What It Was Really Like To Be Saved From Tehran

Arts, entertainment, and more.
Oct. 18 2012 11:29 AM

I Was Rescued From Iran

It wasn’t like the movie.

(Continued from Page 1)

It was then that we discussed again a call that Bob Anders had made several days before. Early in the ordeal, Bob had telephoned two friends. One, an Australian, was willing to help but lived in a small apartment. The other was Bob’s Canadian counterpart, John Sheardown. When Bob called him, John’s immediate response was “Why didn’t you call sooner?” Bob told him there were five of us. John insisted, “Bring ’em all.” After our experience with the British we had doubts about foreign embassies, and we did not want to impose ourselves on anyone. So for days we had put off accepting John’s offer. But this new house that Sam suggested was a guarantee of capture. Bob called John. John called the Brits. They picked us up on Nov. 10.

It was hard saying goodbye to Sam. He had done his best for us. But we needed to sever all links to the former American community, and we did not tell him where we were going. Bob, the only one in our group with money, offered some to Sam. He turned it down. His house was raided four days after we left.

When we arrived at John’s house, he was watering the sidewalk—not an uncommon practice given Tehran’s dust problem, but in this case an excuse for leaving the garage door open, so that the Brits could drop us off without drawing too much attention. John took us upstairs and introduced us to a younger man named Taylor, who I assumed was his assistant. Taylor was having drinks with John’s wife Zena. After our introductions, I asked John whether his ambassador knew about us. Taylor was the ambassador, I was embarrassed to realize. The prime minister, Joe Clark, had personally approved the offer of sanctuary, Taylor told us, and he said it was to the finish. The Canadians were committed to keeping us until the crisis ended or until they could get us out. For the first time since the takeover I believed we were going to get out of Iran.

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Our living arrangements were comfortable. The Staffords went to the Taylor residence. We other three remained with the Sheardowns. John became our substitute father and Zena our buffer against the outside world, answering the door and telephone, dealing with the gardener—who had ties to the komiteh. The landlord was trying to sell the house, so she had to contend with him and with visits from potential buyers. We needed to stay invisible; she helped ensure that we did.

When Tony Mendez arrived on Jan. 26, 1980, we were ready to leave. The hostage crisis was no closer to resolution. We had asked Taylor in early January to tell Washington we wanted out. Each day we stayed in Iran added to the risk of capture. Furthermore, our presence was becoming an impediment to a possible negotiated hostage release—because if somehow there had been a breakthrough in the negotiations, the United States would have had to acknowledge our existence and ask us to be released, too. This might pose a problem for the Iranians, who presumably would have wanted to claim that they had interrogated all of the hostages before letting them go. There was no room for us in that scenario. How do the Iranians let us go and still save face?

It never came to that—and John Sheardown may well be the indispensable reason why. Without his enthusiastic welcome we might have tried to survive on our own a few more days. We would have failed.

And so it was hard, sitting at the swanky Los Angeles premiere the other day, not to see John in the movie. I understand, though, why he couldn’t be there. Argo already had more characters than a typical thriller, and adding the Sheardowns would not have enhanced the drama. Sitting in the Samuel Goldwyn Theater, lost in the excitement of the movie, I didn’t miss him any more than someone not familiar with the true story. He has been honored elsewhere, written about in books by myself, Tony Mendez, and the historian Robert Wright. He deserves it.

The film’s biggest shock? The voiceover from Jimmy Carter at the end. In comments about the incident that I had never heard before, Carter says our chance of success was 50 percent. 50?! I thought it was much higher. Another gut check. Would we have gone with Tony at 50 percent?

I’ll never know.

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