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Diplomatic diary

Cats & dogs
The Shah's visit to France, with a few untold accounts

By Farhad Sepahbody
May 22, 2003
The Iranian

In the summer of 1948, on August 1, to be precise, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi visited Paris for the first time as the Shah of Iran. He was young, popular, quite handsome and single. He had just divorced beautiful Princess Fawzia, the sister of King Farouk of Egypt who had failed to bear him an heir. Anyway, that was the official reason given for the separation.

I was then a student at Janson de Sailly, a very harsh and stern school in Paris. My father had been Ambassador to France, since it's liberation from the Germans, but had been recalled home.

One of the reasons advanced for his premature departure was that he had welcomed exiled Ghavam-Saltaneh, a former Prime Minister, in whose cabinet he had been the Foreign Minister. [Read Hoveyda's World War II diaries] The latter had become a bit too popular and nursed the notion that a king should reign rather than rule.

Following my father's departure I was left alone in Paris. Now it was Soheily, an ex-Prime Minister who had become the new Ambassador.

At that time in 1948, the chief of protocol at the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs was a good friend of my father. They had known each other prior to World War II when may father was the Persian envoy to Paris.

Probably as a gesture of esprit de corps or maybe of diplomatic camaraderie, the head of protocol had asked me to go to Le Bourget airport in a French official car provided for the occasion. I suspect he had been told to gather Iranian students studying in Paris. You must see the Shah, he had urged.

Neither Orly airport nor Charles de Gaulle existed at the time. Le Bourget was the very same airfield where famed Charles Lindberg landed the Spirit of St. Louis on the first trans-Atlantic flight. It was then a rather simple airport where cows grazed in the distance. France was at the time in the midst of a vicious crisis and few high officials were available due to the turmoil. Fortunately the Shah's visit to France was of a rather private nature.

Present at the airport were of course Ambassador Soheily and a few members of our embassy which I must confess, was very small at the time. Among them was Amini our military attache. He was a brother of Ali Amini who later on became Prime Minister and introduced a good measure of economic and social reforms.

Amazingly enough, I still have the 8mm black and white movie I took of the event. Most of the gentlemen seen in that film have now departed to the great beyond, a reality which augurs rather miserably for the very few remaining from that period and who are still kicking.

Years passed by, and in 1970 I was nominated as economic counsellor to the Iranian Embassy in Paris. For me, Paris had always been a love story and up to that time such a seductive position had always escaped me. While I was there, the Shah together with Empress Farah came on a state visit.

It was a glorious and resplendent affair . On this memorable occasion a sumptuous gala in honor of the sovereign was given by French President Valery Giscard d'Estaing at the legendary Versailles Palace >>> Photos

During the lavish dinner I was sitting next to a ranking member of the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs and he recalled that first visit of the Shah back in 1948:

"Yes indeed, we had a nasty crisis in 1948," remarked the French diplomat. "It was a period of odious social and economic turmoil for France. I was quite young then and partly in charge of the Shah's stay. Our beleaguered Minister of Foreign Affairs had to pay attention to more pressing chores. Together with the Asia Department, the French Protocol attempted the best it could to organize the sojourn of the Sovereign, trying to bear in mind his wishes. His 1948 trip to France was nothing to compare with the munificence of the welcome given to your Sovereign by Charles de Gaulle and now by Giscard d'Estaing! But it was nevertheless tres sympathetique."

The French official went on: "Chavonin, our military attache in Tehran, helped us a lot. First of all, we added rice to each menu and made the Shah and his entourage happy! Then we sent him off to the Military Academy of Saumur to enjoy our riders of the Cadres Noirs. He also played tennis quite well with our national champion and almost beat him!"

The King's arrival in 1948 was followed by a simple luncheon given at the tel Matignon, the residence of the French Prime Minister. Unfortunately the diplomat went on: "Our interest at the time was not in your young sovereign but in French politics and the darn communists meddling in everything and trying to topple the government. I must confess, the Shah at least outwardly, had the high civility not to notice this lack of attention, although I presume that he was rather surprised by our shortcomings.

"Perhaps our illustrious host failed to carry with him the usual unforgettable memories of his stay, as we say in the diplomatic language. Anyway if negligence there was in 1948, we have done much better since, look at the brlliant reception tonight, never anything so exalted, so majestic occurred in this cteau since Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette occupied it."

I inwardly hoped that the Shah would manage much better than Louis XVI. Sadly, by the end 1978, he didn't.

"By the way," continued the French diplomat, "in October 1948 your Ambassador Soheily came to see me at the Asia Department to complain and remind me of the distressing fact that there were no ministers, not even a deputy Foreign Minister at the Iranian Embassy's reception in honor of the birthday of the Sovereign. He also said that we did not provide him with a fitting seat at the annual gala of the Paris Opera. But look now how things have changed, our President, our Prime Minister, our top ministers and industrialists rush and fly to salute and present their respects to His Majesty, whether in St. Moritz or Tehran!"

A diplomat has to be invariably prudent, but the sarcasm I had discerned in the "adding rice" to the menu bit did not agree well with me. At times, and especially with the French, one has to reciprocate; they will appreciate you all the more.

"Are you sure that it is only for our long-standing mutual affinities and not for the sweet perfume of oil and new large contracts that these gentlemen rush to see the Shah?" I retorted.

Aware that oil and morality do not mix, the Frenchman had a faint smile. Hey we bought the Concorde too and it was flying to Kish Island on a regular basis.

It was an endless feast in the spacious "Salle des Miroirs", and we conversed some more on the time-honored and exquisite relationship between France and Iran. Louis the XIV, le Roi Soleil (King of the Sun) as they called him, had received in 1715, and in unparalleled splendor, the eccentric Persian Ambassador Mohammad Reza Beg, sent by our Safavid monarch. Reza Beg had become the hit of Paris, in different times, but at the same regal site.

But then, there had been some clouds in our relations too. Like when Napoleon failed to honor the Finkenstein Treaty to assist Iran against the Russians during the era of Fath-Ali-Shah Qajar. Who can disregard that? It crushed an ancestor, Prince Abbas Mirza Qajar who was on an exhausting campaign against the Russians in Georgia.

Our relations with France were at their apex when De Gaulle, the praised French President visited Iran. During his official tour to Iran, he visited Persepolis. When an official guide began to explain the grandeur of those times, De Gaulle said: "Stop it right there, I'll be the narrator!"

He went on to describe dramatically and to perfection the immense splendor of Iran, its history, its monuments and its past has never heard before. The crowd of Iranian and French officials burst into applauses. Indeed a great man he was, and friend of Iran too...

To make a long story short, the French diplomat recollected the year when Iran broke relations with France over a cat. Alas, that incident took place when my father, Anoshiravan Sepahbody, was Ambassador to France in 1938. A similar rupture of diplomatic ties had also occurred with the United States at more or less the same epoch, that time over a dog!

The chauffeur of the Iranian envoy in Washington, driving down Massachussets Avenue, had somehow exceeded the legal speed limit. The car was stopped by cops on Harleys, who, like our rishous hezbollahis, obviously did not realize what diplomatic immunity was, or maybe could not care less.

When the luckless Ambassador, accompanied by his wife, lowered the car window to protest, his German hound snapped the cop's extended hand. Their excellencies were taken away into custody and a diplomatic row ensued.

Belated, ambiguous, excuses from the U.S. State Department did not help the situation; they were not considered appropriate or adequate. And so, relations with the US were severed!

Ah.... we touchy, irrascible Persians!

At the time, Iran's Reza Shah was a reformist and modernist sovereign indeed, but he was also much feared for his somber moods and lack of sense of humor.

Both these events were of course not comparable to the major split with the U.S. following the 1980 hostage crisis. Now, not even the oil riches of the Caspian or a Houdini trick can easily patch these shattered relations, at least not in the forseeable future.

"In diplomacy," said the French official, "it is fundamental to take protests with utter tact and try to appease things by displaying extreme comprehension and understanding. In fact, when you dear father was for the first time envoy extraordinary and plenipotentiary to France, there was a distressing event which is still present in the memory of all those working in our political department.

"I was then a junior assistant at the ministry. Rather foolishly, a prewar French satyrical journal, L'Os Mlle, had published a caricature based on the word 'Shah'. I still recollect the cartoon: It was an illustration of a royal visit to Paris Longchamp race tracks. In the official carriage pulled by several horses, quite visibly was a crowned cat, relaxing in full majesty. Under the vexing cartoon was the caption: 'Nous attendons la visite du Chat de Perse' in other words: 'We are awaiting the visit of the Shah of Persia'."

"Chat" means cat in French. It is pronounced the same way as "Shah".

"The father of your August Sovereign," the French diplomat continued, "obviously he had a subscription to L'Argus de la Presse a major French press clippings service, and this unfortunate drawing did not escape him."

A highly outraged Reza Shah, believing that he been slighted, demanded immediate excuses from a country whose press is totally free. Clearly, the French government could not acquiesce and unfortunately vague excuses from the Quai d' Orsay were not acceptable to the proud and emotional Persians.

"Well," I said, "our relations were indeed broken for a few months. But probably what you may not know, is that the day we departed Paris for Iran, your distressed Minister of Foreign Affairs came in person to the railway station. He offered my mother a large bouquet of red roses and my father a rather small package with the express instruction not to open it before crossing the French border."

"What was in it, a bomb?" pressed on jokingly the inquisitive French diplomat.

"You will never guess it, vous donnez votre langue au chat?" I answered back. That was a French expression relating to curiosity which translates into, "Would you give your tongue to the cat?"

"Yes indeed, I do" he urged

"It was," said I, "a white Sevres marble statuette of a gorgeous relaxing cat and underneath it the following words were engraved 'Le Fautif', meaning 'The Culprit' in French. Undeniably a discreet but witty French humour relating to an irksome situation. For many long years this prized cat statuette adorned the mantle of my father's dining room fireplace."

The story did have a happy ending though. Following a stay of several months in Tehran we returned to Paris. Alas, when the Germans invaded France, we had to flee Paris for Vichy, a tranquil spa town, which had become the provisional capital of France.

In 1941, my father became Ambassador to Turkey. Upon embarking on this new assignment, he went to take leave of the new leader of France, Marchal Petain, who had just met Hitler in Germany.

Here is what Petain told my father:

"Mr. Sepahbody, you are the fortunate envoy of the land of roses and nightingales and I wish you and your beautiful country and people much happiness. I wish you always roses without thorns, but be careful for you have troublesome neighbors. Look at our poor France, - I saw Hitler yesterday! For an old French soldier like me, I would have preferred to die rather than to stand in front of this mountain of pride..."

Then, all of a sudden and to the deep distress and emotion of my father, the great Marshall of France, the triumphant victor of the Verdun battle during World War I, began to cry like a child!

Of course, I did not report to the French official what Reza Shah had spilled to my father about the French. But since many decades have passed and I am no longer a diplomat, I feel safe to reveal perhaps this small slice of our turbulent but at times also quite amusing history.

Upon our return to Tehran, Reza Shah was still fuming over the cat affair and my father was more or less in disgrace. Nobody came to visit us, people were fearful to talk to someone who had precipitated the ire of Reza Shah.

But somehow, this outstanding king appreciated my father and highly valued the fact that my father had personally planned and conceived the acquisition of our new-born Persian Gulf Navy. Reza Shah remained grateful for this feat.

Anyway, afetr six months of forlorn existence -- the crossing of the desert, as the French say -- the telephone rang. On that fine Tehran morning my father was asked to show up at the royal palace at once. It was with much apprehension and many prayers that he went on to see Reza Shah.

Here is what my father told me about the encounter:

"I saw Reza Shah, tall, towering and and wearing his usual simple military uniform with just one medal, the one of Iran. For what seemed to be an eternity, he paced the floor of his office, utterly ignoring my presence. We were alone, not a fly buzzing around. Except for the Shah's heavy stomping, there was absolute silence. I was ashen and wondered what dreadful fate was awaiting me.

"Suddenly the Shah stopped pacing and turned towards me, his piercing eyes glaring, he thundered: 'Hey, Sepahbody, raised at the cursed Qajar court, you have served this country aptly and on many occasions. I recognize your services to my homeland and decided to send you back to Paris.

"You must leave at once and tell the leader of that country  that if they repeat something like this again, I'll invite their lousy navy to the Persian Gulf for a challenge with our fleet - let's see who will win. Go now and pack up."

"Yes Sire," my father quickly replied with understandable relief. But as he was taking leave the Shah dashed to the door and clutched him by the neck, sending renewed shivers down his spine. "I have changed my mind," he said, "don't say anything to that blockhead French president!"

"Certainly Your Majesty." replied my father. Reza Shah knew that his strict orders were observed to the letter and thought perhaps that my father could well convey the challenge he had just made.

That was a judicious decision from the king that Saddam Hussein failed to emulate when he engaged in his ill-fated Mother of all Wars and later took on America's might head on. As a result, Saddam ruined his country. That is the destiny of those who fail to ponder or grasp the lessons of history.

But what happened to our shiny new Persian Gulf naval fleet -- the pride of Reza Shah and the Persian nation? Attacked without provocation by the British and the Russians on August 25, 1941, neutral Iran suffered her own "Pearl Harbor" -- three months before the United States' more celebrated Day of Infamy. When the onslaught ended, most of our little fleet had been sunk and destroyed. Iran's army was crushed, and Reza Shah overthrown.

As American military expert Richard A. Stewart wrote in Sunrise at Abadan, (Praeger, New York 1988), "few incidents of World War II relate more directly to the current quandary in the Persian Gulf than the above one, for the 1941 Anglo-Soviet invasion drew America ever deeper and inextricably into the affairs of Iran and the Persian Gulf."

Author

Farhad Sepahbody was Iran's last ambassador to Morocco under the Pahlavi Dynasty.

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