Ardeshir Zahedi, a feisty, tenacious figure known throughout his career as “a gentleman’s gentleman,” died Friday, the New York Times reports. He was 93. Mr. Zahedi was Iran’s ambassador to the United Nations for a dozen years, from 1985 to 1996.
He spoke his mind when he thought his country was in the wrong, prompting some critics to label him the “diplomat who spoke his mind.” Yet he earned a reputation for unflagging integrity and valor in a country where being paid to do business was essentially unheard of.
“He was a fantastic diplomat,” said veteran reporter Robert Fisk, who had repeatedly sparred with Mr. Zahedi at the UN. “He always opposed the harsh [oil-exporting] policies of the ruling clerics. But he had tremendous courage.”
“He would struggle to get documents to be released by America that would encourage the release of Iranian prisoners,” said journalist Robin Wright, a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. “He was in the right place at the right time.”
When Iranian forces stormed the U.S. Embassy in Tehran during the hostage crisis, Mr. Zahedi reportedly played a pivotal role in convincing a prominent Iranian cleric, Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri, to break with the radicals at the top of the clerical hierarchy. “He was working the phones very hard,” said Mr. Zahedi’s daughter, Min Zareh Baqaei.
At the time, Mr. Zahedi was a cabinet minister, but his position gave him access to top leaders in Iran.
“His enemies said he never had any power, but for 12 years, he was much more powerful than he was ever given credit for,” said Iranian journalist Barghouti, who worked with Mr. Zahedi in the 1980s. “A lot of people would write him off, but he had real power.”
Mr. Zahedi was not someone who deployed fear. He pointed out that when it came to confronting Iran’s ruling clerics, he was not a politician — he was a diplomat. “That’s how [the clerics] live,” he told Wright. “They are not members of parliament. They are not judges. They are officials. Their job is to act like officials. But they couldn’t act like officials. They didn’t like the new reality of the Islamic Republic.”
But he could be fearsome as well. Ms. Baqaei recalled that during the hostage crisis, Mr. Zahedi decided to take a bullet in the shoulder. “I knew if he survived that, his career would be over,” she said.
At the United Nations, he was considered one of the most powerful members of the Iranian delegation, if not the most powerful. “He was never afraid to tell the Security Council to go back to their meetings in New York or sit down and talk to people here,” Wright said. “He was always trying to find a way to mitigate the tensions.”
But in 1990, Mr. Zahedi suffered the ultimate humiliation when, after enduring 2½ years of isolation and torture at an Iranian prison, he was granted a meeting with a friendly delegation of American senators. “He finally got in a meeting with them,” Ms. Baqaei said. “The Senators just told him, ‘Gee, you’re so arrogant! You’re not really a diplomat.’ ”
On Wednesday, Iran’s foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, sent Mr. Zahedi a carefully crafted letter in honor of his 93rd birthday. Mr. Zahedi, Zarif wrote, had “died, as every other revolution and conqueror had since history began. The Imam didn’t approve of this form of reform.”
For some, perhaps, “empire never dies” was an apt comparison.