PARIS, 8 June 2004 — “The man you are going to meet will be the next president of the United States.” This is how my friend Ardeshir Zahedi, Iran’s ambassador to Washington, described the “distinguished visitor” that he wanted me to meet in Tehran.
The year was 1977 and the visitor was Ronald Reagan who, with his wife Nancy, was spending a few days in Iran as guests of Zahedi. The hitch, however, was that Zahedi himself was in Washington; it was thus the duty of his friends to look after the Reagans.
I had briefly met the Reagans a few moths earlier in Washington where they had been Zahedi’s guests, at the official ambassador’s residence, for a week.
“I want you to meet America’s best hope,” Zahedi had said while introducing Reagan. Later, he had added with undisguised sadness that there was little chance that Reagan would win the Republican Party’s presidential nomination, let alone flush President Jimmy Carter out of the White House.
At the time Carter stood at the peak of his popularity and there was nothing in the predominant mood in the United States to indicate any support for the type of policies that Reagan was to symbolize a couple of years later. The policy of detente, put in place by the Nixon administration, seemed to have toned down, if not actually removed, fears of a thermonuclear war with the USSR. Carter’s preaching for human rights and an ethical foreign policy seemed to strike sympathetic chords with many Americans. The economy was in reasonably good shape, and the baby-boomers, asserting themselves in a big way, were pushing the social and cultural agenda toward the left, that is to say away from anything that Reagan stood for.
Zahedi’s friendship with Reagan irritated many in the Iranian government. Foreign Minister Abbas-Ali Khalatbari, for example, told me that “our ambassador over there” was causing unnecessary “complications” in our relations with the Carter administration by “cuddling that radical extremist Ronald Reagan.”
When Reagan eventually came to Tehran on a private visit, some of Khalatbari’s hesitations about him had found echoes among other senior Iranian leaders. The Prime Minister Amir-Abbas Hoveyda politely declined to receive Reagan. But when a banquet was given at Hessarak, Zahedi’s residence in the mountains north of Tehran, in Reagan’s honor, a good part of the Tehran glitterati showed up. There, in a brief speech, Reagan described Iran as “one of the frontiers of freedom today” adding, to the surprise of those present, that those frontiers would be extended in the future.
For Iranians obsessed with the threat from their Soviet neighbors, this was provocative talk. The best that most Iranians could think of was to contain the Soviet monster in its lair; to even dream of forcing it into any retreat was pure fantasy.
What made Reagan’s words effective was that he spoke in a tone of sincerity seldom associated with politicians. Reagan may have been acting — after all he had been an actor, though not a first rate one, for years. But there was something in the way he exposed his vision of the world that the first word that came to mind was “conviction”.
I had gone to the banquet as a gesture toward Zahedi. But I was captivated by Reagan’s vision. He appeared to be swimming entirely against the tide. I knew little of the United States but had been disturbed by much of what I had seen and heard during a number of brief visits. I had found in Washington political elite, including House Speaker Tip O’Neil and half a dozen senators, including Edward Kennedy and Frank Church, and made the usual tour of newspaper editorial boards. I had concluded that the Americans were tired and bored. All they wanted was to be left alone. They had already swallowed a massive expansion of Soviet influence in Africa and made no noise when the Communists seized power in Afghanistan. They were not even interested in the Communist-sponsored war raging in the Arabian Peninsula, although the region contained the world’s largest known oil reserves. Fear of another Vietnam had paralyzed the US political and intellectual elite, turning them into appeasers. At the same time public obsession with Watergate, still fresh in many memories, seemed to preclude the revival of the Republican Party’s fortunes anytime soon.
At one editorial lunch in Washington I had uttered a few good words about Richard Nixon. The convives around the table had suddenly fallen silent, looking at me as if I were an alien from the outer space.
So, meeting Ronald Reagan in Tehran was like running into a pre-historic man, a long defunct species that existed only in imagination.
And this was precisely why Reagan was interesting.
I had gone to the banquet with some reluctance. But my curiosity had been aroused. This is why I asked to accompany the Reagans on a trip to Isfahan the following day. I saw the exercise as part of my education in American politics. The man in charge of the trip was Shapour Dolatshahi, scion of an old aristocratic family and a punctilious protocol officer. But his five-star program had been designed in such a way as to minimize Ronald and Nancy Reagan’s contacts with the ordinary folk in the historic city.
But Reagan would have none of that. He and Nancy were happy about the superluxurious Shah Abbas Hotel suite they were assigned. But “Ronny” also insisted on pressing some flesh in the bazaar, at the mosques, and at a local steel mill. Despite the obvious barrier of the language he showed that he was a genuine man of the people, capable of communicating with individuals from all backgrounds.
Over lunch and at tea-time he asked numerous questions about Iran. I in turn asked him questions about the United States. In an interview a few weeks earlier the Shah had told me that he believed the US had “entered an historic period of decline.” Without revealing its source, I asked Reagan what he thought of that analysis.
“These are big words for me,” he quipped. “But I can tell you that those who write us off make a big mistake.”
One theme that came up frequently was Reagan’s belief that a nation would achieve power and prosperity if only governments allowed people “to do their thing”.
He loved a story about Shah Abbas, the medieval Persian ruler, who had been presented with a falcon.
“This is the toughest falcon ever,” reported the palace eunuch. “The problem is that we have to feed him two big lambs a day.”
“Ok, but how has he been fed so far?” asked the Shah.
“Well, he has been finding his food in the wilderness,” the eunuch replied.
“So why not let him continue do just that,” the Shah had said, closing the discussion.
Reagan joked that the Safavid Shah must be regarded as the true father of free-enterprise economics.
At a teashop in the bazaar Reagan stopped to watch two men playing backgammon, a game every Iranian knows and plays.
“Sounds like international politics,” Reagan joked. “May be I should practice it.”
The hint was enough for Dolatshahi to present Reagan with a luxury backgammon set the following day, plus a 20-minute course in how to play.
I don’t know whether or not Reagan learned the game. But his subsequent career showed that he used many of its rules in confronting and ultimately helping destroy the “Evil Empire.”
Back in Tehran and a few days later Foreign Minister Khalatbari asked what I though of the strange American visitor.
“He is great,” I said. “The exact opposite of Jimmy Carter, he is the other America, the America of Gary Cooper.”
“But does he have any chance?” the minister had asked.
“None at all,” I had said.