Our Man in Tehran: Revision of a Revision

The original story of the rescue of six US diplomats from Tehran in 1980, recounted in the media at the time and a year later in Jean Pelletier and Claude Adams’s book The Canadian Caper, heroicized the Canadian embassy officials, most notably Ambassador Ken Taylor, who sheltered the diplomats and helped them escape. These accounts were extremely cryptic about the role played by the CIA and about certain details of the story, such as the identities assumed by the six Americans, when they were smuggled out of Iran.

The Academy Award-winning movie Argo explored the role of the CIA, in particular agent Tony Mendez, in creating a story and identities for the six diplomats. Mendez was the hero in Argo, and the role of the Canadians almost reduced to that of innkeepers. Argo was soon criticized for taking liberties with the facts – an entirely invented concluding chase scene with police cars in hot pursuit of a jumbo-jet taking off – and failing to contextualize the story – yes the Canadian Government wanted the Americans out of Tehran quickly, as the movie states, but because of concern that Pelletier and other journalists who had the story would go public, a rationale it omitted.

Our Man in Tehran is a recently-released documentary that, based on interviews with observers of the Iranian Revolution and participants in the Canadian Caper, attempts to set the record straight. It is a revision of Argo, but not a negation of Argo. We do not return to the original pre-Argo understand of the Canadian Caper, but a deeper understanding that incorporates the activities of the CIA, the Canadian diplomats on the ground in Tehran, and the Canadian politicians in Ottawa.

Argo begins with a 5 minute comic book style summary of three decades of Iranian history leading up to the revolution. Our Man in Tehran, using lengthy interviews with then CBC correspondents Joseph Schlesinger and Carole Jerome, provides a much more comprehensive and nuanced view of the failings of the Shah and the dynamics of the Revolution that began when he fled Tehran. We are left with a better understanding of why Iran’s Islamic revolutionaries came to see the US as the great Satan and to storm its embassy.

Not only does Our Man in Tehran focus on Ken Taylor, but it also tells us about First Secretary John Sheardown, who was omitted entirely in Argo, but who sheltered some of the diplomats. (Sheardown passed away last year, but his widow Zena eloquently told his story).

A second Canadian omitted from Argo, but present in Our Man in Tehran, was political officer Roger Lucy. Lucy’s key point in the movie was that the CIA initially erred in the fake entry visas it placed in the forged passports because the dates were based on the western, not the Iranian, calendar. Lucy caught the error, and the passports had to be redone.

In his interview, Ken Taylor informed us that he was referred to by President Carter as “our man in Tehran,” because he led an effort to cooperate with the Americans by providing reconnaissance of Tehran, intended to be used in their planned military action to extricate the hostages being held at the US embassy. Taylor also discussed the CIA’s exfiltration plan, mentioning that the Canadians put together plans to have the six diplomats pose as either Canadian agronomists or a Canadian film crew intended to tell the “real” (hence sympathetic) story of the revolution. “But,” sighed Taylor, “the CIA wanted to do the Hollywood thing.”

In their interviews, then Foreign Minister Flora MacDonald and then Prime Minister Joe Clark recounted their decisions to support Taylor’s initiative in every way, including authorizing the production of fake Canadian passports. Because Opposition leader Pierre Trudeau was criticizing them for not being more supportive of the US, they decided to take him into their confidence by briefing him about the situation. They were astounded that Trudeau continued to “play politics” by keeping up his public criticism.

Lucy’s, Taylor’s, Clark’s, and MacDonald’s reflections all represent instances of someone putting their own story into the historical record, getting across their own point of view, or settling some historical scores. The Canadian caper was an important episode, and this is their right. I don’t know if any of them – like former CIA agent Tony Mendez – will write their memoirs. Memoirs, of course, are the traditional vehicle to tell your own story from your own point of view and to settle a few scores. But the documentary at least served as an opportunity.

As a spectator, I appreciated the new perspectives and information the documentary provided. It lacked the pace and dramatic tension of Argo – “the Hollywood thing” – but it told an essential story. It concluded with Bill Daugherty, a CIA agent who had been taken captive, held in solitary confinement, and tortured, pointing out that we rarely recognize real heroism, and Taylor’s work was certainly that. The Canadian Caper included smart tradecraft and a willingness to take risk in exercising that tradecraft, and both are worth remembering and celebrating.

 

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