Eric Parnes stood in the rain beside the austere white building on Embassy Row, its parking lot empty, its rooms silent and shuttered for more than three decades, and he pointed at where bacchanals once raged late into the night.
Here was the grand entryway where limousines dropped off diplomats, socialites and movie stars. There was the courtyard with its delicate blue-flowered tile work, and, just beyond it, the Persian Room, an imposing space whose high-domed ceiling glittered with hundreds of tiny mirrors.
The Iranian Embassy at 3005 Massachusetts Ave. was once “the number one embassy when it came to extravagance,” wrote frequent guest Barbara Walters in a memoir. As tuxedo-clad musicians serenaded, the flamboyant ambassador welcomed Washington’s A list with endless bowls of fresh Caspian Sea caviar and glasses of Dom Perignon.
All that came to a shuddering halt in 1979, when Islamic revolutionaries replaced the shah with a theocracy and the partying stopped.
The 34-year freeze between Iran and the United States has in some ways been colder than the Cold War, when the United States and Iron Curtain countries at least had diplomatic relations and embassies. Since the 444-day hostage crisis, representatives of the United States and Iran have had scant direct communication. Nuclear negotiations over the past few weeks have represented the most extensive overt diplomatic contact in decades and have set off speculation about the possibility of renewed relations between the former allies.
If this were to happen, it’s possible the embassy could reopen. But it’s unlikely it would ever play the same role it did in the 1970s.
“It was a zoo,” recalled Barbara Howar, a journalist who attended the soirees and is writing a memoir about Washington during that era.
“He had parties around the clock, constantly,” Howar said, referring to Ardeshir Zahedi, the suave diplomat who was Iran’s ambassador to the United States from 1959 to 1961 and again, as a bachelor, from 1973 to 1979.
According to a biography of Elizabeth Taylor, one of many women linked romantically with Zahedi in the 1970s, embassy guests “were afforded their every desire, from champagne and caviar to sexual favors and recreational drugs.”
Photographs from that time show Henry Kissinger, Liza Minnelli, Mikhail Baryshnikov, Andy Warhol and other political and artistic luminaries dancing or sitting on sumptuous Persian carpets with drinks in hand. “It was always such a fun, gay melee,” Howar recalled.
Parnes, a lanky 34-year-old conceptual artist, is too young to remember those days. He was born in 1979, a few months after the revolution in Iran, his father’s homeland. Growing up in Ruxton, Md., he said, “My father would go down and drive by Massachusetts [Avenue] and say, ‘Well, this was the Iranian Embassy.’ ”
It technically still is. The Islamic republic owns the building at 3005 Massachusetts Ave. NW, one of 11 diplomatic and consular properties that Iran purchased across the United States before the revolution, including the Georgian-style ambassador’s residence next door.
The United States is legally obliged by the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations to protect diplomatic property, even when relations have been severed. So, since 1980, when the United States and Iran broke ties over Iran’s taking of hostages at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, the State Department has served as custodian of Iran’s U.S. properties, providing maintenance and security; the Iranian government, while legally the owner, has no access to the sites. The property is tax-exempt; upkeep for the embassy building is paid for by renting out some of the other Iran-owned properties.
And so, for nearly 34 years, the embassy has been silent, its wooden front door peeling, its oversized ’70s-era security cameras dangling clownishly off the upper corners, one outdoor light encased in a tattered wasp’s nest. The golden lion and sun that presided over the doorway are gone; there is no identifying sign on the building. The lonely blue-tiled facade invites speculation by many and nostalgic reminiscence by some, but it almost never invites visitors.
Recently, however, Parnes was able to go inside. Entering the building that had been off limits all his life “reminded me of early Renaissance artists and how they descended into the former palace of Emperor Nero with candles and saw all the frescoes,” he said. “It’s almost like an archaeological ruin, in terms of seeing how things were pieced together.”
Inside, he discovered relics of a fallen empire: dusty portraits of the shah and his wife, abandoned documents and pre-revolution passports, shards of fallen mirror and, in one room, an intact chandelier. The photographs he took of the interior will be exhibited at a gallery in Dubai this month. (Parnes did not reveal how he got inside, saying he did not want to get his contact into trouble.)
“For people in my age range, most don’t know this place exists or ever existed,” he said. “People see Iran and they think that these two countries have been mortal enemies for as long as they can remember. They don’t know that there was an embassy, let alone that it would encourage such luminaries and pop stars to enter.”
If diplomatic relations were to resume, the U.S. Embassy in central Tehran, once a graceful tree-shaded compound with clay tennis courts, might need to be converted back from its current status as a sometime museum of American espionage and a base for the Basiji militia.
The Massachusetts Avenue property would also need updating. In Parnes’s photographs of the building, which was constructed in 1959, elaborate ceiling decorations have faded or been covered up. Fancy chairs sit stacked as if waiting for the next party, and old metal file cabinets still contain files.
A blank spot in the middle of the courtyard seems to mark where a fountain once sat. In a fountain behind the adjoining ambassador’s residence, shortly before the hostage-taking, newly arrived revolutionary government representatives dumped tens of thousands of dollars worth of fine wines and other alcohol, spirits being anathema to Islam.
Sally Quinn, a Washington Post columnist who covered parties in the 1970s, at one point recused herself from the story because she began dating Zahedi, a man she described as “very devil-may-care.”
“No other ambassador has ever given parties like that,” she said. “It was almost dancing on tables, it was that kind of thing. There was more caviar than you could eat. Ardeshir used to send caviar around to people for Christmas.”
In those days, Quinn said, parties were an integral part of diplomacy. “People felt good about the ambassador, so they had a positive image of the country. . . . When you went out and had fun with people, you were going to engage with them more easily.”
Zahedi, now 85 and living in Montreux, Switzerland, concurred. “The message was that I wanted to know the people, and I wanted them to know about my country,” he said, recalling visits with Ronald Reagan, Spiro Agnew, Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy “and his wonderful Jackie.”
At parties attended by 200 to 400 guests, “I would talk about my country and they would ask me about geopolitics,” he said. “Many of them, I invited and they went to Iran.”
Diplomatic life in Washington is different now. “That kind of entertaining is very expensive, and people don’t want to seem like they’re overdoing it,” Quinn said.
Zahedi said he is hopeful that his former place of business will someday reopen.
“We have had a long friendship,” he said. “Iran and the U.S., they need each other. They may be friends; they must be friends.”