November 1979. Gunshots banged through the streets of Tehran. Mark Lijek, sat at his working desk at the U.S. Embassy, did not bat an eyelid. For several days had demonstrations been undergoing outside the gates, rioters gathering under an anti-Western banner, shouting “God is great! Death to America!” and improvising political street art on the embassy’s walls. A tense climate of hostility had settled in the Iranian capital, and since the diplomatic call had not worked out, street would surely have the final say.
American diplomats were not getting used to Tehran’s daily unrest; nonetheless, the whole country had been falling into revolutionary chaos for about two years. Born in the streets, protests blamed Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, shah of Iran, for his Western policies and repressive measures. Funnily enough, the Iranian Revolution started in the context of a booming economy (mostly due to oil business), although political turnarounds usually happen through poverty and unemployment. Anyway, the Iranian leader was forced to resign the Middle-Eastern way – say, flee his home country under pressure from his people, whose demonstrations packed hundreds of thousands in the capital city. The crowd acclaimed ayatollah Khomeini’s fresh ideas, who had just arrived in position of power and already planned to turn Iran into an Islamic Republic.
The shah’s quick departure was about to make history. First, because it marked the end of Persian rule over the country, which has prevailed for 2,500 years; second, because the U.S. would welcome their former leader, supposedly to cure his cancer. A decision unwelcome by Iran’s authorities… Iran had just self-freed itself and wanted to seize this opportunity to ‘clean up’ a bit. For too long have Westerners mingled with the country’s business, hence the racket going on at the entrance of the U.S. embassy, which Mark Lijek has well interpreted:
“Although the big demonstration the weekend prior to the takeover took place some distance away from us, a group of die-hards showed up anyway. They added to the layers of posters and graffiti adorning our compound walls. Our boss, the chargé was at the foreign ministry for a meeting. We mistakenly thought it was to demand more security. We were wrong but it did not matter. It was too late. The first rain storm of the fall season was soon to be eclipsed by a storm of another kind.”
On November 4, unrest would not remain by the embassy’s closed gates. Some demonstrators, students for the most part, broke through and entered the building. Its employees immediately started to panic. Gunshots, probably fired in the air to silence them, resounded through the facility. This was the beginning of the longest hostage-taking in history: it would last for 444 days. Still, some diplomats managed to run their way out of the embassy, narrowly escaping capture. Among them, Mark Lijek and his wife Cora, plus another young couple, the Staffords (Joseph and Kathleen) as well as their boss, the eldest of the group, Robert Anders. All were wandering through the deserted streets of Tehran, weathering driving rain, worriedly looking behind as if their captors were running after them. Where to go now?
In the week that followed, a tense atmosphere reigned over the capital city. The five Americans, hidden in the shadows, traveled from one safe house to another in an obviously unwelcome environment. Running short of options, Anders eventually reached out to John Sheardown, a friend of him working at the Canadian embassy in Tehran. The latter’s reply got rather encouraging: he invited all the ‘fugitives’ to find shelter into his own house. The generosity of the native of Ontario and of his wife Zena would finally give the Americans some time to breathe. On November 10, they crossed the threshold of the Sheardowns’ residence, where they were greeted by the Canadian ambassador himself, Ken Taylor. North-American solidarity also explains why Taylor invited half of the diplomats on the loose to stay at his own home. Finally, the Americans could let their feelings of relief out.
A few days later, they were joined by Lee Schatz, a diplomat who had also barely evaded capture and found shelter at the Swedish embassy (where he supposedly slept on the floor, using a flag of Sweden as blanket) before being invited by the Canadians. Still, the struggle was far from over yet. The hostage takers could easily get their hands on the embassy’s list of staff, and figure out those who are missing. A race against time was starting, as Mark later remembered:
“It was also obvious to me that time was not our friend. With every passing day, the odds of our being discovered increased slightly. […] What if there was an auto accident, hardly a rarity in Tehran’s terrible traffic? What if one of us became ill and required hospitalization?”
The Canadian ambassador then proceeded to phone home. Prime Minister Joe Clark and Secretary of State for External Affairs Flora MacDonald were asked for advice, and both suggested issuing fake Canadian passports to the six Americans. The CIA also contributed to the mission and added its very own ‘creative touch’, tasking Tony Mendez, its extraction specialist, to design a sound cover story to help the Americans make their way back home. Mendez was about to set up a seriously- daring deception plan…
What he needed was a pretext, a mirage behind which the diplomats on the run could hide away. With such a focus, Mendez knew exactly whom to reach out to. He had already been working with a master in illusions and subterfuges over the course of his career:
Ronald Reagan Hollywood. The CIA agent called out to John Chambers, a well-known cinema make-up artist, to make up a believable cover story. (Chamber’s costumes and prostheses have starred in Planet of the Apes and the Star Strek series.)
Both men figured out a Hollywood-style way of extracting the Americans from the hostile grounds of Tehran: all were to form a Canadian filming crew looking for the perfect location to shoot its upcoming movie, Argo. The scenario, based on a 1967 sci-fi novel by Roger Zelazny, suggested a Middle-Eastern décor, which would surely work as a good excuse to explore Iran and, most importantly, get out of it. It is worth noting that the name ‘Argo’ is unrelated to Zelazny’s novel, but was chosen since Chambers was a really good fan of knock-knock jokes (more specifically that one: “Knock-knock.” “Who’s there?” “Argo.” “Argo who?” “Argo f**k yourself.”) Over the course of the operation, the name Argo became way more significant than just a fake movie’s.
“This word became an in-house disguise-team recognition signal and battle cry. We used it to break the tension that often built up when we were working long hours under difficult circumstances preparing for an important operation.” – Tony Mendez
A famous make-up artist and a credible scenario, however, were not enough to make the whole project believable. What if the Iranian police searched for additional information about the movie and could find nothing more than a poster? Mendez and Chambers came up with new ways for ‘fleshing out’ the Argo movie project. They printed fake business cards, organized movie-launch parties in Los Angeles, promoted the film through Hollywood magazines; they also established a fake production company named Studio Six Productions – as there were six narrowly-captured Americans to be rescued – and engaged Robert Sidell, another make-up artist, as the movie producer and his wife, Joan, as receptionist at Studio Six. The roles were dealt, the scenario was ready: Mendez just had to play his part. Following the preparations, the CIA agent boarded a plane to Tehran.
“Two noted Hollywood makeup artists — one an Oscar winner — have turned producers. Their first motion picture being Argo, a science fantasy fiction, from a story by Teresa Harris […] Shooting will begin in the south of France, and then move to the Mideast […] depending on the political climate.” – Hollywood Reporter, January 25, 1980
Meanwhile, the six Americans waiting for the promised rescue have just been killing time. They played never-ending rounds of Scrabble, cooked wonderful dinners and read a lot. It had been more than two months already that they lived, day and night, in the Canadians’ residences. But in January 1980, Mendez arrived in Tehran to meet his six to-be-extracted targets. That’s when he unveiled the plan to make their escape: entered Studio Six, the Canadian filming crew, the fake sci-fi movie… The CIA agent provided everybody with fake IDs and passports, as well as filming material related to their positions in the crew, clothing, and other items that Hollywood is famous for. To cap it off, Ambassador Ken Taylor even helped them out brushing up their Canadian accent!
“The six houseguests were impressed with their documentation packages, and we were impressed with the transformation of their appearances and personalities. […] We also had provided them with disguise materials and props that would help fill out their roles.” – Tony Mendez
Early in the morning of January 27, 1980, the fake filming crew made its stressful way to the airport of Tehran, swarming with guards in such a tense context of political turmoil. But only a delayed flight featured the highlights of the day, since going through customs was reported “as smooth as silk” by the operation’s exfiltrator. Interestingly, the Swissair plane the Americans took was named ‘Aargau’ after a region in Switzerland – a funny coincidence which Anders noted while boarding. Then finally, after having spent 79 days at the Canadians’ and even more on the run, the Americans took off and left the Iranian ground behind, for the safety of government-free international skies.
At approximately the same time, the staff left at the Canadian embassy evacuated as well. As for the six Americans, they were greeted by massive crowds upon their return home, people in the audience holding up banners reading “Thank you Canada”. Although the six had found their way back, the remaining fifty-two diplomats still trapped at the U.S. embassy would have to wait more than a year to follow suit.
At Los Angeles, Studio Six employees discretely packed up and go. From a distance, it looked just like one of those production firms whose movie would, in the end, never be released… For a variety of reasons, movies don’t make it to the theaters, end of the story. Hollywood’s daily bread. But no one would probably figure out the real reason behind the end of the Argo project: Mendez had just called, and confirmed the operation was successful.