before the 1979 revolution.