A refusal by the Queen and the Prince of Wales to attend "undignified'' celebrations to mark the 2,500th anniversary of the Iranian empire in 1971 threatened British oil interests, Foreign Office documents released yesterday disclose.
Officials warned that if both royals snubbed the four days of celebration, Britain's relationship with the Shah of Iran would be seriously damaged, and urged Edward Heath, Prime Minister at the time, to persuade the Queen to send Prince Charles. But Palace officials feared the "arduous, disorganised and undignified'' anniversary would be unsuitable for the Queen, especially in company with a "motley crew'' of minor royals and VIPs.
A flurry of diplomatic activity surrounding the anniversary is detailed in Foreign Office documents released by the Public Record Office. Letters between the Foreign Office, Downing Street and Buckingham Palace revealed deep concern that the response to approaches from the Shah for a royal visit could end in humiliating the Queen or jeopardising British oil interests by offending the Shah. The Iranian royal family placed great store in the multimillion-pound celebrations at Tehran and Persepolis, which were described as a "super spectacular'', to be attended by world heads of state.
The Prince of Wales initially indicated he would be happy to attend but Iran pushed for the Queen, although the Foreign Office appeared distinctly underwhelmed by their plans.
In November 1970, Sir Denis Greenhill, permanent private secretary at the Foreign Office, wrote to the Queen's private under-secretary, Sir Michael Adeane, that the arrangements were "chaotic'' and that although many crowned heads of state had been invited, few had accepted. He thought that while it was not right to "subject'' the Queen to a "somewhat arduous and disorganised'' programme, it could be a "novel experience'' for the young prince, then 22.
Sir Michael agreed, replying: "It cannot be said [the arrangements] sound altogether satisfactory from the point of view of the guests.'' He warned of a potential diplomatic problem in that Prince Charles would have joined the Navy by October the next year so he would be unable to go despite his earlier indication.
That prospect alarmed the Foreign Office's Near-Eastern department, which said if Prince Charles pulled out "it would harm our relations with Iran when we can least afford such harm''. Then the Iranian embassy in London sent an official invitation for Prince Charles to his equerry, Squadron Leader David Checketts, who told the Foreign Office the Prince was likely to be at sea at the time.
Lees Mayll, of the Foreign Office protocol and conference department, warned Buckingham Palace that the Shah would be "gravely offended'' if Charles refused as it was only the prospect of the Prince that had "mollified'' him after losing the Queen. "In our opinion there is a serious risk that a refusal at this stage would be taken by the Shah as a personal rebuff, with possible unfortunate consequences to our interests in Iran, of which oil concessions are of major importance,'' he said.
Sir Denis also wrote to Robert Armstrong in the Prime Minister's private office, emphasising that the celebration was not suitable for the Queen but the Prime Minister should advise her to send her eldest son. "The Iranian ceremonies, lasting three days and possibly more, and taking place both in Tehran and Persepolis, in the presence of a motley collection of heads of state or, more likely, their representatives, are as you say, likely to be arduous, disorganised, and possibly undignified and insecure.''
Despite this comment the Queen then appeared to reconsider attending, prompting Sir Michael to warn of the "full horror'' of a change of plan. Finally at the end of December 1970 the Palace decided Prince Charles could not go because he would be at the Royal Naval College in Dartmouth, but the Duke of Edinburgh should go.
Eventually, Prince Philip attended with Princess Anne. The most notable guests were Vice-President Spiro Agnew of the United States, President Tito of Yugoslavia and Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia.