A wave of thanks to a neighbor for saving six diplomats from Tehran
It had none of the lightning-flash finesse of Entebbe, none of the bloody ferocity of Mayaguez. Yet once again, however fleetingly, the frustration of dealing with the irrational acts of militants had been lifted by a single daring and dramatic deed. The cunning maneuver executed by Canadian diplomats in secreting six Americans in hostile Tehran for almost three months and then spiriting them to safety last week provided a heartening interlude in Washington‘s still unsuccessful struggle to free 50 hostages from their captors in chaotic Iran.
With a spontaneous gush of gratitude, Americans extended congratulatory hands across the border. It was as though the U.S. were almost surprised to find that it had a friend after all. Where other allies had nervously shunned sanctions and offered only rhetoric against Iran, Canada had literally come to the rescue. In Detroit, billboards facing Canada suddenly sprouted Canadian maple leaves and appreciative messages like THANK YOU, CANADA. The Canadian embassy switchboard in Washington was overwhelmed by Americans wishing to convey warm sentiments: “Brilliant move.” “Courageous feat.” “Well done.” In Fergus Falls, Minn., Radio Station KBRF got an enthusiastic response to its suggestion that listeners send I LOVE YOU valentine messages to Flora MacDonald, Canada’s Secretary of State for External Affairs, who, as her nation’s top diplomat, had proudly confirmed the rescue story.
On an official level, the U.S. Congress unanimously rushed through a resolution —the first ever of its kind—expressing “its deep appreciation and thanks to the Government of Canada.” As reporters watched, Jimmy Carter picked up a telephone in his Oval Office and told Canadian Prime Minister Joe Clark of the American people’s appreciation for “a tremendous exhibition of friendship and support and personal and political courage.” The rescue had already given Clark a big boost in his uphill drive to retain his office in the Canadian elections, Feb. 18.
Back in the U.S., the happy but professionally restrained diplomats appeared one by one before a televised press conference at the State Department. In an oddly stiff ceremony, each gave name and title: Mark Lijek, 28, a consular officer; his wife Cora, 26, a consular secretary (both from Falls Church, Va.); Joseph D. Stafford, 29, a consular officer; his wife Kathleen, 28, a consular secretary (both from Crossville, Tenn.); Robert Anders, 54, a consulate officer (from Port Charlotte, Fla.); and Henry Lee Schatz, 31, an agricultural attache (from Post Falls, Idaho). Anders read a carefully prepared statement thanking reporters for keeping their sensitive secret for so long but saying of their colleagues still held captive: “We must not and will not forget them.” Then the six paid a solemn, low-key visit to the White House, where the President termed them “six brave Americans” and declared, “We all love you.”
The escapees had been warned by the State Department not to disclose details about how they had been hidden and how they had escaped. This was to protect any foreigners, as well as Iranians, who had been helpful but still remained in Iran.
Privately, some Canadian officials said they were “extremely upset” that the story of the escape had been broken by Jean Pelletier, a Washington correspondent for Montreal’s La Presse and son of Canada’s ambassador to France. Like a number of newsmen, including correspondents and editors of TIME, Pelletier had long been aware that the six had been hidden in Tehran and had kept the secret. When Pelletier learned that the Americans were out of Tehran, he felt the news would quickly become public, and his newspaper decided to break the story. This destroyed a Canada-U.S. plan to hide the escapees in Europe until the fate of the 50 U.S. hostages still held in the embassy was resolved.
Despite the secrecy, the available facts provided a fascinating tale of intrigue, involving CIA-doctored documents and bold “rehearsals” in Tehran on how to slip the Americans past Iranian airport inspectors. The plot’s mastermind and instant hero was Canadian Ambassador Ken Taylor, 45, a gregarious diplomat whose gravelly voice and hearty laugh had made him a popular intermediary between visiting Westerners and Iran’s unpredictable government officials. His superiors, Prune Minister Clark and Secretary MacDonald, let Taylor direct every detail of the risky rescue.
The escape of the six began on the rainy day of the storming of the U.S. embassy in Tehran on Nov. 4. While the assault centered on the main embassy building, five of the six escapees were working in an adjoining consular section within the compound. Mark Lijek had been processing visas that morning. Among his visitors was Kim King, 27, a tourist from Oregon who had stayed on in Iran for six months to teach English to local businessmen. He had both overstayed his visa and lost his passport, with its date-of-entry stamp, and he sought Lijek’s help in acquiring new papers.
Then, as King tells it, a woman working in a front office shouted, “They’re coming over the wall!” King peered through the two windows, protected by a grillwork made of bricks, in Lijek’s second-floor office. He saw the men on the wall and heard others moving on the roof. He did not see any weapons and heard no shooting. “We weren’t afraid,” he recalled. “We thought they probably were the police.”
An Iranian attacker broke a window in a nearby men’s room and tried to enter through it. Said King: “A Marine went in there and knocked him out of the window and fired tear gas.”
As the Marine guards radioed other Marines to help gather all the office occupants together for protection, the lights suddenly went out and the radio equipment was silenced. “It got very dark in the room, because of the grillwork on the windows,” King said. “We realized then that we had to get out.”
The Americans grouped together in a back room on the building’s ground floor. Among them, according to King, were Lijek, Anders and Kathy Stafford. The Marine managed to jimmy a back door, which had been bolted automatically as a security precaution. The door opened onto an alley. “Mark and I looked out the window upstairs,” said King, “and it was clear as far as we could see. We went back down. I opened the door and we walked out.”
The fugitives split up after walking about four blocks. They agreed to meet later at the British embassy. But by the next day the student militants had taken control of that embassy, too, holding it for about five hours. As King was not a U.S. diplomat, his problems were more financial than political. Equipped with new documents, he managed to borrow money for air passage home and flew out on Nov. 9.
For the American diplomats, however, there was no such easy way out. One of the carefully guarded secrets is just where they stayed in the days between fleeing their offices and Nov. 8, when one of them called the Canadian embassy to seek refuge. By then, Kathy Stafford and Mark Lijek had somehow been reunited with their spouses. Ambassador Taylor later said his staff had been “unanimous” in wanting “to do everything we could to help.” On Nov. 10 the five Americans who had worked in the consular section showed up at the Canadian embassy. It was not until Nov. 22 that the sixth American, Schatz, also joined the group. He had escaped the siege because his office was outside the embassy compound. He had since been staying with “friends.”
The six Americans spent more than two tedious months in the home of Canadian diplomats, reading whatever they could get their hands on. They played so much Scrabble, as Anders later explained, that “some of us could identify the letter on the front by the shape of the grain on the back of the tile.” Said Taylor at a press conference in Ottawa: “I’d nominate any one of them for the world Scrabble championship. They are also probably the six best-read Foreign Service officers.” Some of the six spent the time at Taylor’s residence, others at the home of Roger Lucy, 31, the embassy’s first secretary. A few also stayed temporarily in a safe house —until the landlord decided to show it to prospective buyers.
While the U.S. State Department kept close relatives of the six informed that the missing diplomats were safe, the relatives were not told who was harboring them. But as more reporters picked up bits of the story, Taylor worried about a leak that would send Iranians hunting down the missing, and endanger his own embassy staff as well.
Taylor devised a plan. On the pretext of keeping in touch with the three U.S. diplomats being held under house arrest at the Iranian Foreign Ministry, Taylor ingratiated himself with local officials as a friendly and neutral diplomat. He learned just what documents and procedures would be needed in the processing of embassy personnel in and out of Tehran under the erratic Ayatullah Khomeini government. He began sending some of his own staff” on unnecessary flights to establish a travel pattern and to study the clearance procedures.
The Canadian Cabinet met on Jan. 4 and approved a rare secret directive to issue Canadian passports to the six Americans—although not in their own names. The Americans were given the names of fictitious Canadian businessmen or technicians who would have valid reasons to travel to Tehran. U.S. sources have conceded that the CIA provided “technical assistance.” This apparently consisted of helping to fabricate the necessary Iranian visa stamps.
On Jan. 19, Taylor got a scare. Someone called his home and asked to speak to “Mr. or Mrs. Stafford.” Taylor’s wife Patricia replied that no one by that name was there. But the caller insisted that he knew they were. With that, the escape plan was speeded up. The Americans, safe for so long in their hideaway, were not sure they wanted to run the risk of trying to board a plane. Taylor convinced them that the danger of staying was growing ever greater.
Taylor gradually reduced the size of his embassy staff. From a total of 20, it was dropped to 11 and finally to 4. Taylor chose last Monday, in the uncertain aftermath of Iran’s presidential election, to make his move. The six Americans nervously but successfully showed their false papers to Iranian airport officials and boarded regularly scheduled flights to Frankfurt. Then they went into two days of rest and debriefing at a U.S. Air Force hospital near Wiesbaden in West Germany, before flying to Dover Air Force Base in Delaware. There they were reunited with their relatives. Then it was on to Washington and back to heroes’ welcomes in their home towns. On Monday Taylor and three staffers flew quietly to Europe and the Canadian embassy was closed.
Back in Tehran, the outwitted captors of the U.S. hostages and government officials were apoplectic. “This is illegal, it’s illegal!” raged one of the militants guarding the U.S. embassy. Iranian Foreign Minister Sadegh Ghotbzadeh, just defeated in his quest for the presidency, vowed: “Sooner or later, somewhere in the world, Canada will pay.” Whatever “hardness or harshness” now befalls the American hostages, he threatened, “it’s only the Canadian government that will be responsible for it.”
Regardless of the understandable elation in Canada and the U.S., the fight to free the hostages remains one of the Carter Administration’s most nettlesome difficulties. So far, the U.S. has been deliberately delaying the imposition of its planned economic sanctions against Iran in the hope that its new President, Abolhassan Banisadr, may yet help resolve the hostage problem. But as the hostages start their fourth month of captivity, there is no real cause for optimism.
This article was originally published February 11, 1980 in the Nation section on page 20.