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DIPLOMATIC DEVELOPMENTS RECALL CANADIAN CAPER

The announcement of the suspension of diplomatic relations with Iran and the expulsion of Iranian diplomats from Canada, last week, brought to mind the so-called “Canadian Caper”. That 1979 rescue effort ranks, in my lifetime at least, as one of the great, inspiring stories of workplace heroism.

The C.B.C. described the situation in Tehran at that time as follows. “In 1979 a cataclysmic revolution shook Iran, creating the world’s first Islamic republic and altering the balance of power in the Middle East. With the widely despised Shah of Iran forced into exile, spiritual leader Ayatollah Khomeini returned to oversee the country’s transformation. But peace was still elusive as student protesters overwhelmed the United States embassy in Tehran, taking hostages and launching a diplomatic crisis.”

When students swarmed over the walls of the U.S. embassy on November 4th of that year, a number of diplomats on the premises were forced to flee into the streets on foot. Some headed towards the British embassy. Prevented, by further volatile demonstrators, from accessing that safe haven, they were forced to hide out in a series of private residences as the political situation disintegrated around them.

Contact was made with a Canadian immigration officer, John Sheardown, who arranged for the fugitive Americans to get to his Tehran home, unnoticed. From there, two of the six were smuggled to the home of the Canadian Ambassador to Iran, Ken Taylor, while the other four remained with the Sheardowns.

The risk both hosts took in involving themselves directly in protecting the Americans was, of course, extremely high. The ongoing hostage crisis, in which 52 others taken from the embassy were held for over a year, had local and international tensions at an absolute peak. It was a long 79 days before the escape of the six Americans secretly biding their time in the Canadians’ care played out.

Taylor worked through the offices of Canada’s then Secretary of State for External Affairs (Flora MacDonald) and Prime Minister (Joe Clark). Canadian government officials worked with the American Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) to formulate a plan.

The six Americans were issued Canadian passports containing a set of forged Iranian visas produced by the CIA. The CIA also came up with a cover story, documents, and disguises to get the Americans out surreptitiously.

The cover story was that the Americans were part of a Hollywood film crew, working on a movie called “Argo”, scouting filming locations. Canadian Ambassador Ken Taylor was closely involved in sketching out the escape plan.

American CIA agent, Tony Mendez, who was closely involved in formulating the plan (he had “operational responsibility worldwide for disguise, false documentation, and forensic monitoring of questioned documents for counterterrorism or counterintelligence purposes”), later described the Canadian Caper as “the only true operational success of the hostage crisis”.

Mendez recalled the challenge of the situation. “We needed to find a way to rescue six Americans with no intelligence background… The stakes were high. A failed exfiltration operation would receive immediate worldwide attention and would seriously embarrass the U.S., its President, and the CIA. It would probably make life even more difficult for all American hostages in Iran. The Canadians also had a lot to lose; the safety of their people in Iran and security of their Embassy there would be at risk.”

Finally, on January 27, 1980, the disguised diplomats lifted off from the Tehran airport aboard a flight headed for Zurich, Switzerland and arrived there unharmed. The Canadian Embassy closed later that day and all personnel returned safely to Canada.

The six rescued diplomats, who owed their freedom, in part, to Ken Taylor and John Sheardown (and their spouses and the Canadian Embassy staff) were Robert Anders, Mark Lijek, Cora Lijek, Henry L. Schatz, Joseph Stafford, and Kathleen Stafford. All of them were in their late 20s and early 30s at the time – Anders was the oldest, at 34 years of age.

On February 11, 1980, after the caper was revealed, Time Magazine saluted the Canadian rescue effort. “A wave of thanks to a neighbor for saving six diplomats from Tehran. It had none of the lightning-flash finesse of Entebbe, none of the bloody ferocity of Mayaguez. Yet once again, however fleetingly, the frustration of dealing with the irrational acts of militants had been lifted by a single daring and dramatic deed.

The cunning maneuver executed by Canadian diplomats in secreting six Americans in hostile Tehran for almost three months and then spiriting them to safety last week provided a heartening interlude in Washington’s still unsuccessful struggle to free 50 hostages from their captors in chaotic Iran.

With a spontaneous gush of gratitude, Americans extended congratulatory hands across the border. It was as though the U.S. were almost surprised to find that it had a friend after all. Where other allies had nervously shunned sanctions and offered only rhetoric against Iran, Canada had literally come to the rescue.”

The (real) Hollywood film, “Argo”, telling the story of the Canadian Caper will be released into theatres later this year.

Robert Smithson is a labour and employment lawyer, and operates Smithson Employment Law in Kelowna. For more information about his practice, or to subscribe to You Work Here, visit www.smithsonlaw.ca. This subject matter is provided for general informational purposes only and is not intended as legal advice.