Fereydoun Hoveyda, Iranian (1924 - 2006)

Iranian Ambassador to the UN whose world influence was undiminished by the upheavals of the revolution.

A MAN of unusual versatility, Fereydoun Hoveyda was equally at ease in the worlds of international politics and the arts.

He was a respected diplomat who commanded attention as a commentator on Islam and the relations between Muslims and non-Muslims, and he served as senior Fellow of the influential National Committee on American Foreign Policy, an organisation dedicated “to the resolution of conflicts that threaten US interests”.

As a young man Hoveyda had been involved with the drafting of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948 and, in the years before Ayatollah Khomeini deposed the Shah, he was Iran’s Ambassador to the United Nations.

He was also a novelist, a screenwriter and an artist admired for inventive and witty collages and paintings. His novels, addressing issues of cultural identity, religion and nationhood, were well received.

His debut, Les Quarantaines (1962), written while he was working in Paris, was the first book by a non-French writer to be nominated for the Goncourt, France’s highest literary prize. The novel followed a French-educated Arab living in France during the Algerian war, and caught between his traditional Arab culture and his Western education.

It was a situation to which Hoveyda could relate in a personal fashion. He was born in Damascus in 1924, when Syria was under the French mandate. His father headed the small unofficial embassy that represented Iran’s Syrian interests, and while he progressed to more important diplomatic positions in Saudi Arabia and Iran, the young Fereydoun and his older brother, Amir-Abbas, remained in cosmopolitan Beirut to continue their education in French schools.

Their understanding of Middle Eastern politics was forged in a time of great turmoil — the rise of Arab nationalism, the spread of Nazi and communist ideologies, the growth of what would become the state of Israel, the emergence of new versions of Islamic radicalism, notably the Muslim Brotherhood, and a growing resistance to colonial domination as the fragments of the defunct Ottoman Empire strove to establish their distinct identities.

In 1945, after a brief stint in Tehran and flirtations with leftist and nationalist agitations, Hoveyda went to study at the Sorbonne. While there he took advantage of an opportunity to join his professor, René Cassin, in preparing for the San Francisco conference that established the UN. In 1948 he was awarded a doctorate in international law and economics, and, keen to remain in Paris, he became first a press attaché at the Iranian Embassy, and then, after 1951, joined Unesco’s Department of Mass Communications to co-ordinate the free flow of information in the developing countries.

It was during this period that he began to pursue his interests in film and literature more actively. He was a regular contributor to Mystère-Magazine, and his first book, a history of the detective novel, appeared in 1956 with a preface by Jean Cocteau. He also wrote for Les cahiers du cinéma, the influential magazine which in the early 1960s championed the “new wave” directors. He worked on several film projects, writing screenplays for Iranian and foreign film-makers, most notably Roberto Rossellini, collaborating on the script of his India: Matri Bhumi (1959).

Hoveyda was also briefly married to the daughter of a former Iranian Prime Minister, Touran Mansour. The union brought him closer to a group of young reformers led by Hassan-Ali Mansour, Touran’s elder brother, who became Prime Minister himself in 1964.

When Mansour was assassinated the following year, he was succeeded by Hoveyda’s brother, Amir-Abbas, and Hoveyda moved to Tehran to support him in implementing the Shah’s proposed economic and social reforms. Hoveyda was appointed deputy foreign minister in charge of international organisations, and, with his brother and the Shah, acted as a secret go-between between President Johnson and the North Vietnamese Government in an unsuccessful attempt to negotiate the end of the war in Vietnam.

He was posted to New York in 1971 as Ambassador to the UN, and served as chairman of the UN Committee on International Disarmament for four years. His role in Iran’s diplomatic service ended in 1979 with the accession of Ayatollah Khomeini. Hoveyda’s brother was executed by Khomeini’s supporters that year. Hoveyda regarded this as murder and tried to come to terms with it in The Fall of the Shah (1980), an angry and personal account of the years leading up to the exiled Ayatollah’s victory.

Settling in the US, he concerned himself with the confrontation between Islam and modernity, lecturing and writing for French and American journals. His books included What Do the Arabs Want? (1991) and The Broken Crescent: The Threat of Militant Islamic Fundamentalism (1998). An overarching theme was his belief that cultures, civilisations, political and religious systems complement each other rather than merge together.

He lived his last years in northern Virginia, writing, painting and making his collages. His German-born wife, Gisela, whom he married in 1968, survives him, with two daughters.

Fereydoun Hoveyda, diplomat and writer, was born on September 21, 1924. He died on November 3, 2006, aged 82.

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