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The "Canadian Caper" was the popular name given to the joint covert rescue by the Government of Canada and the Central Intelligence Agency of six American diplomats who evaded capture during the seizure of the United States embassy in Tehran, Iran and taking of embassy personnel as hostages by Islamist students and militants on November 4, 1979.
Robert Anders, Cora Amburn-Lijek, Mark Lijek, Joseph Stafford, Kathleen Stafford and Lee Schatz were the six American diplomats who were harbored and exfiltrated from Tehran in 1980. They were working in the consulate, a separate building in the embassy compound, when the Iranians swarmed over the wall. Two groups of diplomats fled into Tehran's streets with orders to walk to the British Embassy: The Anders group, along with two Americans seeking services (one eventually obtained an exit visa and was able to get a plane out of Iran with the help of a local embassy employee); and another group, including Consul General Richard Morefield, that took an indirect route and was soon captured and returned to the compound. The Anders group neared the British embassy but saw a huge crowd staging a protest in their path. Robert Anders invited the others to his home, as he lived nearby. That began a six-day odyssey as the group, aided by Thai cook Somchai "Sam" Sriweawnetr, went from house to house and spent one night at the British residential compound. After three days, the Bazargangovernment fell, and everyone realized the ordeal would not be over quickly. Looking for options, Anders contacted his old friend John Sheardown, a Canadian immigration officer, and received an enthusiastic invitation for the entire group. On November 10, the five arrived at the Sheardown residence, where, in addition to John and Zana Sheardown, they were greeted by Canadian Ambassador Ken Taylor. The Staffords joined Ken and his wife Pat at their home, while the other three stayed with the Sheardowns. Two weeks later, Lee Schatz, from the US Agriculture Department, joined the Staffords at the Taylor home. He had initially slept on the floor at the Swedish embassy and had then stayed at the apartment of Swedish consul Cecilia Lithander. The six were now in hiding and would remain there for 79 days.
The operation itself was initiated at great personal risk by then Canadian ambassador to Iran, Ken Taylor, and Canadian immigration officer John Sheardown who provided sanctuary in their own private residences for the six endangered American diplomats. Two "friendly-country" embassy officials assisted as well, and an unoccupied diplomatic residence was used for several weeks.
Ambassador Taylor contacted then Canadian Secretary of State for External Affairs, Flora MacDonald and Canadian Prime Minister Joe Clark for assistance, who expressed support for the effort. They decided to smuggle the six Americans out of Iran on an international flight using Canadian passports. To do so, an Order in Council was made for the issuance of Canadian passports to the American diplomats in Canadian sanctuary. The granted passports contained a set of forged Iranianvisas prepared by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency that would be used to attempt an escape from Iran.
The CIA enlisted its disguise and exfiltration expert, Tony Mendez, to provide a cover story, documents, appropriate clothing, and materials to change their appearance. Mendez worked closely with Canadian government staff in Ottawa, who forwarded the passports and other supporting material to the Canadian embassy through a Canadian diplomatic courier. Mendez then flew to Tehran with an associate to assist with the rescue. There were alternate passports and identities for a variety of scenarios, but the cover story selected had the six being a Hollywood crew scouting movie locations. The elaborate back-story involved a film named Argo, for a Middle-Eastern feel, and a functioning office in Hollywood set up with the help of John Chambers, a veteran Hollywood make-up artist. The script used had been based on the science fiction novel Lord of Light. The six were told that telephone calls to the "Studio Six" office in Los Angeles would be answered. Display ads for the "Studio Six" production were placed in Hollywood publications and one paper was carried by Cora Lijek as part of her cover materials. (The movie scenario was considered one way to get an armed team into Tehran to retake the embassy.)
Unfortunately a mistake was made in dating the visas. Whoever prepared them was unaware that the Iranian year begins in late March. One of the Canadian embassy officers spotted the mistake while checking the documents. Thanks to the inclusion of extra passports, Mendez was able to insert new visa stamps with dates based on the Iranian calendar.
As the weeks passed, the Americans read and played games, mainly cards and Scrabble, while Taylor made efforts to fly out non-essential personnel. Taylor sent others on fake errands to establish erratic patterns and to case airport procedures. Tension rose as suspicious telephone calls and other activity indicated that their concealment may have been discovered.
On January 27, 1980, the American diplomats, now travelling with Canadian passports, boarded a flight for Zurich, Switzerland, at Tehran’s Mehrabad Airport. They arrived in the friendly nation safely. The Canadian embassy was then closed that day, with Ken Taylor and remaining staff returning to Canada.
- Robert Anders, 54 – Consular Officer
- Mark J. Lijek, 29 – Consular Officer
- Cora A. Lijek, 25 – Consular Assistant
- Henry L. Schatz, 31 – Agricultural Attaché
- Joseph D. Stafford, 29 – Consular Officer
- Kathleen F. Stafford, 28 – Consular Assistant
Ambassador Taylor, Sheardown, and their wives, Patricia Taylor and Zena Sheardown, along with embassy staff members Mary Catherine O'Flaherty, Roger Lucy, and Laverna Dollimore were appointed to the Order of Canada, Canada's second highest civilian award. Zena Sheardown, aGuyanese-born British subject, would normally have been ineligible, but was awarded the membership on an honorary basis, due to the intervention of Flora MacDonald. Taylor was subsequently awarded the Congressional Gold Medal by the United States Congress for his assistance to the United States of America.
Jean Pelletier, Washington correspondent to the Montreal newspaper La Presse, uncovered the situation before the Canadian Caper had reached its conclusion, but refused to allow the paper to publish the story in order to preserve the safety of those involved, despite the considerable news value to the paper and writer. Several other news organizations were also in possession of some elements of the story. Pelletier's article ran as soon as he knew the hostages had left Iran, but by exposing the operation, demolished plans by the US to secretly house the six Americans in Florida while the hostage drama continued. The Argo story was blown, but the CIA role was kept secret by both the US and Canadian governments at the time for the safety of the remaining hostages; its full involvement was not revealed until 1997.
Officially, Jimmy Carter had maintained for negotiation purposes that all of its missing diplomats were held hostage, so the rescue came as a complete surprise to the public. American gratitude for the Canadian rescue effort was displayed widely and by numerous American television personalities and ordinary people alike, with Taylor a particular focus of attention. The Canadian flag was flown across the US, along with "Thank You" billboards.
In popular culture
In March 1980, Mercury Records released a spoken-word record by seven-year-old Shelley Looney, called "(This Is My Country) Thank You, Canada". The record received some airplay and made Cashbox's Top 100 (two weeks at #99) and Billboard Magazine's "Bubbling Under The Hot 100" chart nationally, peaking at #109. (Looney would grow up to play for the US Olympic women's ice hockey team in 1998 and 2002 -- coincidentally, it was her goal against the Canadians that clinched the gold medal for the USA in 1998.)
In 1981, a television movie about the Canadian Caper was made, Escape from Iran: The Canadian Caper, directed by Lamont Johnson, with Ken Taylor and John Sheardown played by Gordon Pinsent and Chris Wiggins, respectively. The movie was filmed in and around Toronto, which the cast and crew nicknamed "Tehranto".
Laura Scandiffio wrote a short story based on this event: "Fugitives in Iran" (2003, Puffin).
The CIA, in its own public history webpage, printed quite a bit of information about this action.
The film Argo, based on the episode but with more focus on the CIA's role, was released in United States on October 12, 2012.