My PhD committee advisor and National Security Advisor Zbig Brzezinski dies at 89. One of the sharpest minds of the past century, an absolute giant.
I will never forget how he grilled me during my dissertation defense. Whenever I started to gain some ground against him, he changed the subject and started a new line of questioning.
But without a doubt, the most memorable conversation I had with him was over lunch a few years ago when he suddenly asked me: “Did you know that I almost became the foreign minister of Iran?”
Stunned, I could only muster a, “Sorry, could you repeat that?”
And then he told me the story. When Zbig was a child in Warsaw, Poland, his father was often traveling. A diplomat for the Polish government, his father spent months away on missions. During those missions, Zbig’s mom developed a liking for the Iranian ambassador to Warsaw. The passion was mutual. Zbig noted that the house started to be filled with Iranian artifacts and rugs, gifts that the ambassador had given to Zbig’s mom.
Later, Zbig found out that the Iranian ambassador had asked his mom to marry him. “I will take you to Tehran and we can put Zbig in the Swiss boarding that Prince Mohammad Reza [later, the Shah of Iran] attends. They will grow up together and the prince can make him his foreign minister later when he becomes shah,” the ambassador half-promised.
But Zbig’s mom rejected the proposal, pointing out that divorce in Catholic Poland was not tolerated. The Iranian ambassador insisted, however, and even suggested that if her current husband posed a problem, he could “arrange for him to be taken care of.” At that point, Zbig’s mom cut off all contact with the Iranian ambassador and never saw him again.
And with that, Zbig’s chances of becoming foreign minister in Iran went down the drain.
Years later, while serving as President Jimmy Carter’s national security advisor, he was having dinner with the shah and his wife Farah at the White House. The conversation was stale, and to lighten the mood, Zbig turned to Farah and asked: “Did you know that I almost became your husband’s foreign minister?”
Her reaction was similar to mine — stunned. Zbig retold the story to Farah, who was all ears. Needless to say, the mood lightened.
Upon returning to Tehran, Farah decided to investigate the matter. She identified the ambassador in question and checked the story with him.
Three weeks later, Zbig gets a letter from a gentleman in Iran. “Dear almost-brother,” the opening line of the letter said. It was from the son of Iran's then-ambassador to Warsaw — the gentleman in love with Zbig’s mother. The son explained that Farah had contacted his father who had confirmed Zbig’s account — with the exception “of a few details.” You can guess what those details were.
We will never know if Zbig would have become the shah’s foreign minister. But we do know that whether we agree with his polices or not, he was one of the sharpest strategic thinkers and players of the past century.
Washington sure could use his guidance today.
A version of this article was first published by The Iranian.