Muhammad Najm Akbar
Bernard Pivot For some of the Apostrophes moments.
The Iranian Interest Section of Pakistan’s Embassy in Paris was an exceptional moment in interstate diplomacy. I thought that its most unforgettable facet was when Bernard Pivot, France’s most loved, esteemed, and respected cultural and literary icon, walked into the Embassy one morning. In our first few weeks at the CAVILAM, one of our teachers gave us a printout of fifty images that incarnated France. I am not sure if Pivot was on the list but if I have any enumerated series of images of France in my mind, Pivot would be on its front page. France introduced me to several firsts in life. First whiff and what the late Zulfikar Ali Bhutto termed as the fragrance of a functional democracy, independent parliamentary and judicial institutions. First elected local bodies representatives running their beautiful local towns. Pivot was a different kind of first, unique, and most probably unparalleled although controversy marred some of his observations and choices. I always wonder if he could exist anywhere else but in France. In those days, he did a weekly TV show named Apostrophes on Fridays. Only authors could be the participants in the show. Your ticket to Pivot was that you should have published a fiction or non-fiction book in French. He will choose a few recent books, invite the authors, send them each other’s work, read all of them, and then invite them for an intimate discussion. Between 1975 and 1990, he moderated some seven hundred and twenty-four such late-night sessions of uniquely authentic, erudite, and passionate discussions of sixty to ninety minutes. He has not ceased to enrich the French language and culture but those fifteen years of Apostrophes have been the hallmark of his remarkable life.
The morning Pivot walked into the Embassy of Pakistan he was not alone. He met Ambassador Naik as leader of a small group of French literati. Pakistan being the protecting power of Iranian interests in France, his delegation wanted to channel through Ambassador Naik an appeal for Iranian help for the release of French hostages. Ambassador Naik promised to convey their sentiments to the Iranians. There was hardly anything else that a protecting power could do.
Besides the Pivot experience, it was also training in intense negotiations between the two estranged states. It was an agitated diplomatic environment, with two countries holding widely divergent positions on basic issues involved. It was also a deeper look into human beings in the midst of a crisis and differentiated reactions of Iranian diplomats and the Embassy personnel besieged at the Chancery building at Avenue d’Iéna. The crisis spanned from June through the end of 1987. Human faces of the alleged terrorist networks looked hard to assess or penetrate. Façade was also a state practice. While the stalemate on Avenue d’Iéna and in front of the French Embassy compound in Tehran continued, negotiations went on behind closed doors in different capitals to strike a deal to move out of the crisis. If Mr. Naik knew about it, he never shared it with me. Both of us experienced, however, the pressure that the crisis generated. In a rare recompense, Mr. Naik asked me to accompany him for a walk one afternoon. We walked towards Champs Élysées and Mr. Naik turned towards the cinema house near the Arc de Trimophe. He bought two tickets for the next show and we entered to watch the Last Emperor. Mr. Naik loved history and it was his way of sharing his passion with a junior and showing appreciation as well. He had fond memories of an exceptional visit his Chinese counterpart had arranged for him to the Forbidden Palace. It was one of my first glimpses of centuries of an unbroken chain of resilience and innovation that runs through the Chinese civilization.
I struggled to figure out a way to focus on issues rather than rhetoric that overwhelmingly engulfed Iranian positions. At the Iranian Embassy, Golamerza Haddadi was the charge d’affaires. He would look at each and every issue in the most ideological and Manichean way. A French Foreign Minister pointed out to his Pakistani counterpart years later in another context that Iran was the home of Manicheanism. Haddadi would begin with a religious quote and request that either both me and the Ambassador of Pakistan or alone the junior diplomat must convey to the French the most emotional and vigorous tone he would adopt to elaborate on even the most ordinary issues.
The two countries finally reached a settlement, apparently through a side deal for the liberation of two French hostages in Lebanon. Coincidentally or through a negotiated trade-off, Iran presented Gordji before the investigating Judge who dropped all charges against him and allowed him to catch a special plane that took him home via Karachi.
During the long days of the siege, I remained the most frequent visitor allowed to enter the besieged building along with Ambassador Naik. We would see only a few of the Iranian personnel. Only a few of the forty inside the building were diplomats. Others were French Iranians or other Iranians with legal status in France whom the Embassy had locally hired. It took both countries several exchanges of messages before the Iranians handed over a handwritten list of the besieged persons. I took that list to Quai d’Orsay, the French foreign office. An old miniature artist who worked for the Embassy, not Gordji, functioned as the interpreter between the French chargé d’affaires and Pakistani officials. During this period, Haddadi had permission to leave the Embassy but he preferred that the in charge of the interest section should come and talk to him at the besieged Embassy. Every time, I would approach the barriers, the French police would instantly let me go through. Very few barriers function that way in real life but this one did. Inside the Iranian Embassy, I would never see Gordji. The French authorities had searched Gordji’s Paris apartment, located not very far from the Embassy. For some reasons that I cannot recall, I also visited his apartment with a small team of French officials to assess certain damages. I did not feel any presence of the person in the deserted apartment.
Gordji was just one image of Iran, a country that was the inheritor of rich culture and civilization. He was an interpreter by profession. Accusations against him remained unanswered questions. Judge Gilles Boulouque dropped the charges against him, and committed suicide in 1990, eliminating the possibility of offering further details about his action. President Mitterrand raised those unanswered questions publicly during a televised debate between him and Prime Minister Chirac as part of the French Presidential elections of 1988. He challenged his Prime Minister, the rival candidate, affirming that he had officially conveyed to him that the government had evidence against Gordji and yet let him go as part of a side deal. State imperatives directed Prime Minister Chirac’s decision to strike a backchannel deal. States make difficult choices about opening back-door communications to deal with unfriendly or hostile states or international non-state actors. Back channel or overt, negotiations and human contacts must never stop. We can see that after years of procrastination, the sole superpower and other major powers finally resolved to overcome difficulties with Iran through negotiations in early 2015. By the summer of that year after strenuous efforts of over a decade, the European Union, five permanent members of the Security Council, and Germany concluded a nuclear deal with Iran. The sole superpower later also pursued a similar path in Afghanistan in broad recognition of realities on the ground although. Simultaneously and ironically, it reversed the agreement on the Iran nuclear deal.