What you won’t see in Argo

Mark Lijek, a retired U.S. diplomat rescued from Iran, writes about the real heroes of 1979

What really happened

Peter Bergg/CP

Ben Affleck’s Argo has stormed box offices, collected awards and soon, perhaps, will capture an Oscar, yet Canadians of a certain age may find themselves thinking: This is not quite how I remember those days. I was there when Iranians took over the American Embassy in Tehran, and it is not quite how I remember them either. Argo is terrific entertainment, but it tells only a part of our story, and says nothing at all about many of the real heroes—most Canadian—who helped rescue us. Before Argo came along, our rescue was routinely called the “Canadian Caper.” It still should be. The operation consisted of four distinct phases. Three were almost entirely Canadian, and only one involved significant U.S. assistance.

For those not of a certain age, a brief summary is a good starting point. Nov. 4, 1979 brought cold rain and hinted of trouble of a different sort. Two weeks earlier, then-president Jimmy Carter decided to admit the former shah of Iran to the U.S. for cancer treatment. Iranians were outraged; many suspected it was a plot by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency to remove Iran’s new ruler, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, and put the shah back in charge. Protests outside Tehran’s U.S. Embassy had become daily occurrences. That November morning, demonstrators climbed the gate and soon controlled the compound.

Most Americans worked in the chancery, the Embassy’s main building located in the compound’s south end, and were captured. Eleven of us worked in the consulate, a separate facility fortunate to have a direct entrance to the street. After two hours, we learned the chancery defences had been breached. We were told to break into two groups and leave. We tried, as instructed, to reach the British Embassy, but demonstrations blocked our path. Five of us, scared and wet, ended up in the apartment of Bob Anders, our immigration chief. The second group was captured and held with the other hostages.

During the next six days we moved five times. We spent one night with the British at their residential compound, but the next day we were moved into the residence of the U.S. public affairs officer, who’d been taken hostage, under the care of his occasional Thai cook, a brave man nicknamed Sam. A day after we arrived, Anders called his Canadian counterpart, John Sheardown. Sheardown said he knew Anders was free, and was expecting the call. He never explained how he knew, saying only he had heard through the grapevine. And so began phase one of our rescue: Sheardown needed to persuade Anders to accept his offer of moving to the Canadian Embassy. After our experience with the British, we were uncertain whether to trust a foreign embassy. (Only later did we learn that the Brits weren’t fearful of harbouring us, but that demonstrators had shown up outside their compound, coming close to ransacking it.) Furthermore, we felt like we were radioactive, a danger to anyone who took us in. The warmth of Sheardown’s response was critical: “Why didn’t you call sooner?” When told there were five of us, he demanded: “Bring them all.”

Despite Sheardown’s insistence, we waited three more days. During this time, Sheardown informed Ken Taylor, the Canadian ambassador to Iran, of the call, and Taylor had alerted Ottawa. At every level the response was the same: bring the Americans in. Prime minister Joe Clark added the most critical yes: it was to the finish, he added. Canada was committed to keeping us until the crisis ended or they could smuggle us out.

On Nov. 10, we were forced to leave our hiding place. Sam and the housekeeper got into a screaming fight and she’d stormed off. She worried her boss would fire her for allowing strangers into the house. Sam figured she was so angry she might turn us in to the komiteh, the local revolutionary committee, so he arranged to move us down the block to another hostage house. As soon as we arrived, I knew we could not stay. The house had large windows and low walls. It was known to be an embassy lease. The komiteh would be there within an hour once evening came if even a glimmer of light was seen. Anders summoned a meeting. It wasn’t unanimous, but we decided to accept Sheardown’s offer.

When we arrived, Sheardown was watering the sidewalk—not an uncommon practice given Tehran’s dust problem, but in this case an excuse for leaving the garage door open to smuggle us in. Soon, we were enjoying his wife Zena’s hospitality on what would be the first of many occasions.

Phase one was nearly complete. Phase two was about to begin: keeping us secret and safe for as long as necessary. Taylor said two of us should move to his house, both to balance the housekeeping load and to make clear this was an official act of Canadian government policy in the event we were caught. Kathy and Joe Stafford volunteered for that. Anders, my wife, Cora, and I were introduced to Lolita, the Sheardown’s housekeeper. She knew who we were and would help take care of us over the coming months. We were shown our rooms and began to settle in. A week later, Sheardown arrived with Lee Schatz, the agricultural attaché whose office was off-compound. The Swedes had been sheltering him until their nervous ambassador approached Taylor, hoping to rid himself of a dangerous visitor. In communications between Tehran and Ottawa, we became known as the “house guests.” Phase one was now finished.

Phase two could have been handled a number of ways. Given the alternatives, I would have gladly accepted living under the floor, the way Argo depicts us hiding at one point. Our experience was radically different. We were treated like family and lacked for nothing. Zena guarded us during the day. Sheardown became like a father to us. We awaited his daily return from work. First would come a formal meal, always excellent thanks to Lolita. Then drinks in the den and conversation about the latest office gossip Sheardown had to share, as well as listening to the BBC and Voice of America news. Boredom during the long days was a problem. The Sheardown’s library helped, as did their Scrabble game. John and Zena went so far as to give us a social life, inviting diplomats from the New Zealand and Australian embassies as well as the Danish ambassador and other Canadian staff to social functions two or three times a month. Sometimes I wondered whether we were partying on the Titanic, but why not? If we were caught, it would not be because of these events.

The Staffords had a harder time at the official residence, primarily because ambassador Taylor had to keep up his official entertaining and this meant Joe and Kathy were required to hide. The staff, both Iranian and third country, must have guessed who they were. But the threat came from a different direction. Some in the media had figured out there were Americans on the loose, and one reporter, Jean Pelletier from La Presse in Montreal, had forced an acknowledgment we were with the Canadians. An honourable man, he agreed to sit on the story. Several American news organizations had also deduced some of us were out. President Carter spoke with two of them personally. The story stayed secret.

Phase two merged into phase three: get the Americans out. In early January, Anders and I asked to meet with Taylor. We presented him with a message we had written, asking that he relay to Washington our belief it was time to consider our situation separately from that of the hostages. We needed to leave. The message was not sent, at least not in our words, but the Canadians had reached the same conclusion. The CIA had already begun work on a plan. Their agent, Tony Mendez, flew to Hollywood and used his contacts there to create a production company, buy a script and create the illusion that the makers of a film called Argo: A Cosmic Conflagration needed to scout locations in Iran. A week or so later, Taylor brought the six of us together and asked what we thought about leaving Iran with U.S. passports. Our response was negative: Canadian passports would boost our confidence. Although we did not know it, those passports had already been authorized by an Order in Council, sponsored by prime minister Clark in a private meeting of the Canadian cabinet.

Mendez has acknowledged the Hollywood plan was designed to give us confidence so we would act normally at the airport. The scenario was important, but no more so than the Canadian passports. There has been some discussion since Argo was released whether the Canadians could have pulled off the exfiltration without CIA assistance. I don’t know the answer. I do know that I felt we would safely exit Iran from the day we arrived on John Sheardown’s doorstep. I also believe it would have been a mistake on the part of both governments not to utilize the CIA’s long experience in exfiltration. Some say the Hollywood scenario was silly or flamboyant. Maybe so, but for most of the house guests it was perfect. Who besides Hollywood types would come to a country in the middle of a violent revolution and expect to shoot a movie? Personally, I prefer the big lie. It would have been easier to claim I was Hollywood transportation coordinator Joseph Harris than some nondescript petroleum engineer misguided enough to come looking for work during a revolution. While the arguments can continue forever, the undeniable truth is Argo worked. We escaped Iran.

Phase four always receives the least attention. The U.S. government was desperate to keep the CIA’s role secret, rightly fearing its disclosure might endanger the hostages (who weren’t freed until 1981). This concern was sufficiently real that we were asked to live under false names in Florida until the hostages were set free. I was looking forward to seeing how many speeding tickets my alter ego could accumulate, but La Presse decided to publish Jean Pelletier’s story once the Canadian Embassy in Tehran had closed. We came home to a rousing reception and the Canadians were asked to claim complete credit for our escape. That job understandably fell to ambassador Taylor, who spent the better part of a year on the rubber chicken circuit at receptions to honour the Canadian government and people for helping us. Some have said he did the job too well, or failed to share the credit with other embassy staff. My own experience contradicts this. I heard Taylor speak several times. He always mentioned his staff. I also tried, during press interviews I gave, to mention others, particularly the Sheardowns. My comments were edited out. It seemed the press could handle only one hero at a time. Unfortunately, this meant John Sheardown, who was indispensable in phase one, became invisible in phase four. I truly believe John did not care. He did his duty as he saw it. For those who loved and respected him, it was painful.

Phase four came to an abrupt and unexpected end in 1997, when the CIA permitted Mendez to speak openly about his role in our escape. No one knew ahead of time. The Canadian government was not informed. I learned about it from a Philadelphia-based reporter, and had to call Washington to find out whether the operation had been declassified before I could respond to his request for comments. The media turned on Taylor. The CIA announcement relegated Taylor, in the view of many, to little better than a fraud. Nonsense. Both Taylor and Mendez did their jobs very well and, as far as I can tell, they continue to respect each other. And we should continue to respect them.

My real concern is for the other Canadians. John Sheardown, who passed away recently, is now being acknowledged for what he did. I am reluctant to name names for fear of forgetting someone, but there are so many others: Mary O’Flaherty, Roger Lucy, Claude Gauthier, Junior Gosse, Jim Edward, Laverna Dollimore, not to mention the spouses, Zena Sheardown and Pat Taylor. The Ottawa team also: Sam Hanson, Michael Shenstone, Allan Gotlieb, Louis Delvoie, John Fraser, Flora MacDonald and, of course, Joe Clark, whose very personal and encouraging Christmas card decorated the Sheardown mantle at a critical time for us. While compiling this list is risky because it is certain some important names will be overlooked, it serves to show how broad-based support for the rescue mission was among Canadian officials of both low rank or high.

As I wrote at the beginning, Argo is a wonderful film. Not because it is historically accurate, but because, aside from its technical brilliance, it reminds us of a time when ordinary people performed great deeds, and two neighbours that feud over many small and not so small things came together and did something magnificent. Maybe it didn’t change history, but for we six house guests it was truly life changing. And it was, and should always remain, the Canadian Caper.

Mark Lijek has written an account of his experiences in Iran, entitled The Houseguests: A Memoir of Canadian Courage and CIA Sorcery, published in 2011.

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