On October 31, 1968, President Lyndon Johnson announced a halt in the bombing of North Vietnam, which, he said, could lead to a peaceful settlement of the unpopular war. This unexpected declaration, which came only five days before the presidential election, surprised almost everybody. It was generally construed as a last-minute effort to help Hubert Humphrey's faltering campaign. Had the president made his move earlier that year, political analysts said at the time, Johnson would have assured his own reelection.
Most commentators and historians affirm that until October 1968, he had fiercely sided with top military officials and resisted all steps toward peace. Thus to mention only one recent example, in the 1998 book
Flawed Giant: Lyndon Johnson and His Time, 1961-1973, Professor Robert Dallek contended that by late 1967, when he could have used antiwar sentiment at home and political developments in Vietnam to cut his losses and end the bloodshed, President Johnson instead “stayed the course,” having become blinded by his own rhetoric and wishful thinking about the progress of the war. Actually, that judgement is not correct. I would feel remiss if I continued to withhold the facts I know.
In 1967 I undertook a highly secret mission at the behest of President Johnson in order to sound out the North Vietnamese government about the possibility of an honorable settlement of the conflict. Thirty-four years after this assignment, I believe that I am naturally relieved of my oath of secrecy.
I have therefore decided to recount here my 1967 delicate and adventurous foray into behind-the-scenes diplomacy.
In 1965, after having spent 7 years as attaché at the Iranian Embassy in Paris and 13 years as an international civil servant at UNESCO's headquarters in the French capital, I returned to the Foreign Ministry in Tehran to head the Division of International Organizations. As such, every fall I attended the session of the United Nations General Assembly in New York. In 1967, I served as one of the Iranian delegates mostly in the Third Committee (Humanitarian and Social Affairs). The Group of 77 (developing countries) asked me to act as their chief negotiator with the Western powers for the completion of the two Covenants on Human Rights.
One October afternoon, as I was addressing the committee, my deputy entered the conference room and hurriedly sat down behind me. He placed a piece of paper on the table before me. It read, “The foreign minister wants you to join him immediately in his hotel suite for a very important and urgent matter.” This interruption up-set me, but I managed to wind up my remarks and turned toward my deputy with some anger: “What the heck? I have urgent things to do here. …What is it about?”
He replied, “I am just repeating what the minister said. I really don't know what he wants to discuss, I asked his aides… They are ignorant about the matter… The only clue is that the cypher officer brought him a personal communication from his imperial majesty just before the minister gave me the message for you.”
I was flabbergasted because the minister (Ardeshir Zahedi) rather disliked me. He rarely invited me to his large suite in the Waldorf Towers. Every year he came to New York for two or three weeks to attend the General Assembly of the United Nations, where he delivered the usual political speech and met his colleagues from other countries.
He was accompanied by his own staff and entourage of sycophants. He seldom entrusted me with any particular task. That suited me fine, freeing me to use evenings to indulge in extracurricular activities and see my American friends who were involved in literature and the cinema, theater, and the arts. I used to meet him only at official functions, and even then we barely spoke to each other.
His unusual summons intrigued me. I obviously could not disregard it: As minister; he was my boss. I gave the necessary instructions to my deputy about the matter at hand and wended my way to the Waldorf Towers.
Twenty minutes later I entered the luxury suite. The minister was in the midst of a discussion with his personal staff and some visitors. As soon as he saw me, he literally jumped from his armchair and embraced me effusively, as if I was one of his closest friends. He then directed me to his bedroom, saying, “We cannot speak in front of all these people.” He offered me a cup of tea and showed me the decoded cable: “Top Secret. To Fereydoun: Board immediately Iran Air's direct flight to Tehran. Necessary orders have been issued to the captain and to Mehrabad Airport. Signed MRP (the shah's initials).”
I was dumbfounded: The shah's orders were usually transmitted and signed by his private secretary. The minister was looking quizzically at me. He probably thought I knew what it was about. Actually, I felt terribly worried. I thought that something might have happened to my mother or to my brother. It was a deep-seated Iranian custom to hide bad news as long as possible from close relatives. But if the message involved news of that kind, the minister would also have known about it. He probably had already called his friends in Iran. Obviously, he was as bewildered as I.
I told him that I could not decipher the meaning of the message. He did not believe me but retained his extraordinarily amicable attitude. Later on I learned from one of his secretaries that he had been impressed by the fact that the shah had addressed me by my first name; actually, that was normal: Our family name was reserved for my brother, who was the prime minister.
I glanced at my wristwatch: already 5:00 p.m. I had just enough time to go to my hotel, pick up what I needed, and proceed to Kennedy Airport. The minister reassured me: “Don't worry. I have given instructions to Iranair; they won't fly without you. Take your time.” A knock sounded at the door of the bedroom. One of the minister's aides brought a sealed en velope that the minister gave to me: “This is a highly confidential report. You'll give it to his imperial majesty in person. It is very important.” He hugged me and accompanied me to the door of his suite.
I hurried to my modest hotel room and packed a small suitcase. My telephone rang: The concierge informed me that our ambassador to the United Nations was waiting in the lobby. He too embraced me and said, “My limousine is here. I'll accompany you to the airport.” I tried to dissuade him. I wanted to be alone and think about possible reasons for my sudden recall to Tehran. But he insisted and forced his invitation on me.
The ambassador; a close friend and my former brother-in-law, Dr. Mehdi Vakil, tried hard to worm out the “secret” of the shah's message. He wouldn't believe me when I told him that I hadn't the slightest idea. I told him about my worries concerning my brother and my mother. He had telephoned to his own brother in Tehran: “Thank God nothing untoward has happened. Your mother is in good health, and your brother is still in office and aware of your sudden trip.” Although they relieved my worry, his words deepened the mystery.
In the VIP lounge most of my colleagues had assembled to wish me a happy trip. While in my inmost thoughts I anticipated the worst, they seemed rather optimistic. They generally surmised that I was to be promoted: a cabinet position or an important posting to an embassy. Their expressions of friendliness were carefully calculated: They probably expected that I would give them a boost once I was secure in my new position.
I finally boarded the 747. The captain greeted me on the gangway, and the stewardess took me to the first-class bar, which had been transformed into a bedroom. This reception was a good omen. Nevertheless, I reviewed all the possibilities, starting with the worst scenario. If some adverse event had happened, the minister and the ambassador would have been primed, for Tehran, like all societies without free information, functioned as a never-ending rumor mill. Then what? A promotion? My brother was opposed to my inclusion in the cabinet: He was wary about possible accusations of nepotism. As for an embassy, there was no opening at that time. True, the shah could at any moment recall whomever he wanted to replace. But all the important embassies were headed by trusted friends of his.
Had I provoked the ire of the authoritarian ruler because of the way in which I negotiated the two human rights pacts? I knew his extreme sensitivity to the subject. Amnesty International's constant criticism incensed him. Did he intend to berate me? Or had some of my “personal enemies” convinced him to relieve me of my present position in the Foreign Ministry? But if so, why all this secrecy? Could it reflect a desire not to embarrass my brother, his prime minister?
In fact, as in all undemocratic regimes, anything was possible, and ruminating about the shah's message was useless. I swallowed a sleeping pill after dinner and went to bed. I barely slept. Worries continued to whirl in my mind and in my dreams.
At breakfast time, the captain informed me that during the usual 90-minute stop at London's Heathrow Airport, I would stay in the VIP lounge. But our ambassador to England was waiting on the tarmac and whisked me away in his limousine. I thought he might have new information, but he seemed as puzzled as I. He had just heard from Zahedi about the shah's cryptic message.
I tried to catch up on my sleep during the three-hour flight from London to Tehran, but to no avail. As the trip approached its end, contradictory ideas revolved more and more rapidly in
my mind, and my apprehensions increased. Finally, the Boeing landed, and as soon as it came to a stop and its door opened, two officers of the Imperial Guard entered the first-class section. They came directly to me and escorted me toward a police car on the tarmac. My worries reached a peak: Was I being arrested?
“Where are we going?” I asked.
One of the officers said, “We are not at liberty to tell.”
“What about my luggage?”
“It is being taken care of by our people on the ground.”
A minute later I found myself wedged between the two officers on the back seat of the car. Four policemen on motorcycles preceded the car, whose siren wailed regularly. It moved at neckbreaking speed while motorists slowed down and drove on the sides of the road. Was I being given the full VIP treatment, or being whisked away toward a secret place of detention? The car took the highway leading to the northern suburbs. When I saw a sign indicating the village of Evin, the location of an infamous Secret Police prison, my heart pounded until the car raced past the sign.
A few minutes later it stopped at the entrance of the shah's Niavaran palace. The iron gate opened, and the car proceeded slowly toward the main palace. I was ushered into a kind of library. It was past 10:00 p.m., and the hubbub of conversation coming from the living room indicated that a dinner reception was going on. Almost immediately, the Shah appeared and invited me to sit on a couch beside him. His voice was solemn: “What I am about to tell you is an absolute secret between me and the president of the United States. It should remain so because the slightest leak might provoke an international crisis. You have to swear that you'll remain discreet… even tight-lipped, no matter what happens.”
He shouted: “Come,” the way high-society people used to summon servants. Immediately, as an Arabian Nights genie might have morphed into being, suddenly and mysteriously, a butler appeared and bowed. The shah ordered him to bring a Koran, on which I took an oath of secrecy. Although very secular in his daily life, the shah was deeply religious and believed that one of the twelve Shiite imams protected him.
He lit a cigarette, inhaled a few puffs, and then resumed talking: “The Americans are tired of the war in Vietnam. We (he always used the first person plural to refer to himself) have often told them that this war is a mistake… Now President Johnson is terribly upset by the in creasing number of casualties. Contrary to the assessments of his military advisers, he is con vinced that no side can win the war. But at the same time, because the United States is a super power both economically and militarily, it can, in the long term, bleed Vietnam to death. President Johnson does not want to bear the brunt of widening the operations and increasing the number of dead both among the combatants and the civilians. He now favors peace, but an honorable and an acceptable one.
“Officially he cannot announce such a reversal of policy before necessary and significant steps have been taken. With the American 'open system' and the media's attention riveted on the White House, secret or even quiet diplomacy on the part of the president and his aides is impos sible. That is why he has asked me to undertake on his behalf an exploratory initiative with the Vietnamese.
“To that end we must first and foremost establish a very discreet contact with North Viet nam. Now that our relations with the Soviets have dramatically improved, we can obviously use the North Vietnam Embassy in Moscow. But the Kremlin is in competition with Washington all over the world… Moscow might leak the whole affair in order to enhance its position in Asia, the Middle East, and elsewhere, and so the Soviet capital is out of the question. We cannot go to Hanoi either. Even if they accepted to receive an Iranian envoy, the press would become curious. The only place outside the Communist world where they have a representative is Paris.
Because de Gaulle is our personal friend, the French would not try to spy on us or leak our moves. Therefore, I want you to go immediately to Paris in order to establish contact with the North Vietnamese representative.”
I was about to say that the man would certainly not agree to see me, but the shah frowned, and I kept silent. He lit another cigarette and, as was his wont, continued his monologue.
“At this stage we should not enter into the details of our proposal. We should only make it clear that the Americans are ready to pursue the war and intensify their bombings for as long as it is necessary. But we Iranians, as fellow Asians, are weary of the continuous sufferings of our Vietnamese brothers … and what not. Therefore, we thought that if they would accept the idea of an honorable armistice in which neither side would be considered victor or loser, we Iranians would be ready to play the role of honest brokers and bring the parties together in negotiations. Do you understand what I am saying?”
I was beginning to feel the effects of jet lag and the fatigue of the long voyage. I nevertheless fought back my exhaustion and tried to show a sense of alertness. I said, “Yes, your majesty. But if you would allow me to make a remark. I doubt that the Vietnamese representative in Paris would accept to receive me.”
The shah smiled and interrupted me: “If you knock at his door and present your card as deputy foreign minister in charge of international organizations, the chances are that he won't open the door. But you were a leftist in your youth and lived more than 20 years in Paris. As a writer and film critic in the French capital, you have had many liberal and even Communist friends. No, don't protest. I have received regular reports about your activities.”
Although I was aware of the authoritarian nature of “oriental” regimes and of the secret surveillance of citizens, I felt shocked: Even as an obscure international civil servant interested in film and literature and writing reviews in Cahiers du Cinema, I had been spied on by the regime. The shah understood my reaction and continued in the same friendly spirit.
“You know a lot of people who enjoy cordial relations with North Vietnam and its Paris representative. You stand, therefore, in good stead to find a reliable person who has maintained close ties with the Vietnamese representative there. In fact, that's the reason I chose you for this mission… I know that you have always been a patriot and an idealist. I have confidence in your commitment to your country and to our present independent policies. Moreover; keep in mind the many thousands, if not millions, of lives that can be saved. I am sure that you'll succeed and will maintain the necessary secrecy. You'll also have to ascertain the reliability of the French friend you choose. He must keep the whole thing under his hat.”
My eyelids drooped; it was past midnight. The shah added, “You must be tired. Go home and have a good rest. Do you want me to give you some Valium?” (He was taking high doses of Valium at that time.) “Think about your Parisian friends, and come to my office tomorrow morning at 9:30 sharp for further instructions. And be ready to leave for Paris on the first afternoon flight.”
* * * *
After making a thorough review of my many French friends, I decided that the Bourdets would be the best people to carry out the secret mission. They belonged to the non-Communist liberal layer of Parisian high society (what the French dub the Tout Paris). Claude Bourdet, an outspoken intellectual, had led the Resistance movement Combat during World War II. The Ge stapo arrested him in 1944 and sent him to the Nazi concentration camp at Buchenwald. Son of a prominent dramatist, Edouard Bourdet, and the former Catherine Pozzi, a poet, Claude had married Ida Adamov, a Russian emigre and a tennis champion.
The Bourdets had contacts with all sorts of third-world liberation movements. During my years in Paris, I met in the Bourdet home officials of the Algerian FLN, the Palestinian PLO, the Peruvian Shining Path, and a host of other more or less important groups as well as indi vidual exiled intellectuals.
Both Claude and Ida were liberal leftists without being identified with the Communist line. During the occupation of France, Claude had founded the underground paper Combat, for which Abert Camus became an editorialist. After World War II, Claude launched the leftist, non-Communist weekly L'Observateur. He and Ida were rich and generous. Their duplex apart ment near the Etoile and Champs Elysees was the meeting place of liberal politicians and intel lectuals from all over the world.
Morally strong and stringent, Claude opposed compromises with Communists as well as rightist reactionaries. The American government had refused him a visa at the height of McCarthyism because he was critical of American foreign policy. He also had served for some time as an elected member of the Paris City Assembly. Over the years we had become very close friends.
As soon as my plane landed at Orly, I called him on a pay telephone and, before checking into a hotel, I paid him a visit. The idea of my mission enthralled him: He was against the Vietnam War and all the human sacrifices it entailed. He immediately telephoned the Vietnamese representative, whom he knew quite well. Mai Van Bo, Hanoi's man in Paris, agreed to see him after lunch at his Montparnasse town house. Claude and I lunched at the nearby celebrated café-restaurant La Closerie des Lilas (where, in the 1920s, Ernest Hemingway, among other American expatriates, spent a lot of time).
After the meal, I waited with Ida while Claude went to his nearby rendezvous. He returned after almost one hour. As I had expected, Mai Van Bo was afraid to receive the envoy of the pro-American shah of Iran. But on Claude's insistence, he promised to send a message to Hanoi and ask for permission to see me. I went from the café to a hotel near the Bourdets and called Tehran. The shah instructed me to return to Tehran. I arrived on the eve of his “coronation” ceremony.
Muhammad Reza Pahlavi became shah in August 1941, after the British and the Soviets invaded Iran and forced his father; who admired Hitler and insisted on Iran's neutrality, to abdi cate. They claimed they needed to control the Trans-Iranian Railway in order to send military supplies to the Red Army. It was hardly a time for celebrations, and the coronation ceremony had been postponed sine die. In fact, the incumbent shah liked celebrations and feasts. In 1965, the parliament bestowed on him the title of Aryamehr (literally, “The Light of the Aryans”) on the 25th anniversary of his reign. Almost immediately he staged the ceremony of coronation.
(A few years later; in 1971, he organized the Persepolis extravaganza, attended by approximately 80 monarchs and heads of states to mark the 2,500th anniversary of the founding of the Persian Empire by Cyrus the Great. In 1977, he presided over festivities celebrating the 50th year of the Pahlavi dynasty. Such celebrations were one of his most serious weaknesses.)
Circumstances forced me to don my ambassadorial uniform (which I loathed) in order to attend the ceremony. The foreign minister; who had returned from New York, was stunned to see me there. He was upset that I had gone back to Tehran without informing him. I told him that the shah had summoned me directly. He glared at me and suddenly asked, “Where are your deco rations (medals)?”
I replied bluntly, “Look, sir. This uniform cost me almost $1,000. The medals are too heavy and would tear the fabric. I cannot afford to spend another thousand dollars to replace it.”
The minister dismissed my excuses: “These medals were bestowed on you by his imperial majesty. It is an insult to him not to wear them.”
I retorted, “The shah saw me like this a moment ago. He made no such remarks.”
He did not insist on an answer but asked nevertheless, “Why didn't you report to me on your arrival?”
I explained, “You remember a few days ago in New York? You yourself told me that the shah had ordered my return. Well, he has entrusted me with a secret mission concerning his private office and ordered me to report only to him personally.”
The minister didn't like my defiant tone but at the same time couldn't berate me. He tried to no avail to worm out of me some indications of the nature of my mission. Finally, he asked, “How long are you going to stay?”
“I don't know for sure,” I answered. “I am waiting for a message from the people I contacted abroad for his majesty. But in the meantime, I am doing my work as usual at the ministry.”
I must add that I childishly relished the quandary of my “boss,” who could not question the shah's direct orders. But at the same time I felt uneasy about the undemocratic nature of the regime I was serving. Even my brother was kept in the dark, despite his high position and responsibilities. While watching the coronation ceremony, I wondered what would happen if the shah died suddenly. His was personal rule personified. Even a tyrant like Stalin shared at least part of his authority with an inner circle, the Politburo. I often longed for my days in Paris and cursed myself for having agreed to return to the Foreign Ministry.
To some extent this secret mission boosted my failing spirits: Trying to open the way for possible peace in Vietnam was a positive undertaking. Also, I felt satisfaction at the way I had conducted the negotiations on the human rights covenants on behalf of the group of developing countries. Despite the shah's orders, I engaged in very close relations with Amnesty International, whose then secretary general, Martin Ennals, had been a colleague of mine at UNESCO in the 1950s.
Because an answer from Hanoi had not been transmitted, the shah authorized me to return to my work at the United Nations. The discussions concerning the covenants were at an almost total standstill. My colleagues from both the West and the third world welcomed my return, and I resumed private negotiations in order to remove the remaining stumbling blocks.
One morning, after a staff meeting at our embassy, I found the following message from the Bourdets on the telex machine: “We miss you. What about joining us for a celebration?”
In our agreed “code” these words meant that the Vietnamese representative in Paris would receive me.
Our ambassador, who had seen the note, looked quizzically at me. I told him, “The Bourdets, as you know, are very close friends of mine. This week they are celebrating their 30th wedding anniversary. I have to ask the shah's permission to go to Paris for a couple of days.”
The ambassador frowned: “Instead, you should send a cable to the foreign minister, who is your immediate superior.”
I felt embarrassed and trumped up an excuse: “That would take too long. The dinner party is for tomorrow. I shall call the shah's office if you allow me to use your phone. You can listen on your extension if you wish.”
As soon as my name was mentioned to the shah's secretary, to the amazement of the am bassador, the secretary said, without asking any questions, “I'll connect you immediately to his imperial majesty.”
When the monarch's voice sounded in the receiver, the ambassador instinctively stood up. I said, “Your majesty, the Bourdets have invited me to a celebration in Paris.”
The shah responded without hesitation: “Very well, go immediately to Paris and proceed without delay to Tehran after the party. Good luck!”
The ambassador was stunned by the fact that the sovereign knew the Bourdets. “But why does he want you to go to Tehran?”
I invented a more or less plausible lie: “Oh, you know, my involvement as a former member of UNESCO's Secretariat in the literacy program, one of the priorities of the shah. He wants to consult me on the subject.”
I arrived in Orly the next morning and called Claude Bourdet on a pay telephone. He told me that the Vietnamese representative would receive me at 2:00 p.m. We lunched at the Closerie des Lilas, but this time Claude stayed there to wait for me.
Mai Van Bo, a short man in his 50s, had white streaks in his black hair. He wore a gray suit and a black tie. The neatly kept town house and its cheap carpets and furniture were reminiscent of lower-middle-class taste. A blown-up portrait of Ho Chi Minh presided over the foyer from the wall facing the entrance door. Nothing there bespoke revolution or war.
My host ushered me into a sitting room whose armchairs were covered with blankets. To the right of the fireplace stood a rolling table containing a half-empty bottle of scotch and glasses. A maid in black Chinese pants shuffled into the room with a tray and offered us cups of perfumed tea. After a brief exchange of greetings, I described to Mai Van Bo the shah's proposal, emphasizing, as I had been instructed, the words honorable peace.
All the while the Vietnamese diplomat took notes. He thanked me and promised to inform his government. He then extracted a folded paper from his pocket, put on his eyeglasses, and started to read. His French was correct but heavily accented. His remarks began with a rapid history of Vietnam's struggle for independence.
“The Vietnamese people,” he concluded, “prefer to die to the last man and woman rather than live under foreign domination.”
I tried to discuss with him the present and the future of Asia in general and his country in particular. But he dodged my remarks and kept repeating parts of the paper he had refolded and buried in his pocket. He promised to let me know ''in time'' Hanoi's reaction to the shah's proposal.
As I explained afterward to Claude on the terrace of the restaurant, the man seemed to be a low-ranking member of the Vietnamese Communist party with no authority to speak on behalf of his superiors. Like most diplomats who represented Communist countries, he avoided expressing any personal opinion and did not ask for clarification of the shah's message. He was a “pure and perfect” bureaucrat of the Communist party, almost playing the role of a receptionist, receiving a letter and transmitting it to his superiors.
* * * *
The next day I boarded the first available flight to Tehran, where I arrived around 4:00 p.m. local time. I was whisked away by a colonel of the Imperial Guard to the shah's office in Niavaran. I reported on my meeting with Mai Van Bo. There was no reason for me to stay in Tehran; consequently, I was authorized to go back to New York and resume my work on the human rights covenants.
I paid a courtesy visit to the Foreign Affairs minister, who did his best to try to hide his displeasure. Indeed, our ambassador to the United Nations had already informed him about my excursion in Paris. The minister tried to tease out some information from me. I told him that the shah knew the Bourdets from the time he had been a student in Switzerland.
My whole trip to Paris and Tehran lasted less than four days. I resumed my duties in the Third Committee. In Washington, there was no talk of ending the Vietnam War. The Pentagon voiced confidence in victory, while antiwar demonstrations continued in all 50 states, especially on university campuses.
Columnists accused Johnson of “blindness” to all geopolitical implications because he was afraid of being labeled as a president who lost an Asian country to the Communists. Not only the war but also his Great Society programs suffered attacks even from members of his own party.
Like the Foreign Affairs minister, our ambassador often tried to make me blurt out the secret behind my trips to Paris and Tehran. But I remained on the alert and dodged his questions. A week or perhaps a little longer passed without news from my Parisian friends. Finally, on November 10, the following message appeared on the embassy's teletype: “Good news for further celebrations. Please join us. Love, Ida and Claude.”
Before I could ask him, the ambassador phoned the shah's office. The monarch instructed me to fly immediately to Paris and from there to Tehran.
Claude told me that our ambassador in Paris had invited him to dinner and had tried to make him speak about my mission. I understood that he had done so on the instructions of the Foreign Affairs minister. Ida, Claude, and I laughed a lot. I spoke briefly on the telephone with the ambassador and told him that the Bourdets appreciated his hospitality very much.
My appointment with Mai Van Bo had been fixed for noon. Claude accompanied me as far as the Closerie des Lilas, where he waited for me. In contrast to our last meeting, the Vietnamese representative was less formal and even showed some cordiality. He took a rather thick file from a small table, leafed through it, extracted a paper, and translated the text into French: Hanoi warmly thanked the shah for his initiative to end the sufferings of the Vietnam people.
The Vietnamese government had thoroughly studied the proposal and agreed to enter into immediate discussion with the “other party” at any convenient place. It proposed as a possible venue their embassy in Moscow, which was better equipped than their representation in Paris. It also agreed with the shah about total secrecy. Any premature leak, it was underlined, could have an undesired effect on the “morale” of servicemen.
The meeting ended at 1:30 p.m., giving me just enough time to catch a 4:00 p.m. flight to Tehran. I asked our ambassador to inform the shah's secretary of my imminent arrival. I had a quick bite to eat with Claude Bourdet and took a taxi to Orly. My plane landed in Mehrabad Airport after 10:00 p.m. A helicopter was waiting for me and took me immediately to the shah's palace.
The monarch received me in his bedroom suite. He was wearing a kimono over his light blue pajamas and was sipping herbal tea. I knew that he suffered from insomnia. My report seemed to please him. He got up and paced the room. He suddenly stopped and said, “I don't very much like the idea of using their Moscow embassy as a channel of communication. But I understand their problem. This is apparently one of the very few places where they have full facilities… I hope that your French friends will continue to remain discreet until the end of the whole affair.”
I assured him on this matter: “He never revealed anything to the Gestapo interrogators during the occupation of France.” I recounted the story of our ambassador's dinner and the way in which he had tried to extract information about my mission.
The shah laughed. Then he congratulated me: “You have done a very good job. I would like to keep you on it. But now I have to involve our man in Moscow until Johnson decides about the place for 'substance' negotiations. That will probably be Geneva… Are you returning to New York?”
As I nodded, he smiled and said, “Very well… As a reward, take a few days' vacation in Paris, where you must know more than one beautiful lady. Also, thank the Bourdets on my behalf and give them the present I will send to your mother's house in the morning.” (This was a medium-sized Isfahan silk carpet.)
The next day I visited the foreign minister and informed him that my special assignment for his majesty was over and that I had been instructed to return to New York.
The minister said, “I know. His imperial majesty has informed me about your performance. He is satisfied and ordered me to add in your professional file a word of appreciation on his behalf. I want to congratulate you. You have honored the Foreign Ministry.”
To my amazement, he got up and embraced me.
* * * *
I did not hear about the follow-up meeting in the Vietnam negotiations. I discovered only that our ambassador in Moscow traveled three times in December to Tehran. I never discovered the channel the shah used to communicate with President Johnson. Our ambassador in Washington was left in the dark. I surmised that President Johnson must have had a special man (or, for that matter, a woman) in Tehran.
At any rate, in 1968, President Johnson suddenly decided not to run for another term. His October 31 announcement of a halt in the bombing of North Vietnam was certainly linked to secret talks following the shah's initiative.
The next American administration (President Nixon's) did not pick up the thread of those negotiations. I was terribly disappointed to see that the Nixon administration decided to continue the war and even to expand it. The casualties on the American side almost doubled before the administration put an end to the conflict. Even now I cannot understand why new administrations do not pursue the efforts of their predecessors in foreign policy matters.
In any case, after my stint in connection with Vietnam, I met the shah often on other matters, but he never mentioned my secret mission.
I have decided to recount this episode of my diplomatic activities to set the record straight about President Johnson's quest for peace.
Fereydoun Hoveyda was Iran's ambassador to the United Nations from 1971 to 1978. To learn more about the Hoveydas, visit their