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Our Persian boy
Conversations with Farhad Diba

By Fariba Amini
January 15, 2004
The Iranian

Do not go where the path may lead, go instead where there is no path and leave a trail.
-- Ralph Waldo Emerson
I got into my seat at the conference in Chicago. The first panel was about to finish and I was looking around in search of some friendly faces. Sitting next to me was someone that I knew and I began to talk to him about the conference (Thwarting Democracy in Iran and Guatemala).

As I turned my head I noticed that, sitting just behind us, was an older gentleman, tall and gaunt. He handed some photos to my neighbor. They were photos from the coup d'etat of 1953, which I had never seen before. He introduced himself as Farhad Diba. Oh, then I realized that I knew him through an email he had sent to me regarding articles about Dr. Mossadegh. I shook hands with him and introduced myself. He was very charming, had a sort of noble look about him and in his low but kind voice he explained the photos to us.

Immediately I knew that I wanted to talk to him more about his uncle and his teenage years, when he had disobeyed his parents and taken off on his own to witness a historical event in his country; the final acts in the staging and the planning of the CIA coup of 1953 against his uncle, Dr. Mohammad Mossadegh.

I had struck gold, as I knew talking to someone who witnessed history himself and was part of it, was really an important occasion for me. I have become intrigued by what happened in those days and the reasons behind it. My interest also lies in the fact that I ask myself many times over, why are some monarchists and the religious fundamentalists still so afraid and wary of this man, even fifty years after the fall of his government and almost 40 years after his death. 

Farhad Diba was only 16 when he encountered tanks, a rioting populace and street fighting in the capital city, in those eventful days of August 1953. I put the following questions to him in the hope of discovering more about the person and the imprint of perhaps the most famous politician in 20th-century Iran.

I was at boarding school in England and would sometimes go to Tehran for the holidays, especially in the summer. So it happened that, during the summer of 1953, I was staying in Tehran, at our house in Shemiran. My father's office was an old building, which had belonged to my grandmother, in the compound of Najmieh Hospital. Dr.Mossadegh's mother, Princess Malektadj Firouz, Najm-e Saltaneh (my grand-mother) had established it as a charity hospital.
The office and hospital were on Hafez Avenue, facing the Park Hotel owned by my father.

During my holidays, on some days, I would accompany my father to the office, early in the morning and return with him at 2pm. This is how I found myself in town on 19 August 1953 (28 Mordad). The morning had started quite calmly and there was no hint of what was to follow. When I heard some rumours of a demonstration not far from where I was, I ventured out into the streets, armed with my miniature Minox camera, a recent present from my father.

I went south towards Hassan Abad Square and, there, I came face-to-face with a group of demonstrators, heading north up Hafez Avenue. I tagged along, thinking I would slip back into the Park Hotel but, once we reached it, they had closed the very heavy and large green wooden door. There was a lot of noise and chanting in the street and no one asnwered my frantic knocking on the door.

Curiosity overcame fear and I continued following the marchers, eventually arriving at the intersection of Kakh Avenue. There, the crowd had become huge. Some tanks were positioned on Kakh Avenue. Although I was not far from Dr. Mossadegh's house on Kakh (which also served as the prime ministry), I decided to turn northwards, away from the crowd, and went to my sister's house on Kakh Circle.

By this time it was around 2pm and the demonstrations had turned into riots. We telephoned my parents, who sent a driver to collect me and take me to our house in Shemiran. On the way, all along the Shemiran Road, there were groups who had created roadblocks. They obliged every car to take out a currency note, with the Shah's picture on it, and display it on the windscreen.

The next day, two lorry loads of soldiers arrived at our house in Shemiran and thoroughly searched it, saying that Dr.Mossadegh might be hiding there. Other soldiers were despatched to a summer garden restaurant owned by my father - the Park-e-Now (New Park) - and completely ransacked the place. I have to add that this restaurant was extremely fashionable at the time, and presented competition to the Darband Hotel restaurant, owned by the Shah (Pahlavi Foundation).

When they had finished searching our house, one group of soldiers was posted at the gate and we were virtually under house arrest. Later, my sister and I were able to return to England to boarding school.

My uncle was very good with children and we all had enormous love and respect for him. Before, during, and after his premiership, he would unfailingly send a hand-written Norooz note of good wishes and (as I was at school at that time of the year) he would commission my father to give me some money as "Eidi", the next time that my father was in England. Of course, after finishing my education and returning to Iran, we would make a special Norooz visit to him, at Ahmadabad.

It was at that simple village house that I came to appreciate him the most. Perhaps because I was already in my twenties and also because on our Friday visits we were only a small family group. This group, often composed of my father and some or all of Dr.Mossadegh's children (Dr.Gholam Hossein, Ahmad, Massoumeh Matin-Daftari), would engage him on some political conversation and I would be glued to their discussions.

On a personal note, whenever I had a falling out with my father (and there were many!), I would take my problem to my uncle and he would iron it out with my father, in a very gentle and logical manner. Being the younger brother, my father was obliged to follow the decision!

I was at a boarding school called Harrow, which has a long list of luminaries amongst its old boys. The school was divided into some dozen Houses, for accommodations, and the rooms were triple-, double or single-bed, depending on seniority. At my time, the beds were in a wooden cupboard and were folded down at night, to be replaced inside the cupboard during the day. Inside these cupboards, past residents would carve their names. Mine had Byron in it.

The whole system was based on rules and privileges. When we became monitors (school prefects or guardians of the rules), we had some very special privileges. Once a year, we had a Churchill song day, when Winston Churchill (an old boy who had been sacked for failing Latin!) would come into the auditorium and we would all sing songs.

Afterwards, the monitors would be invited to the Head Master's study, to take sherry with Churchill. I was introduced to him as "Our Persian Boy" and, in his usual gruff voice: he said something like "jolly good, carry on". I have no idea if he knew my connection to Dr. Mossadegh. By autumn 1953, he had put the whole issue behind him and, as Stephen Kinzer (author of All the Shah's Men) has said, Churchill's biographer states that there is not one single mention of 28 Mordad in all his memoirs and letters.

My years at Harrow coincided with the oil dispute between Great Britain and Iran. As a Persian boy, I was well bullied for it! Other Middle Easterners at Harrow in the same period, were King Faisal of Iraq and King Hussein of Jordan.

Our paths crossed well before my interest in sifting through the facts of the 1953 coup d'état. Roosevelt was an advisor to the National Cash Register Company (NCR) of Dayton, Ohio. I was a member of Abolhassan Diba & Co., a multi-faceted company, established by my father in Tehran in 1922. A section of our work was the representation of NCR in Iran, for which I had to go very often to Beirut, where NCR had its regional HQ. Roosevelt had an apartment there, at one time, which he shared with Miles Copeland. My brother-in-law, Frederick Benedix III, lived in the same building.

Some time later, In Tehran, I was invited to a small dinner at the Palace of the Shah. Roosevelt was there. The Shah asked me what I was doing and I, very proudly, told him about how well NCR was progressing in Iran. When I reported that to my father the next day, he said "You are a fool". Sure enough, within the year, NCR (which my father had introduced into Iran and, over 25 years, it had grown into a large business) was taken from us and given over to the Pahlavi Foundation. I learned that Roosevelt had been given a 3% share - presumably for his intervention.

About ten years later, in 1978, I was in Washington to research and interview for my book on Dr. Mossadegh. I met up with Roosevelt and, without telling him that I was writing a book, I asked him to tell me about his days in Iran during 1953. We had a few lunches together and dinner at his house, where he and his wife Polly were generous hosts. Kim liked his vodka and he also liked to brag about his exploits and his involvement in the coup d'état. Depending on the intake of vodka, the story would be recounted in various versions.

She was Dr. Mossadegh's youngest daughter, out of three daughters and two sons. She was a teenager when, in 1941, her father was arrested and sent to prison in Birjand. On the way, he tried to commit suicide because he knew that Reza Shah was going to have him killed. This was known to others and especially to his young daughter, who worshipped her father. She was staying in our summer house in Shemiran when, waking from a nightmare in the early hours of the morning, she ran with her nightgown to the garden gate and shouted to be let out to see her father.

My parents brought her back to the house to calm her down and I, then only a 4-year old, still vividly remember that I was placed on her lap and she was talking to me. Anyway, her health became worse and she was operated on, but the operation went wrong and she went into a vegetative state. They sent her to a clinic in Switzerland, where she remained for over 50 years. Her hospital expenses were paid out of a trust, which her father had set up for her in Tehran. At the revolution, these assets were seized and, for the rest of her life, her cousin Majid Bayat (Dr. Mossadegh's grand-son) cared for her. She died a year ago in Switzerland.

I have enjoyed friendly relations with Ardeshir and, through his mother, we are distantly related. He has always been very kind to me and I have enjoyed his hospitality wherever he was as ambassador, as well as at his house in Saheb-Gharanieh. We never discussed my uncle and, until I started my research, I was not aware of his close involvement. Since the revolution, I have only seen him on a couple of occasions, at a family funeral.

I was very close to my uncle during his last days. He was allowed to come to Tehran and was at the Najmieh Hospital. Since my office formed a part of the same complex, I was at his bedside many times during the day.

One day, when he felt a little better, he expressed the desire to see how Tehran had changed. Ahmad Mossadegh had a blue Volkswagen and he seated his father in the back, so that he would not be noticed. I sat in front with Ahmad Mossadegh driving and the three of us took a short drive around the area of the nearby streets. At one point, someone recognized Dr. Mossadegh and, with an incredulous expression, pointed him out to other passers-by on the street. We then made haste to return, as he did not want to contravene the terms of his right to stay in the capital.

Some days later, I had only left him a few hours earlier and was in my office when the news came of his death. Of course, I rushed over to the hospital and the family quickly gathered. Dr. Gholam Hossein Mossadegh, his son, contacted Mr. Amir Abbas Hoveida, to see if they would allow for the burial to take place according to Dr. Mossadegh's wishes, alongside of those who died during the 30th Tir riots.

The reply came that the Shah would not permit it and would only allow burial at Ahmadabad, Dr. Mossadegh's country house, about 140 kilometers from Tehran, and that there was to be no funeral procession. His corpse was placed in a white ambulance and we began to follow it. However, the driver must have been a Savak agent and tipped off to prevent any kind of cortege building up. So he took off at a fast pace and tried to shake off the line of cars that were following.

Anyway, we met up at Ahmadabad and dug a grave for my uncle in the ground floor room of his house, which had previously served as a dining room. It was a very simple burial and an extremely touching scene. Personally, I felt that this was more appropriate for him, because he had never been one for pomp and ceremony. [Present were Ayatollah Taleghani and Zanjani who did the Islamic burial.]

I never heard Dr. Mossadegh clearly putting the blame of his downfall on anyone, except for the British. It could be argued that, by the same token, he was including the people who helped the British, covertly or overtly. I think that he considered his undertaking, namely the nationalization of the oil in Iran, as a dangerous task and that he accepted his downfall as something to have been expected. He envisaged that he would be assassinated and was well aware of his enemies inside the country.

The very fact that there is so much interest in his legacy, adverse or sympathetic, is proof enough of the man's lasting mark on his country - Iran. The generation that did not experience the Mossadegh era in Iran is now marking that period as a time of democracy and national self-determination. It is seen as a moment when Iran held its head high and viewed itself as a proud nation.

Generally, there is a thirst for secular democracy, clean, honest and truly participatory. Dr. Mossadegh is now viewed as the embodiment of that desire.Farhad Diba now lives in Spain. He has collected a vast library of books, newspapers and periodicals, photographs and archival material on Iran, in European languages.

This library, covering every aspect of Iranology, is the largest of its kind in the world and is now in the process of being catalogued by him. He has written two books: "Dr. Mohammad Mossadegh: A Political Biography" and "A Persian Bibliography". He is currently revising the book on Dr. Mossadegh for a new paperback edition.

I asked Farhad if he had any letters addressed to him directly by Dr. Mossadegh. His reply was: "all my letters, photographs, tape recordings of my uncle (which I had in Iran) were stolen from my house, when the akhunds ransacked it and grabbed it. Especially my father had a superb collection of letters from his brother, but they all went as well."

Many readers have asked how it is that Dr. Mossadegh's brother is a Diba and if he is related to Farah Diba? Dr. Mossadegh's mother, Najmieh Saltnaeh was married three times (unusual for those times). One of her husbands was a Diba. Farhad Diba is therefore related to Farah Diba Pahlavi.

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