I Was Rescued From Iran
It wasn’t like the movie.
Meeting with President Carter. The author, Mark Lijek, stands second from right.
White House photo.
Argo, Ben Affleck’s new movie about the rescue of six Americans from Iran, is a terrific thriller, even if you know the ending. I left the theater sweating—just as when I exited the airport bus to board a Swissair flight out of Tehran in January of 1980, one of the six Americans who were rescued by Tony Mendez, the CIA employee Affleck plays. Affleck’s version of events is not only a well-told tale, but a useful story, a necessary and enjoyable mechanism for introducing a younger generation to the origins of our confrontation with Iran. But for me, Argo is also a peek into a nightmarish alternate universe of how things might have been. Could I have survived three months under the stressful conditions depicted in the film? Would I have kept my cool if Iranian paramilitaries questioned my identity?
Fortunately, these are questions I never had to answer. Our Canadian hosts kept us confident and comfortable, and the plan hatched by Mendez worked even better than Argo suggests. As you may know by now, Mendez cooked up a fake movie production and suggested we pose as location scouts considering Iran for our film. That idea may sound crazy today, but we liked it right away, as I recall, and for three reasons. First, and most importantly, we bought the idea that Hollywood people would be so presumptuous as to think they could walk into the middle of a revolution and shoot a movie. Second, it was backstopped: The phone number on my fake business card would be answered, and we had a script, storyboards, and other paraphernalia. Lastly, the plan allowed the six of us to travel as a group, and support each other.
We liked the idea enough, in fact, that we chose it over two other scenarios that Tony also brought to us. In one of them, we would pose as businesspeople, in something petroleum-related, if I remember correctly. In the other, I think we were meant to be teachers looking for employment at an international school. But those two seemed like throwaways, and Tony did not try too hard to sell us on them. It was clear the organization and energy was focused on the Hollywood option. And they were right to be: While the movie presents myriad dramatic complications and last-minute twists and turns, the plan actually went off without a hitch.
Which is not to say that our situation was without real-life drama—just that most of it happened before Mendez arrived. Affleck tells his version from Tony’s perspective—and wisely, I think: A heroic CIA agent is a more natural Hollywood protagonist than people trapped in a house and their brave hosts. Besides, a traditional thriller can’t be overpopulated with all the people who play sometimes small but essential roles in a situation like ours. Still, it’s worth taking a moment to remember those other heroes, who sheltered the six of us for months at great personal risk—one of whom, essential to our survival, doesn’t appear in the movie at all.
On Nov. 4, 1979, when the American Embassy was overtaken, we did not stroll directly to the Canadian ambassador’s residence. While the attackers were seizing the main building, we were told to walk to the British embassy compound, 20 minutes away. We never made it there, because a demonstration blocked the way. Immigration chief Bob Anders (played by Tate Donovan in Argo) suggested we go instead to his nearby apartment. My wife Cora as well as Joe and Kathy Stafford, two other embassy employees, followed his lead. (The sixth member of our group, Lee Schatz, joined us a week later, after hiding with the Swedes.)
During the next week we changed locations five times. We spent one night at the British residential compound. The British embassy was also captured, though, albeit briefly, and there was a near attack on the residential compound itself. So both governments agreed we should move. Speaking fluent Thai to his part-time cook and housekeeper, nicknamed Sam, the deputy chief of mission in Iran, Vic Tomseth, arranged a transfer from the Brits to the house of another of Sam’s employers, who was already a hostage. By this time we had stopped trusting the foreign ministry—there was no longer even a pretense of structured government in Iran, and we were concerned someone at the ministry might try to score some points by turning us over to the people holding the embassy. The ability to arrange the move in Thai gave us some confidence that our plans were private.
Photo by Claire Folger/Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.
Even so, we knew that both the foreign ministry and our embassy had records of houses leased by U.S. employees. Sooner or later someone would check those records and go looking—we couldn’t stay in this new house for good. And a few days later, Sam got into a screaming fight with the housekeeper, who was also Thai. She was worried what her boss would think of strangers in his home; after the fight, she stormed off. Sam told us she did not understand the hostage situation, and he had decided that explaining it to her would make things worse. She was angry enough now, he said, that she might turn us in to the local revolutionary committee, or komiteh. He suggested we move to another house nearby, whose occupant he also worked for. He had a key. We went.
This house was on a corner and hugged the sidewalk on two sides. The stairway up to the bedrooms had a tall glass wall. The kitchen was exposed to the front sidewalk. Most importantly, it had been empty since the takeover and was certainly known to be U.S. property. If it were suddenly occupied, the komiteh would definitely notice.
Mark Lijek worked for the U.S. State Department for many years, and is the author of The Houseguests: A Memoir of Canadian Courage and CIA Sorcery.