by Lauren Poole
Ben Affleck’s Argo proved a big winner at this year’s Academy Awards, and focused the world’s attention on an historical event quickly becoming relevant again: the American hostage crisis during the Iranian Revolution in 1979, and its fallout on Canadian and American domestic politics and international diplomacy. While a thrilling ride, Hollywood embellishments masked the true nature of the conflict, and buried the critical roles that Canadians played in the resolution of the crisis. Our Man in Tehran created a gripping and at times witty representation of the wholestory – our story.
A group of NPSIANs headed to the Bytowne Theater on Rideau, a vintage and wonderfully dingy-looking independent theater in the heart of Sandy Hill. With 30 minutes to go until the scheduled start time, people were already lined up for blocks. We joined the throng, and since seating was becoming scarce, spread ourselves around the theater. For the next 85 minutes, the entire theatre sat enthralled with a fascinating insider account of the ‘Canadian Caper.’ The story was told through personal interviews of those involved: hostages, diplomats, and high level politicians, lending valuable context to history and giving the audience the exceedingly rare opportunity to hear the rationale, the why, behind such crucial historical political decisions. The film accurately illustrated how the actions of one particular man were absolutely critical during the crisis- Ken Taylor, then Canadian Ambassador to Iran.
After the seizure of the American Embassy and all but six of its staff, the dangers mounting against Canadians in Tehran were very real – it was clear that those with diplomatic immunity were no longer ‘immune’ to the wrath of the new Ayatollah and his followers. Despite the risks, the documentary demonstrates the heroic actions not only of Ambassador Taylor but of his staff, and of the political courage of senior politicians in Ottawa, most notably then Prime Minister Joe Clark and his foreign minister Flora MacDonald, who had to endure public political backlash while maintaining absolute secrecy surrounding Canadian actions in Tehran. Since their operatives had been taken hostage along with the other American diplomats in the embassy, the CIA turned to Ambassador Taylor to act as their ‘man in Tehran’, and he, with his staff, secretly sheltered the six escaped Americans in their homes, organized the forging of Canadian identification and travel documents, and worked with the CIA to create Argo, an (overly, in his opinion) elaborate cover story designed to fool the Revolutionary Guard. Finally, the film depicted all the participants’ emotional reactions to the tragic outcome of Operation Eagle Claw. Giving a fascinating look at some of the world’s best known personalities, such as Jimmy Carter, Joe Clark, and the Ayatollah Khomeini and beautifully accented with a subtle musical score, the documentary is a rare glimpse into the inner workings of crisis diplomacy.
The panel discussion was not a disappointment – even for those of us sitting in the balcony! The documentary had created such an atmosphere that we felt as though the panel was an extension of the existing discussion. Questions from the audience were on point (for the most part) and the panelists (former Prime Minister Joe Clark, former Ambassador Ken Taylor and directors Larry Weinstein and Drew Taylor) answered questions honestly and graciously. Moderated by CBC’s Evan Solomon, the discussion was lively and would have gone on for hours had Evan not kept everything running like clockwork. In attendance were some primary participants, such as Flora MacDonald, and even some surprise guests such as former Governor General Michaelle Jean. Despite the rain, we left the theatre thoroughly impressed.
Our Man in Tehran successfully told the Canadian story – what really happened in Tehran – and left us with a renewed respect for those serving in the Canadian Foreign Service. Ken Taylor truly represents the best of diplomacy, of courage, of Canada.