x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

Argo gives short shrift to vital Canadian diplomatic efforts

Argo, directed by Ben Affleck, doesn't fully encapsulate the role Canadians played in the 1978 Iranian hostage crisis, as "Our Man in Tehran" points out.

Ben Affleck, centre, as Tony Mendez in Argo, a film about the 1979 hostage crisis in Iran.
Ben Affleck, centre, as Tony Mendez in Argo, a film about the 1979 hostage crisis in Iran.

Ken Taylor had an overriding impression when he finally saw Argo, Ben Affleck's latest film.

"The movie is very topical because it vividly illustrates what can happen to a diplomatic mission during a revolution," says the 77-year-old former ambassador to Iran from his home in New York City.

Taylor was no ordinary diplomat. During one of the most pivotal crises in US history, he became "Our Man in Tehran", which is the title of a 2010 book by Robert Wright that made public a role even more crucial than previously thought. It was 33 years ago next week that Taylor and his wife Pat, together with another Canadian immigration agent and his spouse sheltered six American hostages who had managed to escape when Iranian students stormed the US Embassy. Taylor was instrumental in getting the six out of Iran using Canadian passports.

The experiences of those tense months had Taylor watching this September's attack on the US Embassy in Benghazi, Libya, which resulted in the death of J Christopher Stevens, the US ambassador, and four others, with more insight than most.

While Libyans were protesting against an American film that insulted Islam, and the Iranians in 1979 were angry that the US had given safe haven to the deposed shah, the situation has a bearing on all diplomats, he says.

"You can secure an embassy with your own forces, but when it comes down to it, you depend on the host government," he says.

When that host government falls or the country descends into chaos anything can happen.

"When this happened in Cairo or Benghazi, so many people thought back to Iran," says Taylor. "Who knows what country it will be tomorrow? It reminded so many Americans of a certain age."

What the film doesn't encapsulate quite as well, in Taylor's view, is the vital role played by his compatriots in what became widely known as The Canadian Caper.

Taylor became a public hero for his part in hiding and helping "exfiltrate" the six Americans - Robert Anders, Cora Amburn Lijek, Mark Lijek, Joseph and Kathleen Stafford and Lee Schatz - and was appointed an Officer of the Order of Canada and awarded the US Congressional Gold Medal, both in 1980.

Affleck's film is based on a screenplay that draws heavily from The Master of Disguise, a book, written by Antonio Mendez, the CIA agent the actor also portrays in the film. It was Mendez who cooked up the scheme central to Argo's plot: the hostages would get out of the country by pretending to be a film crew scouting locations for a Star Wars-style sci-fi movie.

This perspective skews what really happened, says Taylor - who was not consulted by the filmmakers.

In its final scenes, Victor Garber, the Canadian who plays Taylor, is shown being lauded post-escape, as are the six diplomats.

Affleck as Mendez is told he would get the highest honour a CIA agent can receive, however it would have to remain a secret. The viewer is left with the impression that the CIA executed the mission and the Canadians helped. Nothing could be further from the truth, according to Taylor.

"In truth, the CIA efforts complemented the Canadians," he says.

The film's ending - including a snarky postscript that rankled friends of Taylor's who saw the film when it screened at the Toronto International Film Festival (Tiff) in September - sparked an outcry in Canada, prompting this headline in the Toronto Star: "How Canadian hero Ken Taylor was snubbed by Argo".

It also created an unpleasant public relations situation for Affleck and the studio, Warner Brothers, threatening the film's October US opening.

That explains why Affleck called Taylor unexpectedly and invited him and his wife out to Los Angeles to hash over the issue in person. The trio spent the day together, which included a screening of the film and a lengthy discussion about it.

"Pat, myself and Ben Affleck did about an hour-and-a-half that will be edited for the DVD," says Taylor. "A recollection of what was bizarre, what was humorous."

During the trip, Taylor was invited to write a new postscript to the film, which now describes the CIA's involvement as "complementary" to the Canadians, not the other way around. He and his wife also had pride of place at a special screening in Washington last month, which Affleck told the Star was designed to be "a Thank-You Canada" event.

Affleck - who majored in Middle Eastern studies in university - had already addressed the issue, in part, at Tiff, explaining that the courage of the Canadians should not be diminished by the film's focus on the CIA effort.

"There were folks who didn't want to stick their necks out," he said. "The Canadians did. They said 'We'll risk ourselves, our diplomatic standing, our lives to harbour these six Americans that we owe nothing to' - just because it's the moral, right thing to do. They did it. As a result of that, those lives were saved. That is absolutely unchanged."

Argo, which has just hit number one at the US box office, is scheduled to screen in the UAE later this month.

The recent kerfuffle aside, Taylor does have some words of praise: "I thought what was portrayed really well was the chaos in Tehran at the time, the uneasiness, the retribution that went on among Iranians," he says. "I think the uncertainty about their future, the six, the desperation in the embassy trying to destroy the papers."

In a strange coincidence, the day the film screened at Tiff, Canada announced it would close its embassy in Tehran. Despite the continued uncertainty inside Iran, Taylor believes the closure was a mistake.

"A diplomatic presence is important during uncertain, tumultuous days."

He also believes the United States, which has not had an embassy in Iran since the hostage crisis, cannot have been pleased.

"I think everything considered, the US would prefer Canada to keep its embassy open," he says. "We provided a lot of intelligence, our views of what was going on, that was shared with the US government."

Taylor, who later served as consul-general to New York and now works as a consultant, has stayed in touch with the six diplomats over the years. In 2009, 30 years after their escape, four of them travelled to meet the former ambassador for a reunion in Ottawa, Canada's capital.

"We had a good time," says Taylor. "We embellished everything, particularly recollecting what happened. And you tend to forget the bad times."

He keeps in touch with Mendez, too - although he has not read his book. For a more balanced portrayal of the events during that time, he suggests hunting down the 1981 film called Escape From Iran: The Canadian Caper, which was based on a "heavily-sourced" book by Jean Pelletier.

For Taylor and his wife Pat, a research scientist at the Iranian blood transfusion service and lecturer at the University of Tehran, those final months in the country were about much more. With his son Douglas attending school in France, Pat kept working and Taylor conducted his business as ambassador - albeit in an extremely chaotic climate.

And as it was revealed in Wright's book, published on the 30th anniversary of the event, that Taylor and a military colleague were also busy gathering "aggressive intelligence", including providing logistical and tactical information for the aborted commando raid Operation Eagle Claw. Decades later, Taylor is characteristically understated about the experience.

"You applied yourself and you worked with what you had," he says. "It certainly wasn't a normal structure or a conventional day."

It was difficult, Taylor concedes, to leave Iran so abruptly.

"It was a country with great promise, a few issues, but no one thought it would end up in total upheaval," he says."You always regret leaving a country in distress."

Ann Marie McQueen is the editor of The National's Arts & Life section.