Revisiting Canada's Contribution to Resolving the Iranian Hostage Crisis

Lead Story, April issue of Centerpoint

Apr 08, 2005

When Ayatollah Khomeini's Iranian Revolution took hold early in 1979, driving the Shah from the country, the Canadian Embassy scurried to evacuate the 850 Canadian workers in Iran and was preparing to wait out the chaos. Later that year, on November 4, 1979, a large contingent of students, street protesters, and Islamic militants stormed the U.S. Embassy compound in Tehran, taking more than 70 American occupants as hostages. Immediately, Canada offered its help.

Meanwhile, a long nightmare was just beginning for the Jimmy Carter administration that would dominate policymaking and headlines for 14 months before all hostages were safely back home.

On January 29, 1980, the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and the Canadian government conducted a successful undercover operation to evacuate six of the American hostages who had found refuge with Canadian diplomats in Tehran during the early months of the protracted hostage crisis and the revolution that had engulfed Iran. They returned to the United States during an otherwise tense diplomatic standoff between Washington and Tehran, while Canada earned the gratitude of a nation still transfixed on the uncertain fate of the more than 50 Americans who remained captive at the hands of the hostage-takers.

The Wilson Center's CANADA INSTITUTE and MIDDLE EAST PROGRAM hosted a conference on March 1, co-sponsored by the Canadian Embassy in Washington, to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the Congressional Gold Medal Award that Kenneth Taylor, the former Canadian ambassador to Iran, received for his role in providing safe haven to the six Americans during the crisis and planning their successful evacuation.

When the crisis first erupted, and street demonstrators stormed the U.S. embassy taking all personnel inside captive, a number of Americans, elsewhere at the time, eluded capture. Six of them were welcomed by Canadian diplomats, but nonetheless remained trapped in Tehran, unable to leave the country. They became permanent "houseguests" until their evacuation two months later. One of the six, Robert Anders, attended the Wilson Center's event.

The Right Honorable Joe Clark, then prime minister of Canada, immediately supported Ambassador Taylor's initiative on the ground. "My Foreign Minister Flora MacDonald literally came to me on the Floor of the House of Commons, told me what was happening, and the two of us decided on the spot that we would accept the Ambassador's recommendation and extend protection to the hostages," Clark recounted. In addition to a safe haven, Canadian officials wanted to grant them Canadian passports. But, said Clark, "We had a rather serious technical problem about issuing Canadian passports which naturally are only to be issued to Canadian citizens…Minister MacDonald and I took the matter to the Cabinet and I asked my colleagues to accept my judgment that there was a good reason for issuing six passports in an extraordinary circumstance, and they did that."

Clark applauded the skill, courage, and ingenuity of the Canadian Foreign Service for helping to see the Americans safely home. He said the cooperation during this period "demonstrates the close and quite fundamental bond between Canada and the United States despite our many and serious differences on other issues." Clark also spoke of the Canadian political context at the time, noting the challenges of maintaining operational secrecy and securing the cabinet's consent, all under the constraints of a minority government and the parliamentary system's daily question period. In this regard, the press too played a vital role, as both Canadian and U.S. journalists sat on the story until the six "houseguests" arrived home safely.

Taylor expressed his gratitude for the Congressional Gold Medal and commended Clark for his audacity and steadfast support in seeing through Canada's vital assistance to the United States, regardless of the potential political or diplomatic costs. He recounted the uncertainties in dealing with the emerging Iranian revolutionary regime and in assisting the six "houseguests" in the context of the ongoing hostage crisis. Ultimately, the need for secrecy prevailed, as did precautions to ensure the "houseguests" went undetected.

Ambassador Bruce Laingen, then U.S. chargé d'affaires at the embassy in Tehran who had found himself trapped in the Iranian Foreign Ministry as the U.S. Embassy fell to the protesters, related his experience throughout his 444 days of captivity. His sporadic contacts with foreign ambassadors allowed him to pass along written messages to Washington and these dispatches enabled the Carter administration to better gauge the situation in Tehran. Taylor was one of those who paid him visits at the Foreign Ministry, and thus Laingen was aware of Canadian assistance to six other Americans—and grateful.

"[We told] the Iranian Foreign Service officers on the American Desk in the building that we had six Americans loose in town," said Laingen, "but we knew that intelligence passed to them wouldn't stay secret for very long. So we needed special help from Ken Taylor on how to get them out of there fast before the ‘houseguests' were discovered."

Laingen praised Taylor and his staff for his assistance and wise counsel. "There had not been the slightest hesitation when the six first sought refuge with [the Canadian staff] and there was none thereafter" he said. The risks were great but Taylor persevered "both in keeping the presence of the six unknown and in the complex process of arrangements among the diplomatic and intelligence communities of both governments." Following the crisis, Taylor closed the Canadian Embassy in Tehran and departed the country with his staff.

The mission to extract the six Americans from Tehran came to be known as the "Canadian Caper." Laingen said, "January 29 [1980] saw the safe departure of the six Americans, each with Canadian passports, forged Iranian visas, and the best Canadian accents they could muster."

Antonio J. Mendez, a former CIA officer who was part of the undercover rescue team, explained the details of the cover story used for the mission. Creating a credible cover was essential in addition to securing passports from a country whose citizens the American "houseguests" could credibly represent. The group of six would exit Tehran as a scouting crew working for a fictitious Hollywood production company, "Studio 6." They boarded a Swissair flight at Tehran's international airport, with forged Iranian immigration slips in their Canadian passports, and returned home to a hero's welcome.

Bill Berkeley, former reporter and editorial writer for the New York Times, described the U.S. media's enthusiastic coverage of the "Canadian Caper." The American public was ecstatic and grateful to Canada once the story of the rescue was aired. In contrast, the Iranian press at the time reacted with threats and promises of revenge. Berkeley went on to detail the lives of some of the hostage-takers, some of whose later activities as reformist politicians and journalists belie their activities during the revolution.

Reflecting on that time, Laingen said, "Canada had demonstrated for all Americans to see the quality of a true and good neighbor…In the ministry our spirits had never been higher with the news that all concerned were safely out of Iran…In a crunch, [Canadians] are our closest and most reliable friends, and we should not forget that."

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