Ardeshir Zahedi, Iran’s flamboyant ambassador to the United States during the rule of the shah who charmed both Hollywood stars and politicians with his lavish parties until the 1979 Islamic Revolution, died Thursday at 93, the Iranian state media reported.
Whether seen with Henry Kissinger or entertaining Barbra Streisand, Zahedi cut such a memorable presence across Washington’s social scene that one newspaper referred to him as both the “playboy of the Western world” and the capital’s “most-sought-after bachelor.” He was linked romantically to Elizabeth Taylor.
But as the revolution erupted and Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, terminally ill with cancer, fled the country, the Iranian Embassy in Washington that hosted Zahedi’s raucous parties was abandoned and would stand empty for the next 40 years. The revolution swept through the country, installing the Islamic theocracy that governs the nation today.
“Iran and America needed and still need each other, and it is in their interest to pursue a new and constructive approach in their relations,” Zahedi wrote in 2020 from Switzerland, where he eventually settled. “It is the governments that need to be ready to make sacrifices, to show goodwill, remove artificial barriers, and prove their sincerity and desire to reconcile.”
Iran’s state-run IRNA news agency attributed Zahedi’s death to “old age,” without elaborating. Other semiofficial news agencies in Iran, as well as the BBC’s Persian service, said he had recently been ill, without elaborating.
Zahedi was the son of Gen. Fazlollah Zahedi, the man who a 1953 CIA-backed coup against the country’s elected prime minister installed in power, cementing the rule of the young shah. For those who would later overthrow the shah and storm the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, that coup represented the original sin by America, leading to the four decades of enmity that followed.
Zahedi would marry Shahnaz, the shah’s first daughter. Though that marriage lasted only seven years, the shah considered Zahedi as another son and a trusted advisor. Zahedi would serve as ambassador to the U.S. and the United Kingdom, as well as Iran’s foreign minister, before returning to Washington as the shah’s top diplomat there.
At the time, the shah had rapidly modernized his country with its oil wealth, and expanded its military with American-manufactured weapons. The U.S. considered him a bulwark against the Soviet Union and operated secret listening posts in Iran to monitor its Cold War enemy.
Zahedi, single again and back in Washington, threw himself into the capital’s social scene. The Iranian Embassy became known as the “the number one embassy when it came to extravagance,” Barbara Walters would write in her memoirs. Guests munched on caviar and swilled champagne.
While partying, however, Zahedi maintained close relationships with both the Nixon and Carter administrations. Along with ambassadors from Egypt and Pakistan, he helped resolve a 1977 hostage crisis in Washington in which two people were killed and over 140 captives freed.
But the shah, who had both limited all dissent and waffled as his country increasingly found itself in turmoil, felt increasingly isolated and ended up fleeing. His departure and the revolution the following month brought an end to 2,500 years of monarchial rule across Persia.
Yet despite facing a death sentence back home and later settling in Switzerland, Zahedi acknowledged the woes that led to the revolution and pushed for a reconciliation between Iran and the U.S. even amid recent tensions over Tehran’s collapsed nuclear deal with world powers. He dismissed President Trump’s maximalist campaign targeting Tehran as “a pressure tactic wrapped in bellicosity folded inside a chimera.”
“It is bereft of a viable vision and based on the naive assumption that overthrowing the Islamic Republic will miraculously lead to a pluralistic and pro-American order,” Zahedi wrote in 2019.
The Iranian Embassy from which he charmed so many sits empty to this day, becoming a prop in one 2019 online video by former U.S. Special Representative for Iran Brian Hook.
“We look forward to the day when we can return the keys of this embassy to a truly representative Iranian government that is motivated not by a hateful, antiquated revolutionary ideology, but by the interests and the will of the great Iranian people,” Hook said. Hook said in the video that the furniture and rugs once inside the embassy are held in temperature-controlled storage.
However, Zahedi’s liquor cellar did not survive the revolution as representatives of the Islamic Republic, who briefly ran the embassy, poured more than more than 4,000 bottles of Scotch, champagne and other beverages down a drain.
“It took four hours of continuous pouring to dispose of all the alcohol,” an embassy publication said at the time.