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Sir Denis Wright

Our best bet
Tea with former British ambassador to Iran

By Cyrus Kadivar
July 13, 2000
The Iranian

It was almost three o'clock in the afternoon on a cloudy June day when Sir Denis Wright greeted me outside Haddenham Station in Buckinghamshire. "I'm afraid I've grown older since we last met," he quipped, shaking my hand. The former British ambassador to Imperial Iran was a wiry man with a slightly hawkish face and attentive blue eyes. At eighty-nine he appeared a fit and active man immersed in academic research. Wearing a light jumper, khaki trousers and brown shoes, he seemed more like an Oxford professor than a former diplomat. There was nothing pretentious about him and he clearly enjoyed meeting with Iranians or anybody interested in Iran.

As we drove through the scenic village in his rusty car, Sir Denis chatted freely about the bad weather and his recent trip to Paris where he had met a few of his Persian friends. We circled a duck pond and halted in front of a large thatched cottage with a swinging fence.

Entering the ambassador's country home through a low door we walked past a splendid portrait of a Qajar princess in a red dress. "Bought this recently at an auction," Sir Denis boasted as we headed upstairs. In the hallways lay a number of exquisite tribal rugs from Iran and Turkey. Left of the bedrooms was a cosy study where Sir Denis did most of his writing.

Under a small window overlooking the garden was a solid, oak desk. To its left, hanging on the beige wall was a picture of Sir Denis Wright, arrayed in full diplomatic uniform and ceremonial sword, being presented to Mohammed Reza Shah, at the great formal Salaam ceremony. Directly opposite was a row of ancient blue bottles purchased many years ago at Tehran's grand bazaar. They stood like sentinels on top of a white bookshelf stuffed with a few hundred rare and modern titles on Persia and Iran.

"When I'm gone," Sir Denis sighed, "all these books, photographs and my private journals will be donated to the Bodleian Library in Oxford." I watched him as he shuffled through a pile of folders. "One of the great disadvantages of being retired," he continued, "is that you no longer have a secretary to look after your correspondence." He stopped to pick up a blue paper and handed it to me. It was a meticulous study on British cemeteries in Iran. He watched me carefully as I recognised the English tombstones at he English and Armenian Church in Shiraz. "I'm afraid it is my last copy," he said regretfully. "But you may have a look at it later."

In the corner of the half-lit study was a lamp. It had been switched on deliberately to shed light on a great, vintage map of the Middle East. Sir Denis invited me to sit down in one of the two small chairs as he settled down in a rocking chair. "I'm afraid you will have to speak up," he said pointing at his hearing aide. "Now, Cyrus, tell me, do Iranians still believe that we British caused the Shah's downfall?" he asked.

"Well, there are still many who think that," I said. Sir Denis raised his eyebrows in disbelief. As the author of two excellent books "The Persians Amongst the English" and "The English Amongst the Persians", he was well aware of the complex history of our two countries and the Iranian ability to see a sinister British hand behind the scene.

"The Shah never quite trusted me," said Sir Denis. He sounded genuinely hurt. "His Majesty and I had developed a working relationship over the years. Each time something displeased him he would summon me to the palace and lecture me. Of course, I always counterattacked with my own arguments. Sometimes he would straighten up in his chair and in a condescending voice remind me that it was the English who deposed his father, Reza Shah."

Prior to being posted to Iran as a charge d'affaires in Tehran following the 1953 coup that overthrew Mohammad Mossadegh's government, Sir Denis had studied the secret files on the Shah. "Many reports described him as weak and vacillating," he revealed. "But when I met him it was not my impression. With the Tudeh and the National Front driven underground, the young Shah appeared confident and in charge, mostly thanks to General Zahedi. His marriage to Empress Farah and the birth of an heir further strengthened his shaky throne."

In 1963, shortly after Ayatollah Khomeini's failed uprising against the Shah's reform plan known as the "White Revolution", Sir Denis Wright was appointed ambassador, a post he would keep for eight years. "During this rather peaceful interlude," Sir Denis continued, "the Shah grew more sure of himself. With Alam's shrewd courage and support, the mollas and communists were silenced. This stability allowed Iran to emerge as a strong and important country in a volatile region. Shortly before the end of my term and just before the Persepolis event, I fired a memo to London saying that I felt the Shah was becoming too big for his boots."

In my talks with Sir Denis I sensed that his relationship with the Shah had always been a difficult and strained one. "I was never one to be impressed by royalty, British or Persian, for that matter. In my audiences with the Shah I always spoke bluntly and he listened most of the time. In the early days as ambassador the Shah did not strike me as a very warm person. I found him rather cold, shrewd and a totally unsympathetic character. But later after he became a family man he was more approachable. I believe Empress Farah was a positive influence on him. When I needed to see the Shah urgently it was Alam who arranged the royal audiences. We were very careful not to appear to be working against the Shah who was often upset by the press coverage he received in Britain and critical of the BBC."

Sir Denis and Alam were good friends. "We used to take a few horses from the Royal stables and ride into the hills around Farahabad," he recalled nostalgically. "During these moments we used to discuss the Shah or other important matters. The Shah, of course, was aware of these meetings. Alam always reported his talks to his king. Despite his absolute loyalty to the Shah, Alam soon grew disenchanted with his master. Toward the end of his life, Alam, as his published diaries reveals, had become fearful of the future. I distinctly recall a conversation we had in this very house that the Shah was in trouble and unwilling to listen to anyone."

In 1977, after Alam's death, Sir Denis went to Iran to see matters for himself. "I was appalled by the rampant tales of corruption, the growing opposition to the isolated Shah," he said. "But I never once believed the Shah would be deposed by the mollas."

Ironically, when the gravely ill Shah went into exile in 1979, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher dispatched Sir Denis to the Bahamas on a secret mission. The former ambassador was shocked by the physical deterioration suffered by the once-powerful "King of Kings". Nevertheless he went ahead with the unpleasant task of passing a message that the deposed Shah would not be allowed to settle in Britain. As an Iranian I could not help feeling bitter at the treatment of a loyal ally by a country such as Britain. On one occasion I showed Sir Denis a collection of pictures of the Shah in his days of glory and exile. When he came to the one of the dying monarch on his deathbed in Cairo, Sir Denis looked at me with cold, impassive eyes.

In turn he retrieved a box from under a table. It was filled with his "souvenirs" of his days in Iran. There were many photos with his personal friends: Alam, Eqbal, Entezam, Ardeshir Zahedi and Hoveyda. I stared at the grand pictures of the Shah and Shahbanou at various court and embassy functions. There were pictures of Queen Elizabeth, Ethiopia's Haile Sellassie, Russia's Padgorny, France's De Gaulle and others. Every picture revealed an attention to protocol, uniforms, medals and bore testimony to Iran's prestige in the community of nations.

"I must say that my interest in Iran lay in her history and traditions than the pomp and ceremony," Sir Denis explained to me. He spoke memorably about the Tehran bazaar and his regular visits to Rey where he often met the curator of Reza Shah's Mausoleum. "He was a Sufi," Sir Denis said pointing to the picture of an old, balding man with a bush-moustache. "We used to discuss Persian philosophy, Hafez and Omar Khayyam."

When I told Sir Denis that the tomb had been demolished by the revolutionaries he was appalled. "Barbaric," he muttered. Then as if broken-hearted by Iran's tarnished image he said, "I used to tell the Foreign Office that the Shah was our best bet. I see no reason why we should have conspired against our own interests. When I was ambassador all my efforts were centred in keeping the Shah happy. His fall was due to hubris."

We had spoken for almost an hour. After autographing one of his books for me we headed downstairs for afternoon tea. In the living room, Lady Wright offered me a biscuit as she recalled the embassy tea parties in Tehran and the many beautiful cities she had visited. "Ah, Isfahan and Shiraz," she sighed. "Have you been back?" she asked. "Not since leaving twenty-one years ago," I replied, my voice soft with emotion. "I am told everything has changed," she said. "So sad all of this. We really enjoyed our time in Iran. I would never want to go back in case it disappointed me."

I watched the English lady carefully as she poured me a lovely cup of tea from a silver pot. Despite her white hair and frail body and hands there was a gentle soul swimming in her kind eyes. The British, I concluded, are romantics at heart but this remains a deep, hidden secret buried in their reserved appearances and polite conversation over tea.

From the comfort of his flowery sofa, surrounded by more books and wonderful furniture, Sir Denis recalled an evening in Shiraz. "My wife and I had been invited to stay at the splendid Bagh-e Eram palace where Alam was entertaining Princess Alexandra. It was an unforgettable night. There was a big moon shining above the tall, giant cypress tree. Qashqaie dancers swayed to the instruments of local musicians. It was all, so enchanting!"

Leaving the cottage, Lady Wright waved at me. "We don't quite have the weather of Shiraz here," she said, smiling. "But do pay us a visit again."

I left Haddenham on the six o'clock train to London with the promise to visit the Wrights later in the autumn for an in-depth interview on their lives in Iran. But as the train pulled away the parting words of Sir Denis rang in my head. "We English don't know the real meaning of exile," he had said. He said he felt sorry for his Persian friends who were unable to return to their country. "As for us British who were there, who loved your country, well, our numbers are shrinking rather rapidly."

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