With the arrival of Iran’s new president in New York came a glimmer of the hope that had shone so brightly six decades ago, when a little girl stood on the tarmac of this same airport with a bouquet of roses.
The girl was 9-year-old Mina Moazed and she was there with her father that day in 1951 to welcome the first democratically elected prime minister of Iran.
Mina and her family had left Iran eight years before to escape the tyranny of that era’s shah. They had made their way to Lebanon and then to Egypt, where they boarded one of a convoy of three cargo ships. Two of the ships are said to have been sunk by German U-boats after rounding the Cape of Good Hope, but the one with Mina and her family aboard reached New York.
Mina's father, Mohammed Moazed, was a physician and the family was well-off enough to proceed from Ellis Island to the Waldorf Astoria hotel, but not well-off enough to stay there. They settled in Jackson Heights, among what Census records list as only 500 Iranians to emigrate to America over the previous century.
“The Waldorf to Queens,” Mina’s daughter, Meran Riley, says.
The father’s birth had been marked just by the month and the ways of America required him to choose a specific date. He demonstrated his love for democracy even in this.
“He picked Bastille Day,” Meran says.
Then, in 1951, there came word of a miracle back home in Iran. The shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, had given in to public clamoring for free elections. Mohammed Mossadegh had become the prime minister by virtue of the popular vote.
Mossadegh moved to nationalize the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, which had been siphoning off Iran’s oil wealth. The British had responded by sending a battle cruiser and threatening an international boycott.
On hearing that Mossadegh was flying to New York to plead Iran’s case before the United Nations, Mina’s father arranged to welcome him at the airport in his capacity as secretary of an Iranian-American association. He enlisted Mina to present the arriving premier with roses.
The great man looked weary when he emerged from the plane, but brightened when he saw Mina standing with her bouquet on the tarmac. He bent down and said something to her in Farsi and seemed fortified as he straightened to face the press. He called on Americans to remember their own struggle nearly two centuries before against the economic and political repression of what he called “British imperialism.”
Mossadegh proceeded with a police escort to New York Hospital, where he checked in partly for some tests, but also to escape the pressures of the reporters and the various interested parties. There, he was able to receive an American official quietly, without the more strident Iranian nationalists fretting that he was selling them out. He hoped the Americans could broker a deal with the British whereby Iran would get at least a reasonable share of its own wealth.
As it was, Iran was so broke that Mossadegh had to depart from the hospital when he saw it charged $450 a day, and that was without doctors. He borrowed $5,000 from a prosperous Iranian American to pay the bill and moved into a hotel with the rest of the delegation. The crisis was still unresolved when Mossadegh returned to Iran.
But the little girl who had welcomed him was still left with a lifelong sense that she had done something significant. She was not too young to have appreciated how thrilled her father had been by all that Mossadegh represented.
“Unfortunately, that didn’t last very long,” Mina's daughter, Meran, says.
The British decided that the only thing to do was to stage a coup. They sought President Truman’s support, but he declined. His successor, President Eisenhower, was as accommodating as if it were still the eve of D-Day and he was joining the Brits in facing a common enemy.
The CIA took the lead, its very first venture in toppling a foreign government, this including several bombings made to look like the work of communists. The agency nearly bungled the job and its operatives were poised to flee Tehran in defeat when an Iranian officer stepped in on its behalf. Mossadegh was deposed and the shah reassumed power.
“Oil and Iran are a terrible combination,” says Mina’s older brother, Cyrus Moazed, notes.
In the meanwhile, Mina grew up to embody the spirit of freedom itself, perhaps a little too much so for the liking of her socially conservative parents. A girl who had loved to picnic on Persian meatloaf with her father at Jones Beach became what was then called a bohemian, making the music and the art scene in Greenwich Village. She fell in love with Joe Bauer, who was by day a security guard in a chocolate factory, by night the drummer with the band the Youngbloods, which then hit it big with an anthem of the time, “Get Together.” The marriage of Mina and Joe did not exactly delight their respective families.
“Neither side was very happy about it,” Meran says. “Both sides thought they were marrying down.”
But that did not prevent the couple themselves from being ebulliently happy. Meran was born in 1971, so named because her father was from Memphis and her mother was from Tehran. Meran was 11 when Joe died from brain cancer.
Mina fell into deep mourning, but ventured forth. She remained the most unfettered of spirits as she lived in France and then in Marin County, California. She seemed the very soul of freedom.
“The thing about my mother was she did exactly what she wanted, when she wanted,” Meran says.
Mohammed Moazed died in 1977, two years before the shah’s cruel and corrupt regime triggered the Islamic revolution and the storming of the American embassy in Tehran. The relationship between Iran and the United States got no better after the release of the hostages.
When the infamous Holocaust denier and rabid anti-Semite President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad landed in 2007 at what’s now called JFK Airport, he was met not by a little girl with flowers, but by a NYPD chief who wanted to ensure he had not exceeded a stipulated number of bodyguards. A 40-minute standoff on the tarmac threatened to result in an international incident until the cops finally bowed to pressure from the State Department and settled for asking a couple of questions.
“You only have the 11 guys with guns, right?" the NYPD chief asked.
"Yes," said the Iranian head of security.
"None of the other guys?"
The little girl who had once stood there with a bouquet was out in California, a buoyant and youthful 66 years old. Our relations with Iran were still no better in 2010, when she died from Lou Gehrig’s disease.
“An artist, a bohemian, lover of music, men, food, clothing, travel, politics, and peace,” the obit in a local paper said of her.
Had she lived, Mina no doubt would have delighted in the glimmer of hope that accompanied the arrival of the latest Iranian president, Hassan Rouhani, at that same New York airport. He at least appeared to be free of the hate that his immediate predecessor spewed. There seemed just a chance that Iran and America could begin to establish some kind of understanding. Maybe.
“I hope,” Meran said. “It remains to be seen, doesn’t it?”
Meran, who is now 42 and the mother of two girls, went through a box of Moazed family photos.
“I found it!” she said.
There it was, a photo of the moment 62 years ago when her mother presented Mossadegh with the roses.
“It was really important for her,” Meran said.