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.

Meeting with President Carter. Lijek stands second from right to left.
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.

Tate Donovan, Rory Cochrane, Clea DuVall, Scoot McNairy, Joe Stafford, Christopher Denham and Kerry Bishé in Argo.
Tate Donovan, Rory Cochrane, Clea DuVall, Scoot McNairy, Joe Stafford, Christopher Denham and Kerry Bishé in Argo

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.

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.

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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