Over a 27-year-long career as a diplomat in the US foreign service, Ambassador Philip Kaplan has had a front-row seat to a number of historic events (For one: serving as US minister, deputy chief of mission and Charge d’Affaires to the US Embassy in Manila during the overthrow of Ferdinand Marcos.)
In 1978, he was a member of the Policy Planning Staff — the principal strategic arm of the US State Department — as trouble was starting to brew in Iran.
“One day, I saw the gentleman responsible for Iran was on our staff, and he was preparing for a trip,” says Kaplan, now retired from the State Department and a partner at Berliner Corcoran & Rowe in Washington, DC. “ ‘Where are you going?’ I asked. And he said, ‘I’m going to Iran to take down the shah.’ I said, ‘That’s interesting, aren’t you worried about the ayatollahs?’ — and he said, ‘Doesn’t matter, I’m going to take down the shah.’ And off he went. I was troubled by [Jimmy] Carter, because I thought his policies would not get us to where we needed to go. The American ambassador [to Iran] was taking a hands-off policy. He would see the shah once a week. He was totally indifferent to what was going to happen. When the relationship with Iran collapsed, I was pretty upset. That’s how the book emerged.”
And it’s a page-turner, a diplo-thriller set during a fascinating time.
“Night in Tehran” (paperback issue available on Oct. 19 from Melville House) tells the story of David Wieseman, an idealistic American diplomat who is tasked with easing the Iranian shah out of power and trying to navigate the best option between the military, the mullahs and the ruling class — all while figuring out who to trust and who might kill him.
“Some people think [diplomacy] is being a cookie pusher and going to cocktail parties. Others think it’s about the nice things — reaching out and making agreements. It’s all baloney. Diplomacy is trying to convince the other person that it’s in his interest to do what you want them to do. Sometimes it doesn’t work, and other actions come in,” says Kaplan. “Henry Kissinger once said to me that diplomacy without power invites contempt. The obverse is also true: Power without diplomacy can get you bogged down. The great debate that has gone down for years is: Should we focus more on power or diplomacy? It’s a false choice. The only way to make it work is to use both at the same time.”