Revisiting Canada's Contribution to Resolving the Iranian Hostage Crisis
Speakers: The Right Honorable Joe Clark, former Prime Minister of Canada; Ambassador Kenneth Taylor, former Canadian Ambassador to Iran; Antonio J. Mendez, former CIA intelligence officer; Ambassador Bruce Laingen, former Chargé d'affaires, United States Embassy in Tehran; Bill Berkeley, Adjunct Professor of International and Public Affairs, Columbia University and former reporter and editorial writer for The New York Times.
On January 29, 1980, the six Americans who for several months had found refuge with Canadian diplomats in Tehran were whisked away in a successful undercover CIA mission from the revolution that had engulfed Iran. The six Americans returned to a hero's welcome to the United States during what had otherwise been a period of successive disappointments for U.S. diplomacy, transfixed at the time on the fate of more than fifty Americans still held hostage in Tehran following the storming of the U.S. embassy nearly three months earlier.
The Canada Institute and the Middle East Program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars hosted a conference on March 1, 2005 to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the presentation of the Congressional Gold Medal Award to Ken Taylor, the former Canadian ambassador to Iran. Taylor received the medal for his role in providing safe haven to six Americans during the crisis and planning their successful evacuation from Iran. The Canadian Embassy in Washington, D.C. co-sponsored this event.
On November 4, 1979 when the crisis erupted and the street demonstrators outside the U.S. embassy in Tehran stormed the compound taking all personnel inside captive, a number of Americans outside the compound eluded capture. The hostages, including Bruce Laingen, were held captive for 444 days at other locations. Another six, however, escaped this ordeal but nonetheless remained trapped in Tehran, unable to leave the country. They appealed for help and were welcomed by Canadian diplomats–the Sheardowns and the Taylors. For the following months, these six Americans became their permanent "houseguests." One of the six, Robert Anders, attended the Wilson Center's event.
The Right Honorable Joe Clark, prime minister of Canada at the time, had immediately supported Ambassador Taylor's initiative on the ground and authorized Canadian passports to be issued to these six American "houseguests." Clark applauded Ambassador Taylor's skill, courage, and ingenuity in seeing the Americans safely home. Clark also spoke of the Canadian political context during a time of minority government. The greatest challenge was maintaining secrecy of the operation to evacuate the six Americans while at the same time securing the consent of the Canadian Cabinet. In a parliamentary system where ministers face daily probes from parliamentarians during a question period on a variety of issues, ensuring operational security and secrecy was essential. The press played a vital role in this regard, as Bill Berkeley remarked. Both Canadian and U.S. journalists, including Jean Pelletier from La Presse who was the first to figure out that several Americans were living with Canadian diplomats, sat on the story until the six "houseguests" returned home safely.
Ambassador Ken Taylor expressed his gratitude for the Congressional Gold Medal and commended Joe Clark for his audacity and steadfast support in seeing through Canada's vital assistance to their U.S. counterparts, regardless of the potential political and diplomatic costs. Taylor had confronted uncertainties regarding the Iranian regime and its relations with foreign nations. Likewise, the uncertainty surrounding the U.S. embassy seizure and the fate of the hostages made planning for the evacuation of the six "houseguests" under Canadian protection complex. If the hostages in the embassy were to be released within days, ought the Canadian diplomats then to reveal the presence of another six Americans in their midst? Ultimately, secrecy was of capital importance, and all manner of precautions to ensure the houseguests went undetected became the norm.
Ambassador Bruce Laingen, who found himself trapped in the Iranian foreign ministry as the U.S. embassy fell to the protesters, recounted his experience throughout the hostage crisis. His captivity differed from that of his fellow Americans held in the U.S. embassy compound: he still had sporadic contact with foreign ambassadors who were able to pass along his written messages to Washington—the "Laingen dispatches"—which in turn helped the senior officials in the Carter administration better understand 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 protect six other Americans. Taylor's assistance was much appreciated: "The United States could not have had better counsel than his." However, security concerns prevented extensive conversations on how Canada planned to help the "houseguests" leave the country.
Their successful evacuation came to be known as the "Canadian Caper." Antonio J. Mendez, a former CIA officer who was part of the agency's team that carried out this mission, explained how the U.S. government prepared and carried out this undercover "exfiltration." Political support was swift, but the devil was in the details: 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 for a fictitious Hollywood production company, "Studio 6." They departed on a Swissair flight from Tehran international airport with forged immigration slips in their Canadian passports.
Bill Berkeley provided a fitting backdrop for the "Canadian Caper" by portraying the media's response to the safe return of the six Americans who had been stranded in Tehran and Canada's pivotal role in harboring them from the Iranian revolutionary regime. The media and the American public were ecstatic toward Canada, and expressed heartfelt gratitude once the story of the rescue was made public. Berkeley also gave a flavor of Iranian reactions to the news of the "Canadian Caper" some of them threatening, others contradictory, each reflecting power struggles between the revolutionary regime and the traditional political elites. He 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.