East of Eden
Once upon a time in Iran, there was a city that gave men butterflies. Centuries before the ayatollah, before the shah—before even Muhammad and Jesus Christ shook up their respective corners of the Middle East—the emperors of Persia had built one of the most magnificent capital cities the world had ever known. It was called Persepolis—literally, the “city of Persians.” And such was its reputation that even the mightiest of princes, as they saw it coming slowly into view after days and weeks of trekking across the desert, could feel themselves reduced to nervous wrecks.
Once a year, in ancient times—on the first day of spring—rulers of the twenty-eight great kingdoms that Persia had conquered were expected to journey to Persepolis to pay tribute to their lord and master, the “King of Kings.” And they never failed to carry out this duty. From the Mediterranean city of Sardis would come the obscenely wealthy kings of Lydia, carrying all the riches of Croesus to lay at the feet of the shah. From Memphis and Alexandria came Egyptian nobles, their Nubian slaves in tow. From the hills of Bactria, the “emperor of a thousand cities” brought his camels laden with gold. Timidly they would all climb the enormous staircase to the Apadana Palace and walk through the fabled Gate of All Nations, hoping what they had brought would prove worthy of their overlord, the Persian emperor. Hoping he would have mercy this year and not reduce their meager satrapies to weeping hillocks of rubble.
At its height in the fifth century B.C., the Persian Empire ruled over 60 million of the world’s 100 million people—making Persepolis, for all intents and purposes, the capital city of all humanity. And anyone who laid eyes on this fabled city could not fail to come away in awe of its power and opulence. Great stone columns, capped by winged bulls, soared into the sky at the entrance to every ceremonial building. Palaces and throne rooms, overflowing with jewels and sumptuous furnishings, shimmered in the midday sun. Tombs of ancient emperors, chiseled into the surrounding cliffs, loomed dramatically over the landscape below. It was the kind of place one had to see to believe—a city designed to strike reverence into the hearts of visitors and remind them of their own insignificance before the mightiest empire the world had ever known.
Like so many other imperial projects, the famous “city of Persians” long ago went the way of all souls. Burned and pillaged by Alexander the Great and his army of conquering Greeks in 330 B.C. (legend has it they required three thousand camels to cart away all its gold and jewels), its columns still reach proudly into the cloudless blue sky, in one of the most remote and unpopulated corners of Iran. Today, though, it is not Sogdian princes but busloads of tourists—Japanese, Germans, occasionally even Americans—who are driven across the vast, hot, and flat Morqab Plain to pay their tribute. As they approach the ruins of Persepolis, they marvel, just as the Elamites and the Babylonians once did, at a city that seems to rise out of nowhere—the final punctuation mark at the end of a merciless expanse of dust.
And as modern visitors scramble among ancient tombs and statues, snapping pictures and admiring what is left of the palaces of Darius and Xerxes, they often notice, just off to the side, a rusting metal grandstand—rows of empty spectator seating rising like bleachers at a high school football field. These are the ruins of a much more recent emperor.
In October 1971 the Shah of Iran—Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, King of Kings, Light of the Aryans, Imperial Majesty and Commander-in-Chief of four hundred thousand fearsome (if somewhat modernized) Persian warriors—chose Persepolis as the backdrop for one of the most audacious, expensive, and self-indulgent spectacles of the modern era: celebrations marking the 2,500-year anniversary of the Iranian monarchy. Attempting to replicate the rituals of Persian emperors from centuries past, he summoned the world’s most powerful leaders before the Apadana Palace and asked them to marvel at the greatness of his “empire.” Only this time Iran was picking up the tab. Ten kings, twenty-one princes and princesses, nine sheikhs, two sultans, a grand duke, a cardinal, sixteen presidents, three prime ministers, and four vice presidents were flown into Shiraz and transported—some by helicopter and some in red Mercedes limousines—across the desert to Persepolis, where four full days of feasting awaited them. Princess Grace of Monaco, King Hussein of Jordan, President Nikolai Podgorny of the USSR, Vice President Spiro Agnew of the United States—all mingled among balls and banquets, parades and performances, and a light and sound show described by observers as the “world’s greatest fireworks display.” At least six hundred journalists were also flown in, together with their satellite trucks and cameras, so that no corner of the globe would be deprived of its chance to witness the historic occasion.
The shah did not cut corners. The legendary French hotelier Max Blouet was persuaded to come out of retirement to coordinate the event. Catering was provided by Maxim’s of Paris, which closed its doors two weeks early to prepare for the feast. Thirty cooks, 150 waiters, twenty-two tons of provisions—including such precious cargo as freshly picked raspberries—were all flown in from Paris on a fleet of jumbo jets. Five thousand bottles of wine and champagne were sent to Iran a month early, to give them time to settle and adjust to the climate. At the gala banquet, the menu, Maxim’s finest, included quail eggs stuffed with caviar, crayfish mousse, and rack of lamb with truffles—all washed down with a 1945 Château Lafitte Rothschild. The main course, “imperial peacock,” was roasted and stuffed with foie gras and served “surrounded by its court” of jellied quail. Ninety-two of the regal birds were arranged along the banquet table, their tail feathers fully spread, to symbolize the magnificence of the Peacock Throne (the traditional seat of Iranian monarchs since 1739). The five-and-a-half-hour feast went down in the Guinness Book of Records as the longest and most lavish in modern history.
And this wasn’t the half of it. To ensure the comfort of the shah’s guests, they were housed in what were modestly described as “tents”—luxury air-conditioned apartments covered in blue and gold cloth, designed by Jansen of Paris (famous for its renovations of Buckingham Palace and the White House). Each “tent” boasted two bedrooms, two marble bathrooms, servants’ quarters, a kitchenette, and three telephone lines. The main banquet tent, meanwhile, was stuffed with Louis XV furniture, crystal chandeliers, and a 235-foot mahogany dining table. Special tents with casino and gaming tables were set up, along with sixteen hair salons staffed by beauticians from Elizabeth Arden and other leading Paris houses—all flown in to help guests look their best for each night’s festivities.
No one ever found out how much all this feasting and festoonery ended up costing Iran. The shah’s defenders suggested impossibly low figures around $4 million and claimed most of it came from “private business contributions,” while his detractors threw around equally outlandish figures in the hundreds of millions (close to $2 billion in today’s money). But whatever the exact figure, it did not look good. As French waiters poured liters of claret into the goblets of kings, in the eastern province of Sistan-Baluchistan, severe food shortages were driving villagers to the brink of famine. Even in Fars Province, where Persepolis was located, there had been reports of malnutrition, and the shah found himself facing awkward questions from the international press corps. At a Tehran news conference, a Swedish journalist asked him pointedly if he knew how much all the festivities were going to cost. “Do you know how much a kilo of meat and a kilo of bread cost?” the shah replied, just as pointedly. The journalist shook his head. “So why are you asking me?” the shah sniffed.
American journalists were a little gentler with the shah. In the United States, where the appetite for imperial pomp and pageantry was limitless, the Persepolis celebrations were met with squeals of delight. The Los Angeles Times reported that “there isn’t likely to be [a celebration] to match it for another 25 centuries.” The normally sedate New York Times marveled that “some of the emeralds in [Empress Farah’s] crown were the size of golf balls. Her diamonds were only slightly smaller.” The entire event was broadcast via satellite, and hosted by a young Barbara Walters on NBC, to an estimated audience of 10 million Americans. Orson Welles narrated the official documentary, Flames of Persia. And the U.S. chargé d’affaires in Tehran congratulated the event’s organizer, telling him it was “the best exercise in public relations” he had ever seen.
The shah lapped it all up. Prideful, insecure, plagued by demons few around him fully understood, and constantly concerned with demonstrating the prestige of his ancient throne, the fifty-two-year-old monarch was never more at home than when he was basking in the praise of his American friends. And at Persepolis in 1971, he was in his element. Surveying the grounds majestically, like a schoolmaster peering through his spectacles with his famously stern and piercing eyes, puffed up with pride like the peacocks on the banquet tables as he welcomed one king after another to his desert encampment, the shah glowed with satisfaction. This was his roost. He ruled it—with a degree of absolute, unquestioned power that few of his predecessors had ever managed to summon. And he was happy to let the world know it.
Ten years later he was dead. And so was the 2,500-year-old empire that he had gone to such lengths to celebrate. Gone was the Peacock Throne. Gone was the King of Kings. Gone were the armies of fawning courtiers lined up dutifully in their gold-threaded uniforms. In the place of the shah was a man of God—an “ayatollah” in a black turban and a gray barbed-wire beard, whose eyebrows seemed permanently knitted in anger and whose open palm seemed permanently spread out over oceans of seething crowds, their fists rising and falling in unison as they rhythmically chanted Death to America! Death to America! In place of the imperial nation of Iran, the modern incarnation of the Persian Empire of centuries past, there was now something calling itself the “Islamic Republic”—severe, austere, a vast landscape of rage, painted only in shades of black, and mercilessly unforgiving of anything it deemed to be “Western arrogance.” In place of a cooing Barbara Walters, American television carried wall-to-wall programming about fifty-two hostages and their hellish ordeal at the hands of sweating Iranian revolutionaries.
Those ten fateful years—from 1971 to 1981—were perhaps the most decisive, transformative, and unforgettable decade in the history of America’s long and tortured relationship with Iran. For ten years, give or take, American military equipment had landed like snowflakes on the lap of a grateful shah. Chinook helicopters, F-14 Tomcats, Patton tanks, Sidewinder missiles—nothing was off-limits if the shah desired it. In Washington in 1972, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger gave him carte blanche, instructing the Pentagon that decisions about Iranian arms sales “should be left primarily to the government of Iran.” And over the next few years, Iran quickly became the world’s largest single purchaser of U.S. weapons, accounting for more than one-third of Washington’s international arms sales. By 1978, Iran was spending $10 billion a year on U.S. arms (around $50 billion in today’s money) and had amassed the most powerful military in the Middle East. If ever there was occasion for some lamentatious Roman poet to sing of “arms and the man,” this was it.
But it was not just arms. By 1978 some fifty thousand Americans were living in Iran. “Technical advisers,” military contractors, schoolteachers, oil executives, development “experts,” tour guides, archaeologists, hippies waylaid on the trail from Goa to Zanzibar—all of them, in one way or another, buying into the idea that Iran was a progressive, dynamic nation of the future that was benefiting handsomely from the hand of American friendship. And for the U.S. government, this was just about the best piece of news coming out of the Middle East. In Washington, the shah was seen as a much-needed alternative to the radical, troublesome, evil Arabs—less Muslim somehow, less threatening, more benign. The Arab world in the 1970s, seen from Washington, was a hopeless, never-ending psychodrama of airplane hijackings, bomb plots, socialist revolutions, interminable wars with Israel. Just to the east, though, lay a more peaceful kingdom—a “natural ally” whose romantic Persian past, secular institutions, Western-educated elites, stable politics, and anti-Communist ruler made it a more reliable partner for the United States. This was the most durable, dependable, reassuring alliance America enjoyed in the Middle East. And it had felt like it would never end. As late as December 1977—just one week before the revolution broke out—President Jimmy Carter stood at a banquet in Tehran, raised his glass to the shah, and, repeating a phrase used by countless American officials since the 1950s, toasted Iran as an “island of stability in one of the more troubled regions of the world.”
The equation worked just as powerfully in the other direction. For despite the ugsome spectacle of Vietnam in the 1960s, most Iranians still viewed America as a basically virtuous nation, in stark contrast to the European powers that had been divvying up the Middle East for decades. When the shah had come to power in 1941, Iran was still feeling the effects of nearly two centuries as a pawn in the imperial ambitions of Britain, Russia, and, to a lesser extent, France. Thus, whenever Iranians thought of “the West,” their minds turned instinctively to the image of greedy, self-interested Europeans. But when they looked just a little further west, they saw a more benevolent power—a nation born out of opposition to empire and colonialism, infused with noble idealism, with a foreign policy that seemed largely selfless and respectful of the concerns of weaker nations. Though this image of America had begun to fray by the 1970s, it still held sway with bourgeois elites in Iran and especially with the shah himself. Just as Americans looked past the radicalism of the Arab world and found a “nicer Middle East” on its periphery—one with a friendlier face and a reliable ally at its helm—Iranians looked past Europe and found a “nicer West”—one that seemed to live and breathe its liberal ideals and was ready to extend the hand of genuine partnership.
This idea—that both Iran and the United States could reach beyond the countries that frustrated them and find a “natural ally”—had a long pedigree, one that has not always been fully appreciated by historians. Decade after decade, dating back at least to the 1850s, successive Iranian governments had looked to the United States as a potential “third force” that could counteract the pressures from Britain and Russia. Decade after decade, Americans had looked to Iran as a mystical, benevolent, faraway Persian kingdom that seemed more appealing than the radical, hostile Arab world. This belief in an “alternative” force, lying just over the horizon, proved powerful and durable in both the American psyche and the Iranian—and arguably really fully disappeared only after 1979. When examined in its full historical dimensions, it goes a long way toward explaining how these two countries became such friends in the first place—and why it might not be so hard for them to see each other this way again. This fundamental attrac-tion, this narrative of two countries on opposite sides of the world that were able to look beyond their own immediate trouble spots and find common ground—this is the core of our story.
Copyright © 2020 by John Ghazvinian. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.