The best bad idea they had

It didn’t seem like a good idea at all. Rescuing six American diplomats – Bob Anders, Mark Lijek, Cora Lijek, Joseph Stafford, Kathleen Stafford and Lee Schatz – from right under the nose of the Iranians in the middle of a revolution spanning 444 days in which 52 other American hostages had been captured, was a proposition that bordered on the impossible.

And when CIA exfiltration specialist Tony Mendez suggested creating a fake Hollywood science fiction movie, posing as its producer who is scouting for locations, flying in solo to Tehran and flying out with the six Americans pretending to be his crew, the proposition turned ridiculous. But then again, some propositions are so ridiculous, they can only be a success.

(Clockwise from left to right) Kerry Bish as Kathy Stafford,  Scoot McNairy as Joe Stafford, Tate Donovan as Bob Anders, Rory Cochrane as Lee Schatz, Clea Duvall as Cora Lijek and Christopher Denham as Mark Lijek in Argo

Iran calling
Born in Detroit in 1951, Lijek, who now leads a retired life with his wife, Cora Lijek and two children in Northwest, Washington, was only 27 and newly married, when he was “asked to volunteer” in the trouble region of Iran as part of the United States of America’s Foreign Service. “In hindsight, it was probably stupidity that made me take it up,” he chuckles. “But it was my very first assignment, and I got the offer in November 1978, when there was no real indication that there would be any danger.”

By the time Lijek landed in Tehran in July 1979, he realised that he had been terribly wrong. The ruling monarch of the Pahlavi dynasty, Shah Reza Mohammad Pahlavi, had been overthrown and religious leader, Ayatollah Khomeini, had come to power. Armed gangs, called the revolutionary committees had taken over every neighbourhood. It was the US government’s confidence that American diplomats wouldn’t be in danger that made Lijek and Cora, carry on in Iran. But within four months of his posting there, on November 4, 1979, the American embassy was attacked.

The attack and the escape
Lijek vividly remembers the day. “We only had two US marines guarding the 26-acre compound of the American embassy. We got fortunate on two accounts — the tourist visa section, where we were holed up, was shut that day, and our building had direct access to a back lane, where visa applicants would normally line up.

The original Argo poster that was used by the hostages to escape in 1979

I suppose the protestors assumed there was no one inside, but even then, people climbed into our second floor bathrooms through a ladder, as the only marine with us pushed it away and threw a tear gas bomb. As we blocked the entrance with coat hangers, our generator went off and we were in total darkness. We then smelled smoke and heard people on our roof, and it was the most nerve-wracking moment of my life. When we realised that no help was coming, we got the permission from the Counsel General to escape through the back entrance.”

After this dramatic escape, for the next six days, the five Americans (Lee Schatz joined them later) changed several locations to escape being caught. “It was too dangerous to stay with the Brits, because they were attacked themselves,” Lijek recalls. “We moved in the day, trying to pass off as Iranians, because there were roadblocks and checks at night. I remember one night we didn’t sleep at all expecting to be attacked any moment but the guard of the compound managed to convince the revolutionaries that there were no foreigners where we hid, and we had a narrow escape.”

This is when the Canadians came to the rescue. Bob Anders had a friend in the Canadian embassy, John Sheardown, the Canadian Chief of Immigrations, who graciously welcomed them to take refuge in his house. Anders, Schatz and the Lijeks stayed in the Sheardowns’ residence, while the Staffords stayed at the house of Canadian ambassador, Ken Taylor.

79 days of confusion
Finally having got a place to hide, the houseguests had a “pleasant time” thanks to their Canadian hosts. But then days turned into weeks, and weeks into months and there was still no sign of a rescue. A scary realisation crept amongst them: “If the negotiations between the US and the Ayatollah regime would have worked out and they would have released the hostages, we couldn’t have gone with them because in the eyes of the Ayatollah, we didn’t even exist,” says Lijek.

“By suddenly turning up, we could have put the negotiations as well as the lives of the hostages in danger. Plus, every day we stayed with the Canadians, we were putting them in danger too. In the meantime, an American businessman who had escaped independently, and who knew about us, revealed it to the press. Luckily for us, the news didn’t get picked up by the media at large. So it had become clear to us that we would need a rescue independent of the outcome of the hostage negotiation!”

Their prayers were answered on January 26 when CIA exfiltration expert, Tony Mendez walked in, under his cover name, Kevin Harkins, and told them that he would get them out of Iran. All they had to do was pretend to be Canadians from Hollywood! “Tony suggested other options like posing as teachers or oil engineers, but we loved the Hollywood idea only because it was so flamboyant,” says Lijek. “People from Hollywood live in an unreal world and think of themselves as special. So it was actually believable that they would go to a country in the middle of a revolution to shoot a movie. The other reason we went with the plan was because Tony had detailed it out elaborately, and his eyes would light up when he spoke about it!”

The rescue
A day before the escape, the group of six prepared the background of their new identities and mastered the Canadian accent. Everything seemed in place, until the actual day of escape arrived when several dramatic moments had them skipping their heartbeats. “Several things almost went wrong,” chuckles Lijek. “Tony Mendez overslept, the immigration officer almost held up Schatz because his moustache was longer than that in his passport, we didn’t have immigration forms and could have been caught had the officer there decided to check them. And after we managed to pass every check, we realised our plane had a technical malfunction and we had no option but to wait with bated breath!

“Joe (Stafford) also almost got us caught. He was never happy with the plan because he thought it was our moral responsibility to wait till the other hostages are released, and he felt that having fake Canadian passports bordered on espionage. So he didn’t bother to change his appearance, he would call all of us by our real names and at one point, he even started reading a Farsi newspaper at the airport, though his cover wasn’t supposed to know the language! I remember Tony hit him in the shin to get him to act normal, as we were just moments away from escape.”

But the ridiculous had already worked: The plane was repaired sooner than they thought, and the six, along with Mendez, waited for it to cross the Iranian airspace, before they could order Bloody Marys and raise a toast to themselves. “Even then, we didn’t really celebrate much, because for all we knew, the Iranian sitting next to us could be the Tehran Police Chief!” laughs Lijek.

All these years later, Lijek, who went back to the Foreign Service even after the rather inauspicious beginning, believes that the only reason they managed to pull it off was because they pretended that it was a game. “We had no other choice, really,” he chuckles. “It was the best bad idea we had.” Mark Lijek’s book on the Canadian Caper called The Houseguests: A Memoir of Canadian Courage and CIA Sorcery will release soon.

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