Jon Halliday

  • In the Service of the Peacock Throne: The Diaries of the Shah’s Last Ambassador to London by Parviz Radji
    Hamish Hamilton, 343 pp, £12.50, April 1983, ISBN 0 241 10960 4

All writers know about lunch. A good lunch with one’s publisher is sometimes the only thing that keeps one going on a project threatening to go stale. The worst thing that usually looms over the soup is a missed deadline. The diaries of Parviz Radji, the Shah’s last ambassador to London, are largely about lunches and dinners, many of them spoiled by subjects weightier than missed deadlines. Abuse of civil rights, imprisonment without trial and, above all, torture ruin many a delicious meal. By the end a picture of Khomeini on the front page of the International Herald Tribune can cause Radji and his guests to gag before they have even finished peeling their artichokes.

The publishers audaciously claim on the dust-jacket that the diaries are ‘utterly truthful, edited with no particle of hindsight’. And yet one feels the author could have shed more light on several matters, if he had chosen to do so. Tantalising hints about the Shah’s much-disliked twin sister, Ashraf, are hardly followed through. A curious section of speculation about Empress Farah Diba’s frequent and politically counter-productive visits to the USA is accompanied by an allusive anecdote about the behaviour towards her of the Iranian Ambassador in Washington, Ardeshir Zahedi. Some visitors to the London Embassy at Princes Gate emerge not only unscathed but even unmentioned. And accompanying the volume as it reached me was a press release (so-called) from the publishers, listing items concerning four people in the book which reviewers are not allowed to mention. So far as I can see, however, there is no reason not to name three of the four people who have had information about themselves embargoed: Princess Ashraf, Alexander Haig and Richard (‘Dick’) Helms.

Manifestly evasive though the diaries are, they are nonetheless exceptionally illuminating on two issues: on the last years of the Shah’s regime, seen from the inside; and on how to try to nobble Britain’s media intelligentsia and politicians, many of whom troop through the dining-room at Princes Gate proffering advice – and sometimes tipping Radji off by phone about trouble ahead. As Mrs Thatcher tries to speed Britain into joining the ‘newly submerging countries’ it is useful to have so sharp and yet so complicit a description of our vulnerability. Radji records only one person who refused his hospitality: Philip Roth (though there were others).

The title is apt. Radji was indeed ‘in the service’ of a narcissistic and obsessive monarch, a man incapable of accepting criticism, or even good advice; a man who solicited flattery, liable to blow up over the least slight, even if only imagined. On one occasion Radji was told to protest strongly after a sports commentator on the BBC World Service had expressed ‘surprise’ that Iran had got into the quarter-finals of the World Cup. The Shah’s anger, he was told, ‘knows no bounds’ over the anti-Iranian bias in the word ‘surprise’.

But Radji protests too much. He officially represented a regime which engaged in the violation of human rights on a large scale. By his own account, he did his job assiduously and covered up for his government’s behaviour. The first mention of torture comes in the very first entry – and from Princess Margaret. Radji is apologising for the demonstrators outside the window. Princess Margaret says she is used to pro-IRA demonstrators in America. ‘“But, of course, you have torture, which we don’t.” I replied that I was amazed how misinformed her Royal Highness was about Iran.’ But was she so misinformed – about Iran, at any rate? The misinformation would seem to have been on Radji’s part. Two years later, in May 1978, when Radji is acknowledging (to himself) that torture had continued long after he had denied its existence, he is concerned with trying to discredit those who had been tortured. Even when cabling Tehran during the final collapse in November 1978, ‘to observe a minimum code of ethics in their treatment of detainees’, his motive is to avoid exposing ‘us once again to the hysterics of human rights organisations abroad’. Radji refers to ‘the human rights albatross’ in such a way that the problem seems to be not so much the violation of rights as people urging that these rights be respected. His claim that Iran used to be a good country to come from ‘before a disenchanted Western press ruined it all’ hardly gets to the root of the matter.

Radji was working within a regime which was obsessed with the Western media, and especially with three institutions based in London: the BBC, Amnesty International and the British press. His account of his work is largely taken up with attempts to win them over. Early on in his tenure, Radji lunches with a helpful figure, David Spanier, the Diplomatic Correspondent of the Times. Spanier tells him that there are only ‘about fifteen to twenty people who are the opinion-makers in the British press and suggests I establish regular dialogues with them. And he warns against attempts to woo Private Eye, who have been calling HIM [His Imperial Majesty] “The Shit of Persia” for something like three years; he doesn’t think they can be “bought”.’. Armed with the encouraging news that the British élite is still in control, Radji embarks on a kind of Lunchtime O’Booze strategy. But doubts soon crop up. Are there really only about fifteen to twenty as Spanier suggests? If so, why can’t they keep the docile herds in line a bit better? Something wrong here surely, as the press turns rather strongly against the Shah and even the Daily Telegraph writes that there is a ‘royal [Iranian] connection’ with the drug traffic. (The Press Council upheld an Iranian Embassy complaint about this.) Radji decides to leave Private Eye alone, but works away assiduously on Amnesty and the BBC, without much success, in spite of offers of help from local volunteers like Edward Heath. At one point Radji even fantasises about blowing up the BBC transmitter on Masirah Island, off Oman, which carries the World Service to Iran. Radji’s account is an unintended tribute to two often underestimated British institutions: the BBC World Service and Amnesty.

The throne wanted sycophancy. Tehran suggested placing its texts as paid advertisements in the Western press. Radji advised against, as this would be ‘to emulate Kim Il Sung’. However, Western volunteers could not always be stopped. Spanier explained that ‘there is such a thing as journalistic conscience and unless an article is “balanced” it would suffer from what he called the “Chalfont syndrome”. But it was precisely in Britain that the vainglorious Iranian royal family sought and found its biographers and publishers. Lesley Blanch is signed up to write a biography of the Empress. Margaret Laing is invited round to lunch with her publisher, Lord Longford, to straighten out her biography of the Shah. Rather late in the day Lord Weidenfeld suggests that Lord Chalfont take three years off to do a biography of Ashraf! And this after an earlier proposal by Weidenfeld for ‘a kind of Star over China that would put his [the Shah’s] point of view across as Snow’s book had done for Mao’. Admirers of Snow’s book might have a little trouble recognising the title, for where would it be without the word Red? Probably just about where Weidenfeld’s idiotic idea finished up – nowhere. Even the Shah smelled a rat and turned it down. (I wonder what title Weidenfeld had in mind – White Star over Iran? Star in the East?) Having already been lumbered with the Shah’s massively counter-productive work, Towards the Great Civilisation, Radji could spot the Chalfont-Kim Il Sung shoot-self-in-foot syndrome and hastened to Ashraf’s side. He produces some pretty strong arguments against doing the book, but not enough to deter Ashraf – or the Lords Chalfont and Weidenfeld, who turn up later at Princes Gate keen as mustard.

Radji has sprinkled enough famous names through the diary to ensure a substantial readership. But how much good advice and informed opinion did he get for all his fine food and good wine? And was he really prepared to listen to unwelcome but true information? Diana Phipps upsets him by telling him that some of the people she had invited to dinner had refused to come because Radji was going to be there (George Sanders was right – always check out your fellow guests). Radji slams her for ‘tactlessness’. But this is just the sort of thing he needed to know. An interesting case of the discriminating guest is Anthony Howard, then editor of the New Statesman, who accepted an invitation to dinner, but said he would have turned down the Chilean, Argentinian or South African (but not Israeli) Embassies.

Nor does Radji get much help from the other luminaries, many of whom pass through his pages leaving hardly a trace. David Frost, Charles Douglas-Home, Andrew Knight (the editor of the Economist), Frank Giles, Richard Kershaw, Stephen Spender and others eat and drink their way, sometimes to Tehran, but never, it would seem, to saying anything very interesting or useful. A string of right-wing Tory MPs like Julian Amery (originally seen helping Zog in Albania), Winston Churchill and Peter Temple-Morris deliver themselves of staggeringly banal pronouncements. In spite of some of them going on ‘fact-finding’ missions to the Middle East, they are as ill-informed and full of poor advice on their return as they were before. Even worse, when someone like Julian Amery wakes up, very late in the day, to what is happening, he becomes so gloomy that he demoralises the conservative camp. Others on the right, notably Peregrine Worsthorne, try to stiffen Radji’s resolve by urging him to be less delicate. A sickly smell of paternalism and fatuousness rises from these figures. Lord George-Brown races out to Tehran just before the Ayatollah calls closing time to try to get the Shah to pull himself together. Woodrow Wyatt suggests that ‘bobbies could provide advice on crowd control in Tehran.’ Lord Longford thinks the way to avoid the regime’s ‘bad press’ is to change the country’s name back to Persia.

Radji has only himself to blame if he wasted his time listening to people like George-Brown, whose views on the chances of the Shah’s survival were worth less than nothing. But the counterpart of this reliance on mainly very conservative and ill-informed opinion (also obtained in the course of limited country-house travel at the weekend) is Radji’s dismissal of information which conflicted with his own views as ‘nasty’ (an epithet bestowed on a well-argued article in the Times by my brother Fred Halliday, for example). On the other hand, Radji is quite right to feel that there was something demeaning in the way his country’s regime kowtowed to self-interested Londoners. His portrayal of a part of the British ruling stratum is, wittingly and unwittingly, devastating.

The diaries also shed light on two groups of British citizens often protected by protocol and secrecy: the prime ministers and the royals. The prime ministers do not come off too well. Wilson is not only an admirer of the Shah, but a crashing bore. Callaghan is described by Marcia Falkender as a ‘bent copper’. Heath is portrayed as unable to make contact with people. When the Thatchers come to dinner, ‘every time Mr Thatcher tries to say something she interrupts him to say: “But dahling, the Ambassador already knows that.”’

Radji worked for a difficult royal family, but not all of ours seem to be on top of things either. As the Shah totters, Radji is at ‘Buck House’. ‘It all happened so suddenly,’ the Queen is reported as saying, ‘with genuine bewilderment’. Which paper had she been reading? Prince Philip chimes in: ‘You seem to have bouts of national insanity every fifteen years.’ Princess Margaret ‘remarks that “the noise of the demonstrations echoes through my house every Saturday.” ’

One of the oddest manifestations of embattled monarchist solidarity is a dinner at the Saudi Embassy in London for ex-King Simeon of Bulgaria. Hard to think of a safer place for Radji. But even here he comes under fire. Sitting next to him is the doughty Lady Bowker: ‘I hate the Shah, Radji, I hate him.’ Toppling monarchs seem subject to a special kind of cartographic derangement: their world map is made up only of monarchies, all of them dominoes. The most acute sufferer from tunnel royal vision would seem to be ex-King Constantine of Greece, who gloomily retails Hussein of Jordan’s prediction: after Tehran comes Riyadh.

There are times when one can almost feel sorry for Parviz Radji. Inviting David Cooper to dinner was asking for trouble. Radji has a bad back, and serious skin ailments (job-related?). And I can hardly think of a worse moment than being leapt upon by the Shah’s Great Dane just as one is about to try to talk to the Shit himself about his being called the Shit.