The Politics of Iranian and American Diplomatic Ties

The Politics of Iranian and American Diplomatic Ties

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In the early 1970s, as Iran began to grow rich on oil revenues, I struggled with a foreign student's woeful finances as a journalism major at Cal State Fresno. By 1971 I was reading about such extravagances in my native Iran as Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi's 2,500 anniversary celebration of the Persian Empire. Held in opulent tents at the ancient ruins of Persepolis, with food flown in from Paris, the event was said to have cost an astonishing $200 million at that time.

Some 50 world dignitaries were invited, half of them royals and viceroys, and the other half heads of state. First Lady Imelda Marcos of the Philippines came, even though Queen Elizabeth cited security reasons to excuse herself. President Nixon sent Vice President Spiro Agnew, who would soon precede him in disgraced resignation from office—an omen of things to come.

I merely smiled, trying to make light of it, when American students mentioned the celebrations to me, yet I was deeply troubled at the extent of the waste which further alienated the impoverished majority of Iranians who were already dispossessed.

Past the middle of the 1970s, as Iranians began to drink from the petro-dollar fire hose, the trickle-down effect reached me as a prodigal son. I was now earning a Ph.D. in Communications, attending the University of Southern California, a long way away from Iran.

At that time, jingles for the national Iranian airline, Iran Air, were common on American airwaves. Iran invested in the film version of “Caravans,” based on James Michener’s novel. Budgeted at $14 million, its cast included Anthony Quinn and Jennifer O'Neill along with the superstar of Iranian cinema Behrouz Vossoughi—its U.S. box office gross would add up to a mere million. In Iran, inflation spiralled while ambitious plans for infrastructure construction was stymied due to shortage of materials. At the height of its "prosperity," Iran's annual growth was only three percent.

And then there were the rumored goings-on at the Iranian Embassy in Washington, D.C., where Ardeshir Zahedi, the Shah's son-in-law, was the ambassador.

As writer C. David Heymann would later confirm in his book, "The Georgetown Ladies' Social Club," the parties at the embassy featured conga lines, belly dancing, boundless drinking and drug use. At one party "Clare Boothe Luce, Marlene Dietrich and Pamela Harriman rose to their feet . . . emulating the undulating movements of the nubile belly dancer." At another party "Elizabeth Taylor showed up, 180 guests sat at fifteen round tables . . . mountains of caviar . . . and chilled Iranian vodka were offered." And yet another gathering featured a dozen lobbyists paired with an equal number of high-priced call girls. Liz Taylor was reputed to have put yet another notch in her already well-grooved bedpost for Ambassador Zahedi.

From a distance, I regarded it all in mute wonder, convinced of an impending catastrophe. The view from Tehran was quite different: the Shah had bought billions in American weaponry, donated generously to American universities, invested in a Hollywood clunker and bribed official Washington with sex, drugs and belly dancing. In his own mind, to borrow from an American sports idiom, he had covered all the bases.

Should his hour of need arrive, surely Washington would not abandon him. In his mind, Americans could not possibly be that “namak nashnas,” as Iranians would say: unappreciative of the salt of his generosity.

Yet, I had lived in America long enough to know that the Iranian and American notions of gratitude differed in decisive ways. While in Iran allegiances were bought by powerful patrons in ironclad deals (as it is done even today), Americans had creative ways of making themselves “un-bought,” particularly from bribers whose power finally added up to mere window dressing. With their strong strain of Puritan work ethic, Americans found the frivolous largesse of Ambassador Zahedi laughable at best, indulging in it briefly without feeling indebted in the least.

Most crucially, the OPEC price hikes spearheaded by the Shah were keeping the United States mired in a stubborn economic stagnation, while Iran’s growing military might threatened to supplant Anglo-American forces as policemen of the Persian Gulf. Americans were not about to forgive Tehran because they had whooped it up one vulgar night at the whorehouse of an embassy. (In a provocative story at the time, New York magazine's December 1974 cover read, “The Coming Oil War, How the Shah Will Win the World.”)

Yet the Shah's end came quickly, a single year after President Jimmy Carter visited Iran to toast him at a state dinner while resorting to the disingenuous cliché, “an island of stability,” to praise Iran on December 31, 1977. Between January 4 and January 9, 1979, Carter was on the French island of Guadeloupe, meeting with the French President Valéry Giscard d'Estaing, the British Prime Minister James Callaghan and the German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt to withdraw support from a beleaguered Shah as Iranian demonstrators by the millions called for his death.

Mountains of caviar shriveled to nothing when Iranian revolutionaries took hostage the staff of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran by early November 1979. Iraq invaded Iran the next year, starting the Iran-Iraq war as the Anglo-American alliance retaliated by selling weapons to both sides to see them fight each other to exhaustion for eight long years to come.

Since then, the relationship between Iran and America can be summarized as public backbiting and back-channel deal-making. All the same, the absence of formal diplomatic relationships has been a true blessing: any Iranian-American relationship that does not result in a harvest of death, with Iranians on the receiving end, could not possibly come about until the two nations iron out their widely differing notions of friendship, generosity and gratitude.