‘Canadian Caper’ in Iran exposed by diplomat

On anniversary of the hostage-taking crisis, then-Canadian ambassador discusses operation to rescue American diplomats.

Ken Taylor
Former Canadian Ambassador to Iran Ken Taylor discusses the 'Canadian Caper' [Jet Belgraver/Al Jazeera]

Toronto, Canada – The new Hollywood film “Argo” revisits an operation to rescue six Americans after angry Iranian protesters stormed the US Embassy and took more than 50 hostages on November 4, 1979. On the 33rd anniversary, Canada’s then-Ambassador Ken Taylor discusses his country’s role in helping the Americans escape Iran – and how “Argo” does not adequately reflect that history. 

Ken Taylor, former Canadian Ambassador to Iran

Q. What were your impressions of “Argo”, as a movie-goer and as Ken Taylor, former Canadian ambassador, and a man portrayed in the film?

A. From both views, I enjoyed the movie. It’s a thriller. It’s also very pertinent and timely, particularly keeping in mind the tragedy in Benghazi, that diplomacy is a dangerous game these days. The movie underplays, diminishes the Canadian role. We worked very well, that is Canada, with the CIA, and it had a good conclusion.

Q. Had anyone from the movie, before it was being made, while it was being made, spoken to you, contacted you?

A. No. I was not contacted at all.

Q. Why do you think they didn’t seek any input from you, including the actor who played you?

A. I’m not sure, it’s a bit puzzling. I was a bit bemused at the time because I guess due to circumstances, I was pretty much the only person who knew what was going on. The six diplomats were of course, confined to quarters. Tony Mendez, the CIA agent who worked very diligently on it, only really spent a day and a half, two days in Tehran. But I guess the producers and directors wanted to feature a US role.

“One magazine here writes it quite properly, that Ben Affleck rewrites history. It was a Canadian Caper, done in cooperation with CIA, but very much a Canadian operation.”

– Ken Taylor, former Canadian diplomat

Q. So what were the glaring differences that stood out for you?

A. I think the Canadians were very active, in the movie they are very passive. There are also a couple of comments that don’t ring entirely true. One is a conversation between myself and Tony Mendez, and I say, “I’ve got instructions from Ottawa to close the embassy, so we better move the departure ahead”. It’s inconceivable that Canada would even think of closing the embassy until the US diplomats had left.

Q. In one review and critique of the film, I read that you were portrayed basically as a glorified innkeeper, giving accommodation to these men, rather than someone who was absolutely at the centre of rescuing them.

A. (Laughs) Yes, sort of like a congenial concierge. Another role that does not appear in the movie is the role of my colleagues in Ottawa, because all of the documentation for their departure – passports, academic backgrounds, business cards, credit cards – all came from Ottawa.

Q. This was known at the time as the “Canadian Caper”. The movie suggests that was a necessity to cover up the CIA role. What was the actual truth there?

A. One magazine here writes it quite properly, that Ben Affleck rewrites history. It was a Canadian Caper, done in cooperation with CIA, but very much a Canadian operation

Q. You talked earlier of the risks and dangers of diplomacy. How dangerous did it feel to you at the time?

A. It was an odd period. We’d just lived through the height of the revolution, the Shah’s [Mohammad Reza Pahlavi] departure, the Ayatolla’s [Ruhollah Musavi Khomeini] arrival. If you can become accustomed to a country in chaos, no police force, no army, no judicial recourse and lots of scores being settled, that was the setting in Tehran.

Q. There must have been moments of trepidation even doubt about what you were doing?

A. We tried to appear as if it was a normal life. We still entertained and our “houseguests”, as we called them, would go upstairs quietly so there was a semblance of normal life. But in the back of all our minds, particularly the Canadian Embassy staff, there was always the sense that something could go wrong.

A. One of the things the film skates over rather quickly, is the fact that as the hostages were taken out of the country, you and your wife had to leave rather quickly and close the embassy down.

A. What happened was that I’d bought three separate airline tickets for three separate airlines with cash. Pat, my wife, had got some back-pay from work, and I said, “Great, can I have it? I will pay you back (laughs).” Pat still feels she hasn’t been paid back. I used that to buy the airline tickets and then instructed the driver to take the US diplomats to the airport, park in the diplomatic compound, and then I told the six diplomats that if they were uneasy or having difficulty going through customs, go back to the cars and back to our house. The diplomats left in the morning. I left with an army sergeant, two communicators and a colleague late afternoon, after posting a sign “Canadian Embassy temporarily closed”. It was actually closed for the next eight years.

Ken Taylor shakes hands with the Shah in the late 1970s 

Q. There’s a scene in the film where Tony Mendez, the CIA agent, changes a visa in one of the Canadian passports. I’ve read that it was actually a Canadian diplomat who did that?

A. That was a lifesaver. Roger Lucie, my colleague who read Farsi, detected in the first set of passports we got that it was the wrong calendar: the Shah’s calendar instead of the new calendar introduced by the Ayatollah, so actually they would have left before they arrived. (If detected) There would have been consequences.

Q. Tell me about the aftermath, after the escape and the outpouring of gratitude that you received.

A. I was astounded. I expected some congratulations, but there was so much pent up frustration: “What did we do to deserve this? We thought we were friends with Iran.” It was temporary relief, it was good news, a simple story, a good conclusion, and broke up the 444 days. There was a lot of free beer, free ski passes – a lot of Canadians had some intangible benefits for a while.

Q. And you felt some of that gratitude?

A. Pat and I travelled for a year in the US talking about diplomacy and Canada to our US friends, and then I was posted to New York as consul-general. Americans were very generous in their thanks – often times it was “thank you very much”.

Q. You still keep an eye on Iran?

A. It becomes embedded in you, after three tumultuous years, 32 years later I still have very vivid memories, good memories of our friends. The Iranians are extremely hospitable and gracious. We had marvelous years there, half with the Shah and half with the Ayatollah, very different contrasts both in the way of life and personal aspirations of Iranians citizens.

Q. Have you been back?

A. No. I’m sure some Iranians would welcome me, others though may have a long memory and find they were offended by what Canada did and I would be the obvious one to point to.

Q. Iran is very much in the news … what do you think of the way the West is handling Iran?

A. I think it’s the right path, that the sanctions are beginning to bite. Whether it will cause change in the political direction, I’m not sure. I find the approach right now is certainly preferable to the alternative, which is some sort of bombing raid which in my own mind would be relatively ineffective, and have short-term consequences.

“The efforts of the CIA complemented the Canadian initiative to see the diplomats safely home. To this day this story stands as a testament of international cooperation and friendship.

– ‘Argo’ postscript

Q. Recently Canada closed its embassy – what did you think of that?

A. I was puzzled. To me Iran is key to stability, not only in the Middle East but globally, and that’s where you want a diplomat to be. You want the intelligence. You want a sense of what the people think, and partly because the US Embassy has been closed. I think it was helpful to have the Canadian Embassy there. I would have seen it as important and useful to maintain a presence, however limited, as long as your diplomats weren’t in dire straits or the security question was paramount.

Q. Back to the film then, please tell me about when Ben Affleck finally called you.

A. I got a call, I was surprised. We didn’t know each other, and he asked to get together. I said that makes sense. So went to LA, saw the movie and spent the rest of the day with Affleck. Very affable obviously, as a director this would be his 3rd film, at the top of his game. The movie was made, however. So what we did do was change the postscript, which gave an indicative of the cooperation, and that the CIA complemented the Canadian efforts – it wasn’t the other way around.  What it now says is, “The efforts of the CIA complemented the Canadian initiative to see the diplomats safely home. To this day this story stands as a testament of international cooperation and friendship.”

Source: Al Jazeera