The "Canadian Caper" was the popular name given to the joint covert rescue by the Canadian government and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) of six American diplomats who had evaded capture during the seizure of the United States embassy in Tehran, Iran, and taking of embassy personnel as hostages by Islamist students and militants on November 4, 1979.
The "caper" involved CIA agents (Tony Mendez and a man known as "Julio") joining the six diplomats to form a fake film crew made up of six Canadians, one Irishman and one Latin American who were finishing scouting for an appropriate location to shoot a scene for the nominal science-fiction film Argo. The ruse was carried off on the morning of Sunday, January 27, 1980, at the Mehrabad Airport in Tehran. The eight Americans successfully boarded a Swissair flight to Zürich and escaped Iran. The 2012 film Argo, which won three Academy Awards and three BAFTA awards including Best Picture, is a fictionalized cinematic representation of the operation.
When the Islamist Iranian Revolution occurred, the U.S.-backed Shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, fled the country, leaving it in disarray. Amid the turmoil, a mob of youthful Islamists, calling themselves the Muslim Student Followers of the Imam's Line, stormed the U.S. Embassy in Tehran on November 4, 1979, capturing dozens of diplomats and holding them hostage, demanding the return of the Shah. The provisional government fell shortly thereafter, when Prime Minister Mehdi Bazargan and his cabinet resigned. Although the new Iranian government stated that the hostage-takers were merely students acting on their own, it joined in demands for the return of the Shah. Most of the hostages were held until early 1981.
Robert Anders, Cora Amburn-Lijek, Mark Lijek, Joseph Stafford, Kathleen Stafford and Lee Schatz were the six American diplomats who were harboured by Canadian diplomats Ken Taylor and John Sheardown and exfiltrated from Tehran in 1980. They were working in the consulate, a separate building in the embassy compound, when the Iranians swarmed over the wall. Two groups of diplomats fled into Tehran's streets with orders to walk to the British Embassy: The Anders group, along with two Americans seeking consular services (one, a man named Kim King, eventually obtained an exit visa and was able to get a plane out of Iran with the help of a local embassy employee); and another group, including Consul General Richard Morefield, that took an indirect route and were soon captured and returned to the compound. The Anders group neared the British embassy, but saw a huge crowd staging a protest in their path. Robert Anders invited the others to his home, as he lived nearby. That began a six-day odyssey as the group, aided by Thai cook Somchai "Sam" Sriweawnetr, went from house to house and spent one night at the British residential compound. After three days, the Bazargan government fell, and everyone realized the ordeal would not be over quickly. Looking for options, Anders contacted his old friend John Sheardown, a Canadian immigration officer, and received an enthusiastic invitation for the entire group. On November 10, the five arrived at the Sheardown residence, where, in addition to John and Zena Sheardown, they were greeted by Canadian Ambassador Ken Taylor. The Staffords joined Ken and his wife Pat at their home, while the other three stayed with the Sheardowns. Two weeks later, Lee Schatz, from the US Agriculture Department, joined the Staffords at the Taylor home. He had initially slept on the floor at the Swedish embassy and had then stayed at the apartment of Swedish consul Cecilia Lithander. The six were now in hiding and would remain there for 79 days.
The operation itself was initiated at great personal risk by the Canadian ambassador to Iran, Ken Taylor, and Canadian immigration officer John Sheardown who provided sanctuary in their own private residences for the six endangered American diplomats. Two "friendly-country" embassy officials assisted as well, and an unoccupied diplomatic residence was used for several weeks.
Ambassador Taylor contacted then Canadian Secretary of State for External Affairs Flora MacDonald and Canadian Prime Minister Joe Clark for assistance, who expressed support for the effort. They decided to smuggle the six Americans out of Iran on an international flight using Canadian passports. To do so, an Order in Council was made to issue Canadian passports to the American diplomats in Canadian sanctuary. The passports that were issued contained a set of forged Iranian visas prepared by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency that would be used to attempt an escape from Iran.
The CIA enlisted its disguise and exfiltration expert, Tony Mendez, to provide a cover story, documents, appropriate clothing and materials to change their appearance. Mendez worked closely with Canadian government staff in Ottawa, who forwarded the passports and other supporting material to the Canadian embassy through a Canadian diplomatic courier. Mendez then flew to Tehran with an associate known as "Julio" to assist with the rescue. Julio and Mendez had previously worked together in the CIA's Office of Technical Service (OTS) branch. There were alternate passports and identities for a variety of scenarios, but the cover story selected had the six being a Hollywood crew scouting movie locations. The elaborate back-story involved a film named Argo, for a Middle-Eastern feel, and a functioning office in Hollywood set up with the help of John Chambers, a veteran Hollywood make-up artist. The script used had been based on the 1967 Roger Zelazny science fiction novel Lord of Light. The six were told that telephone calls to the "Studio Six" office in Los Angeles would be answered. Display ads for the "Studio Six" production were placed in Hollywood publications and one paper was carried by Cora Lijek as part of her cover materials. To make the cover up believable, Mendez and Chambers established an office at Sunset Gower Studios on Sunset Boulevard at actor Michael Douglas's former office during the film The China Syndrome (1979). In addition to the office, fake business cards were printed, a film party was held at a nightclub in Los Angeles, and advertisements were taken out in Variety and The Hollywood Reporter magazines. Robert Sidell, a friend of Chambers, and also a makeup artist, later known for E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982), posed as a film producer, while his wife Joan posed as the receptionist of their fake production company. Chambers was later awarded CIA's Intelligence Medal of Merit.
A mistake was made in dating the visas. Whoever prepared them was unaware that the Iranian year begins at the spring equinox. One of the Canadian embassy officers spotted the mistake while checking the documents. Fortunately, extra passports had been included, so Mendez was able to insert new visa stamps with dates based on the Iranian calendar.
As the weeks passed, the Americans read and played games, mainly cards and Scrabble, while Taylor made efforts to fly out non-essential personnel. Taylor sent others on fake errands to establish erratic patterns and to case airport procedures. Tension rose as suspicious telephone calls and other activity indicated that their concealment might have been discovered.
Early in the morning on Sunday, January 27, 1980, Mendez, "Julio", and the six American diplomats, traveling with real Canadian passports and forged entry documents, made it easily through security at Tehran's Mehrabad Airport. After a short delay because of mechanical difficulties with the jet airliner, the group of eight boarded Swissair flight 363 for Zürich, Switzerland. By coincidence, the aircraft was named Aargau, after the Aargau canton in northern Switzerland. Upon landing in Zürich, the six diplomats were taken by CIA operatives to a mountain lodge safe house for the night. There, they were told that, for diplomatic purposes, they would not be able to talk to the press, and that they would be kept hidden in a secret location in Florida until the hostage situation was resolved. Mendez and Julio continued to Frankfurt, Germany, where Mendez wrote his after-action report. The next day, the story broke in Montreal, written by Jean Pelletier, then the Washington correspondent for La Presse; it was quickly picked up by the international press. The six diplomats were driven by the CIA from Switzerland to Ramstein Air Base in West Germany to be flown across the Atlantic to Dover Air Force Base in Delaware.
After the six American guests left on Monday, January 28, the Canadian embassy was closed that same day, with Taylor and the remaining staff returning to Canada. The six Americans arrived home on January 30, 1980.
The six rescued American diplomats:
- Robert Anders, 54 – Consular officer
- Mark J. Lijek, 29 – Consular officer
- Cora A. Lijek, 25 – Consular assistant
- Henry L. Schatz, 31 – Agricultural attaché
- Joseph D. Stafford, 29 – Consular officer
- Kathleen F. Stafford, 28 – Consular assistant
The Canadians involved in the rescue were appointed to the Order of Canada, Canada's second-highest civilian award. They included:
- Ambassador Taylor and his wife Patricia Taylor
- Immigration Officer Sheardown and his wife Zena Sheardown
- Mary Catherine O'Flaherty - communications officer
- Roger Lucy - Political officer and first secretary for the Canadian Embassy.
- Laverna Katie Dollimore - personal secretary for Ambassador Taylor
Zena Sheardown, a British subject born in Guyana, would normally have been ineligible, but was awarded the membership on an honorary basis due to the intervention of Flora MacDonald. Taylor was subsequently awarded the Congressional Gold Medal by the United States Congress for his assistance to the United States of America.
Pelletier had uncovered some of the facts concerning the escaped diplomats before January 28, 1980, but he did not publish the story in order to preserve the safety of those involved, despite the considerable news value to the paper and writer. Several other news organizations were also in possession of some elements of the story. Pelletier's article ran on January 29 as soon as he knew the hostages had left Iran, but by exposing the operation, the story demolished plans by the U.S. to secretly house the six Americans in Florida while the hostage drama continued. The Argo story was blown, but the CIA role was kept secret by both the U.S. and Canadian governments at the time for the safety of the remaining hostages; its full involvement was not revealed until 1997.
Officially, Jimmy Carter had maintained for negotiation purposes that all of the missing American diplomats were held hostage, so the rescue came as a complete surprise to the public. American gratitude for the Canadian rescue effort was displayed widely and by numerous American television personalities and ordinary people alike, with Taylor a particular focus of attention. The Canadian flag was flown across the U.S., along with "Thank You" billboards.
In popular culture
In 1981, a television movie about the Canadian Caper was made, Escape from Iran: The Canadian Caper, directed by Lamont Johnson, with Ken Taylor played by Gordon Pinsent. It was based on the original cover story as the story of Argo had not yet been declassified. The movie was filmed in and around Toronto, and was an American-Canadian co-production. A children's illustrated book about the event was written by 2013 Eric Hoffer Award-winner Laura Scandiffio and Stephen MacEachern entitled Escapes!
The critically and commercially successful film Argo, based loosely on this event, was released in North American cinemas on October 12, 2012. In the film, the role of John Sheardown and his wife Zena were omitted for reasons of length and cost. The film includes elements of both fact and fiction. In particular, the film focuses largely on the role the CIA played in the operation and minimizes the heavy involvement of the Canadians. Former President Jimmy Carter acknowledged this in an interview in 2013, whilst also praising the film. In addition, the film incorrectly states that the six American diplomats were turned away by the British and New Zealand embassies. The American diplomats actually spent one night in a British diplomatic compound before it was agreed by all involved that the residence of the Canadian Ambassador would be better suited. Argo won three Oscars, including Best Picture, at the 85th Academy Awards on February 24, 2013.
The events were covered in historian Robert Wright's 2010 book Our Man in Tehran, and a companion documentary film which was released in 2013.
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- Mendez, Antonio J. (2009). The Master of Disguise: My Secret Life in the CIA. New York: HarperCollins. ISBN 978-0-06-186530-5.
- Pelletier, Jean; Adams, Claude (1981). The Canadian Caper. Toronto: Macmillan of Canada. ISBN 978-0-7715-9583-7.
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