Sir Denis Wright

Ambassador to Iran who took the country and its people to his heart
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Denis Arthur Hepworth Wright, diplomat: born Kingston upon Thames, Surrey 23 March 1911; assistant advertising manager, Gallaher & Co 1935-39; Vice-Consul on economic warfare work, Constanta, Romania 1939-41; Vice-Consul-in-charge, Trabzon 1941-43; Acting-Consul-in-charge, Mersin 1943-45; First Secretary (Commercial), Belgrade 1946-48; Superintending Trade Consul, Chicago 1949-51; Head of Economic Relations Department, Foreign Office 1951-53, Assistant Under-Secretary 1955-59, 1962; Chargé d'Affaires, Tehran 1953-54, Counsellor 1954-55; CMG 1954, KCMG 1961, GCMG 1971; ambassador to Iran 1963-71; ambassador to Ethiopia 1959-62; President, British Institute of Persian Studies 1978-87; Chairman, Iran Society 1976-79, President 1989-95; married 1939 Iona Craig; died Haddenham, Buckinghamshire 18 May 2005.

For Denis Wright the main focus of his life was Iran and the Iranians. He was British ambassador in Iran for eight years (1963-71) and subsequently, after leaving the Foreign Office, that country and its people were at the forefront of his many activities. He loved both of them, spoke fluent Farsi, travelled widely all over the country during his ambassadorship and in later years wrote about them extensively, objectively and with great understanding.

Wright was born in 1911 and educated at Brentwood School, in Essex, and at St Edmund Hall, Oxford, where he read Modern History. It was at Oxford that he met his future wife, Iona Craig, at the Oxford Labour Club, where he had been told he would meet the prettiest girls in Oxford (Iona was certainly one of them). After Oxford he took a job in advertising with the tobacco firm Gallagher and was working for them in Romania when the Second World War broke out. He was persuaded to become temporary acting vice-consul in Constanta and was there joined by Iona, by then a practising artist and potential film producer; after, with some difficulty, obtaining a marriage licence, they were married by the British consul.

In 1941 Wright was posted as consul to Trabzon, where he met his first Iranian. It was a somewhat lonely and difficult posting (no sugar, no shampoo, no cotton thread but masses of pink face powder for those who wished to lighten dark complexions, Iona noted in her 1997 memoir Black Sea Bride) with not a lot of consular business, so that Wright scoured consulate documents to trace the 19th-century trade-route history between northern Iran and the Black Sea. In 1943 he was sent to Mersin, a hotbed of Mediterranean intrigue, and in 1946 he joined the Foreign Office proper and was sent to Belgrade.

Three years later he was posted to Chicago as superintending trade consul, a job that gave him a crucial grounding in post-war trade economics. It was this that led to his appointment as head of the Economic Relations Department at the Foreign Office in 1951 - where he took on an unlikely "new boy" in the person of a future Foreign Secretary, the 22-year-old Douglas Hurd. "We all learned hugely from Denis," Hurd remembers:

He taught without appearing to teach. His standards were high, but he inserted rather than imposed them in our lives. When I failed to record adequately a meeting held in French with a visiting delegation, my failings were explained to me, but without humiliation. Denis wore lightly his knowledge of the world, especially of Iran. His good-humour and good sense never deserted him.

In 1953 Wright was despatched to Iran to oversee the resumption of diplomatic relations, broken off at the time of Mohammad Mossadeq's nationalisation of the Iranian oil industry. He stayed on as chargé d'affaires until an ambassador, Sir Roger Stevens, was appointed, and in 1959 he became ambassador to Ethiopia, where the following year he was crucially able to wire Emperor Haile Selassie, on a state visit to Brazil at the time, to hurry home to suppress an attempted coup by the imperial bodyguard. Iona's description of the embassy compound full of "refugees" is characteristically laconic as she and embassy wives scoured Addis Ababa for food. Then, after another spell in London, Sir Denis, as he now was, took up his ultimate and long-lasting post as ambassador to Iran in 1963.

The eight years the Wrights spent in Iran were relatively tranquil. Wright was much involved with promoting British exports. He got on well with the Shah and some, though not all, of those around the Shah. He and Iona took off into the countryside whenever they could ("having our meals not off gold plate and under crystal chandeliers but on a cloth laid out on the mud floor of a peasant's hut"), much to the admiration of their many Iranian friends and the envy of Empress Farah. They travelled more widely than any Western diplomat of Wright's generation and indeed than most educated Iranians.

After the Shah's deposition in 1979 Margaret Thatcher despatched Wright, travelling as "Mr Edward Wilson", to the Shah's temporary home on Paradise Island in the Bahamas, with the extremely tricky task of informing him that he would not be welcome in Britain - greatly to the Shah's disappointment.

There was no such word as retirement for Denis Wright, and Iran remained very much at the heart of his extraordinarily fruitful life for the next 30 years. A painting of a luscious Qajar princess hung prominently in the hall at Haddenham; pistachios from Iranian friends were always on offer; there was nearly always someone in garden or drawing-room looking for information, advice, words of wisdom and insight on Iran and matters Iranian.

After leaving the Foreign Office in 1974 he took on non-executive directorships of Shell and Chartered Bank; he helped establish and then chaired the Iran Society and presided over the British Institute of Persian Studies. Oxford was almost a second home, where he was an Honorary Fellow both of his old college and of St Antony's.

Above all he wrote: first, two finely researched and delightful accounts, The English amongst the Persians (1977) and The Persians amongst the English (1985), and, with James Morris and Roger Wood, Persia (1969, a photographic survey). Then, in countless essays, encyclopaedia entries, memorials, commentaries on events, he wrote about and lectured on the country he had enjoyed so much though never revisited after completing his ambassadorship. In 2003 several of his writings were collected by the Iran Society as Britain and Iran 1790-1980.

Denis Wright was a man of enormous integrity, also modesty and charm, refusing to publish his memoirs and forbidding a memorial service. Several years ago he gave all his papers to the Bodleian Library. For so many, all over the world, the generosity and friendship enshrined in his and Iona's house in Haddenham are as enduring a memory as one could find.

Sarah Searight

Sir Denis Wright continued to correspond with his many Iranian friends, often in Persian, several decades after he retired from the Diplomatic Service, writes Dr Fereydoun Ala.

The initial encounter of my family with this remarkable man and his charming wife Iona was in 1953, when he was appointed as the first envoy to Iran from the Court of St James following a rupture of relations between Britain and Iran - whose oil industry had been an entirely British monopoly since the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company was formed in 1908. Feelings against Britain, and what was seen as its inequitable, unjust exploitation of Iran's natural resources, ran high at the time. It required a great deal of courage and perspicacity to foster a renewal of trust and cordial diplomatic, commercial relations, in the face of a climate of suspicion and paranoia then prevalent among Iranians - suspicion of ulterior motives and the long-established aura of mistrust surrounding "perfidious Albion".

There can be no doubt that Denis Wright was well qualified for this difficult task. His absolute integrity, his cordiality and, above all, his genuine affection and respect for Iran and Iranians endeared him to all he encountered - as did his enthusiasm for learning the Persian language; his delight in travelling to the furthest corners of this beautiful, historic land and his profound interest in the culture, history, art and architecture of Iran. These qualities, reminiscent of those of Sir Harford Jones Brydges, a Crown envoy at the start of the 19th century, stood in stark contrast to the contempt and arrogance displayed by a number of previous British envoys, most particularly during the Second World War.

It was during his first tour of duty in Iran that Denis Wright met my father, Hossein Ala, who was Minister of Court at the time, and would be appointed Prime Minister for the second time in April 1955. Their close working relationship led to the development of a lasting mutual respect and affection.

Denis Wright's writings after his retirement from the Foreign Office not only display meticulous scholarship, they are also a witness to his abiding sense of affection and regard for Iran and her people. At "Duck Bottom" in Haddenham, he received his numerous Iranian friends and regaled them with historical vignettes and anecdotes of his many years in Iran, drawn from an astonishing memory which remained as sharp as ever until the end of his life.