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Azita Raji of Belvedere was first Iranian-born U.S. ambassador

Azita Raji, a longtime Belvedere resident who served as a U.S. ambassador to Sweden under President Barack Obama, died Feb. 6 of metastatic breast cancer.

Ms. Raji, a major fundraiser for Obama, was appointed to the position in October 2014. However, she wasn’t confirmed until February 2016 after a long delay by the Republican-controlled U.S. Senate. She presented her credentials to Sweden’s King Carl XVI Gustaf on March 15, 2016, and served until Jan. 20, 2017.

With her confirmation, she became the first female U.S. ambassador to Sweden, as well as the first Iranian-born American to serve as a U.S. ambassador. During her tenure, she was also nominated for the Sue M. Cobb Prize for Exemplary Diplomatic Service, the State Department’s highest award for a non-career ambassador.

“The deepest impression Azita made was on the people that had the privilege of knowing her,” the U.S. Department of State said in a Feb. 8 statement. “Her loss will be deeply felt by all she touched. … She was an inspiring leader, who loved her time in Sweden and the relationships she made.”

The statement noted flags at the U.S. Embassy in Sweden would be flown at half-staff for three days in her honor.

The ambassadorial post was a plum for Ms. Raji and was widely viewed as a reward for raising $4.8 million for Obama since 2007, more than $3 million of that for his 2012 re-election campaign, according to the New York Times. She gave more than $106,000 of her own money.

Ms. Raji left a career in finance in 2007 to focus on fundraising for Democratic candidates and for Obama’s initial presidential campaign.

During his re-election campaign, Ms. Raji became one of Obama’s top three campaign bundlers, donor-fundraisers who gather checks from their friends, family members and business and social connections to give to their candidates in a single bundle. Belvedere’s Denise Bauer and Tiburon’s Pamela Hamamoto were the others. In 2013, Bauer was named U.S. ambassador to Belgium, while Hamamoto was named representative to the U.N. in Geneva, a position that carries the rank of ambassador.

By 2012, Ms. Raji was serving as national finance vice chair and chair of the Swing State Victory Fund for Obama’s campaign. She also served on the national advisory board of the Democratic National Committee and was a member of the Obama for America National Finance Committee from 2008 to 2012.

In 2013, Obama appointed Ms. Raji to serve on the President’s Commission on White House Fellows.

Her nomination as ambassador came at a time when Obama had been criticized for naming ambassadors from among the ranks of his fundraisers, freezing out experienced diplomats in favor of those with little international experience or language fluency, though that is a common practice among presidents.

While not a career diplomat, Ms. Raji had more world experience than many of the non-Foreign Service nominees, having grown up in Iran and Western Europe. In addition to English, she was fluent in French and Persian.

Ms. Raji was born Sept. 29, 1961, in Tehran, Iran, one of two children to Feyed and Parvin Raji. She completed her high school education in Lausanne, Switzerland, where she competed nationally as a downhill skier and chess player before moving to the U.S. when she was 17.

She then attended Barnard College of Columbia University in New York, where she received a bachelor’s degree in architecture and French in 1983 and a master of business administration degree in finance in 1991.

She became a U.S. citizen in 1988.

Earlier in her career as an international investment banker, Ms. Raji held senior positions at firms including J.P. Morgan & Co., Salomon Brothers and Drexel Burnham Lambert. She had been a member of the Institute for Chartered Financial Analysts since 1991.

She was a member of the Bretton Woods Committee, which supports international finance institutions such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.

Ms. Raji has served as a trustee of the Barnard College Executive Committee, on the advisory board of Columbia Business School’s Tamer Center for Social Enterprise and as founding co-chair of the Athena Center for Leadership Studies at Barnard College. She also served on the economic advisory council of the Center for American Progress and as director of the National Partnership for Women & Families. All the organizations benefited from her philanthropy as well.

On July 4, 2016, Ms. Raji was named an honoree of Great Immigrants, an annual recognition by the Carnegie Corporation of New York of inspiring naturalized U.S. citizens who have made notable contributions to the progress of American society.

The same year, when singer-songwriter Bob Dylan was named the recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature, Ms. Raji read a letter by Dylan, who did not attend the award banquet, to the Nobel Committee on his behalf.

She also was appointed a commissioner of the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery in 2016.

That same year, she was the first U.S. Ambassador to Sweden to march in the country’s Pride Parade. She also was the recipient of the 2017 Ellis Island Medal of Honor and of Barnard College’s 2020 Joan Rivers Trailblazer Award.

She and her husband, Gary A. Syman, a retired Goldman Sachs partner, were married in 1992 and had lived in Belvedere since 1996.

In her free time, she enjoyed skiing, swimming, hiking, travel, reading and cooking Persian food for her family.

In addition to her husband, Ms. Raji is survived by a brother, Reza Raji of Menlo Park; two daughters, Gabriella Raji Syman of Belvedere and Elena Raji Syman of New York; three stepdaughters, Kimberly Syman of Lexington, Mass., Stefanie Syman of Brooklyn, N.Y., and Hillary Syman of Minneapolis, Minn.; and seven grandchildren.

A private memorial service will be held in June. Donations in her memory may be sent to Barnard College, Box AS, 3009 Broadway, New York City, NY 10027; or to the Joy Trust Fund at MarinHealth Foundation, 1350 S. Eliseo Drive #110, Larkspur, CA 94904.

Reach Tiburon reporter Deirdre McCrohan at 415-944-4634.



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