The Shah and I

By Victor Dial

During a summer holiday in 1969 in Marbella a friend asked me if I could give shelter for a few days to a somewhat older lady whom she described simply as “a Princess.” Without much thought I’d agreed; my house had separate guest quarters, and it was easy for a guest to come and go without bother. She had friends in the area and we saw little of her. I was working for Ford Motor Company in Paris at the time, supervising Ford’s business in French-speaking Africa, and Israel.

In 1970 I was given a new assignment in London at the headquarters of Ford of Europe –Director of Business Development. My job was to identify new business opportunities, negotiate them, and get them approved. There was entrepreneurship and original thinking involved and it was immensely interesting work. My new boss was a marvelously gregarious man named Dick Holmes, taking care of eight children (four of his, four of hers). He became a mentor.

Dick gave me lots of advice, one was based on football: there are many who play the game and move the ball up and down the field; but as you get closer to the goal the defense digs in and the last few yards become harder. The point of the game is not to move the ball up and down the field; it is to score points. In business as in football the people you want to be associated with are those that can reliably get the ball into the end zone.

The most important project Dick and I dealt with was finding a way to enter the fast-growing Spanish market where Fiat had a virtual monopoly. That deal – requiring a new law (familiarly known as the “Ford” law) — ate up a lot of our time, but we scored lots and lots of points! We’d also noticed the growth of the Iranian vehicle market under the Shah, sometimes seen as a reformer working to open up a closed, conservative society. Dick would manage the negotiations in Spain, with occasional help from me, and I would deal with Iran. I also worked on an assembly plant proposal in Nigeria, and some other projects, but that’s for another time.

One of my first stops in Tehran was with the commercial attaché at the American embassy. He had a lot of practical information, and advised me to be very careful whom I partnered up with. He added that Shah Reza Pahlavi was an absolute ruler who had to approve any deal of significance.

As I was trying to find my way around, it seemed that almost every Iranian I met issued this dire threat: ”Listen carefully to what I am about to tell you. You must deal exclusively with me. I am the only person who can secure the necessary approvals for you. If you deal with anyone else, you will fail. Is that clear?” It was bewildering. Who to believe, who to trust? After days of confusion and doubt, I didn‘t want to meet any more potential intermediaries, and I chose  the only one who hadn’t threatened me. His name was Abdol-Ali (Ali) Farmanfarmaian: 36 years old, three years my senior.

Ali was a member of one of the most powerful ruling families of Iran, a descendant of the Qajar ruler Fath-Ali Shah. Following a coup d’état of 1921 his father (1857-1939) retired from public service and concentrated on the needs of his many wives and educating his more than forty children. They occupied a palatial compound in the center of Tehran, later seized by Shah Reza Pahlavi. Ali’s many siblings were cultured and talented: architects, doctors, bankers, lawyers, professors, etc., graduates of the finest schools and universities from around the world. A truly remarkable family.

Ali was educated at Oxford, smart and charming. He and his brother Cyrus owned a bus-assembly operation and a motor-oil business, and we met up in the course of my wandering explorations. We hit it off at once, and several days later he invited me to his house for dinner. While we were having cocktails, a vaguely familiar-looking lady greeted me warmly, including a hug and a kiss! It turned out that she was one of Ali‘s sisters, and she explained to an astonished Ali (and to me) that I’d offered her hospitality in Marbella a couple of years before. Hearing of my generosity, Ali said that from now on I was as his brother, and declared me an honorary member of the family. A slight exaggeration; as charming and warm as unexpected.

Over the next few months, Ali took me all over Iran, and introduced me to a number of the Iranian elite. We went to Qom, to Tabriz, to Isfahan, to Persepolis, to the Caspian Sea. He invited me to his family dinners when I was in Tehran. We became close friends.

In October of 1971, in honor of the 2,500 years of the Persian Empire the Shah organized an extravaganza at Persepolis, surely one of the most lavish parties ever given. Henry Ford II and his socialite Italian wife, Christina, were among the 600 invited guests. Mr. Ford declined, but his wife insisted on going anyway. Because I was by now considered “Mr. Iran” as far as Ford was concerned Mr. Ford asked me to look out for her. As it turned out, she didn’t need any looking out from me: she spent most of the time cloistered with Imelda Marcos, the well-shod wife of the President of the Philippines. After it was all over and I’d returned to London, Mr. Ford called to ask me how it went, and whether his wife had enjoyed herself; I gulped silently and replied that she had, as far as I could tell.

We were in the midst of negotiating with the Iranians – a Persian pastime so enjoyable they seem never to want to it to end — and Mr. Ford asked whether a present from him to the Shah, ostensibly to thank him for hosting his wife might help move things along. Whereupon Mr. Ford had a Ford Pinto custom-made for the Shah in Detroit, and flown to Tehran a few months later.

Without fear of contradiction, I can safely say that there has never been, and will never be another Pinto like it. It had all leather inside — not just the seats, but the side panels, the headlining, the instrument panel, the carpeting — everything. It had had twentyseven hand-painted coats of cherry red paint. It was spectacular, and so bright you needed to put on sunglasses to look at it. It also had a specially beefed up engine and suspension:  a bomb!

On the appointed day, I traveled to one of the Imperial palaces (there were thought to be about 12) to deliver Mr. Ford’s present to the Shah. The Shah was accompanied by his wife Farah, and his son Reza, nine years old. The Shah listened politely as I told him of Mr. Ford‘s appreciation of the Shah‘s many courtesies to his wife, and that Ford hoped to play an important role in further developing the Iranian auto industry. At the end of my little spiel I handed him the keys. He thanked me politely and then, turning to Reza, ostentatiously gave them to the little boy. (A luxurious Lincoln might have been somewhat more to the Shah’s choosing.) Back in London, Mr. Ford called to ask me if the Shah had liked the car. I answered that he’d greatly appreciated it – a little white lie in the interest of developing Ford business in Iran.

The Shah wanted Iran to industrialize itself, not just pump oil, so he had long since banned all but a handful of imported built-up cars, in favor of those assembled in Iran (local assembly in auto jargon), including ever greater requirements of locally-made parts (local content).  The government had licensed three assemblers, each defined by the number of cylinders in the engine  – a method unique to Iran. Citroen owned the 2-cylinder license, Jeep/AMC the 6-cylinder, and Iran National the 4-cylinder. Iran National’s market share was well over 85%. Its arrangement with Rootes/Chrysler and the financial interests of the Shah made it impregnable. The only avenue possible to enter the market was to somehow team up with or buy out the owner of the 6-cylinder (Jeep) franchise, controlled by Jarid Aswan [nb: not his real name].

Aswan was a self-made man in his 60s, who through guile and hard work had built up a considerable business. He lived in the northern suburbs of Tehran, the “upper east side” of the capital. His house was big, ostentatious, and gaudy (like its owner); he loved to show it off, and we sometimes met there. Negotiations with Jarid were difficult and endless. Every time I thought an issue had been agreed, at some point later – an hour, a day, or a week — he‘d come back to it and we’d start all over again. I struggled to establish a personal relationship with him, so I was glad when one evening after a day of talks at his office, he invited me to his house for dinner. The dining room held a vast table (prudently covered in glass to protect the surface) seating perhaps 25 people. To my surprise, there were 15 large trays on display, each piled high with food, for just the two of us. (Ali told me later that this was one of the ways the newly-rich showed off: servants ate the leftovers, so the more food piled on the table, the greater the number of servants.)

One of Jarid‘s notable mannerisms was his habit of using a gold Cross ball-point pen (admittedly, one of the very best) to clean his ears. He’d carefully insert the pen into an ear, then twist and twirl it vigorously; first one ear, then the other. He would do this completely randomly, regardless of where he was, what time it was, or whatever else was going on. Even though I saw him do it dozens of times, I never quite got used to it. When he came to London for a visit Dick Holmes, my wife Alix and I took him to dinner at Mirabelle, one of the most elegant restaurants in London at the time. I warned Alix and Dick to be on the lookout for the Cross pen gambit, and if it happened, to take no notice of it. Sure enough, in the midst of dinner, out came the pen. Whereupon, in spite of my warning, or perhaps because of it, Dick and Alix broke down in giggles.

In the end, Jarid sold out to General Motors. Afterwards I playfully blamed Dick for the loss; he had puzzled, confused and maybe even embarrassed Jarid with his giggling at Mirabelle. Dick on the other hand thought we‘d lost out because GM offered him $60 million, topping ours of $40 million. In the fall of 1972 we closed the file on Iran. At the time I felt pretty bad about it, but as it turned out, soon after the Ayatollahs took over in 1979 they confiscated the General Motors plant. Jarid and his family had long since decamped to the welcoming shores of Lake Geneva.

Isn’t it amazing how things that go around, come around? When I was hired by Peugeot in January of 1981, I rediscovered Iran: Peugeot had unwisely purchased all of Chrysler’s European assets in 1978, including Rootes, thus assuming the role of monopoly supplier to Iran National, with all its baggage. For legal reasons I stayed well away from anything having to do with Iran.

As for my dear friend Ali, he died in an avalanche skiing in the mountains north of Tehran in February of 1973. Such a loss. On the other hand, over the years I have enjoyed the company of a considerable number of the remarkable Farmanfarmaian family, now dispersed throughout the world.

1 comment on The Shah and I

  • Lee Smith

    What a remarkable, enviable career you’ve had, Vic. One of my Rules To Live By has always been: If a princess asks for shelter, invite her in. I’m glad it worked for you. In my case unfortunately, one never showed up. Lee

Comment here