Back Story Operation Argo

During the Iranian hostage crisis of 1979, the CIA mounted a covert plan to free six American diplomats in Tehran. The cover story was that a production company was about to shoot a massive sci-fi movie called Argo in the Iranian desert. This is the incredible story of the film that never was…

by Ian Nathan

Swissair flight 363 touched down in Zurich on January 28, 1980. It was a clear, sun-washed day, although somewhat stiffened by a winter chill as the passengers disembarked down the stairway. As Antonio Mendez strode towards the welcoming terminal, he turned back to watch his six weary but elated travelling companions exit the aircraft. They were dressed fairly outlandishly, rather Hollywood you might say: loud suits, expensive shoes, one of them even had a medallion bouncing on his exposed chest. Yet the jaunty garb didn’t seem to gel with the haunted eyes and the nascent smiles that spoke of nothing more than ecstatic, life-affirming relief. As Mendez watched, two of them awkwardly lowered themselves to their knees and kissed the Tarmac.

A few hours earlier, 6,000 miles away in Los Angeles, a seldom-used phone burst into life on a desk at Studio Six Productions at Sunset Gower Studios on the former Columbia lot. Startled out of a daydream, Andi Sidell picked up the receiver.
“It’s over,” came the unidentified voice.
“They made it out.” »

The ayatollah Khomeini, his angular grey beard and black turban once as ubiquitous an image as the Coca-Cola logo, came to power in Iran in 1979. A cultural revolution had ousted the Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, replacing his relaxed, American-backed regime with a strict, mysterious theocracy based on the tenets of Shia Islam. His face, adorning murals and banners, became the first great emblem of Middle Eastern antipathy (if not outright hatred) towards the West. In their crosshairs was, of course, America. Yet, for a short while anti-American feelings merely simmered, as the two nations worked a cordial if not affectionate relationship. So the US embassy in Tehran carried on as normal, dealing with its near-constant traffic of visa seekers and ex-patriots. But no-one could miss the tang of nervous electricity in the air, a crackling energy as student protestors gathered in the streets burning effigies of President Carter, swirling banners smeared with anti-American slogans or posters of the Ayatollah, and chanting “Allahu akbar! Marg bar Amrika!”— “God is great! Death to America!”

On the sullen, grey morning of November 4,1979, the protests ignited into action as a mob of students and agitators massed at the gates of the embassy. Word spread through the corridors like the insistent shriek of an alarm bell: something terrifying was in the offing. Wire-cutters had emerged from among the jostling at the front ranks and the gate was breached, the crowd spilling in like a swarm, taking first the ambassador’s residence, then the central chancery where most of the staff were located. There was nothing the American guards could do — this was a blizzard of hatred, unreasonable and implacable. By sundown 63 American citizens were being held hostage by militant students who were fully supported by Khomeini’s post­revolutionary regime. Thirteen women and African-Americans were allowed to leave, plus a man with multiple sclerosis, but the remaining Americans were famously held for 444 days, eventually being released in January 1981 in one of the most damaging events to hit American foreign policy in recent history.

What is less known is that six American citizens had slipped out unseen during the melee, to be left at large on the streets of a violently hostile Tehran. For consular officers Robert “Bob” Anders, Mark J. Lijek, Cora A. Lijek (his wife), Henry L. ‘Lee’ Schatz, Joseph D. Stafford and Kathleen F. Stafford (his wife), the clock began ticking as soon as they made it past the gate. In the fervid atmosphere of the Iranian capital, and especially as they had evaded detection, there was every chance the Americans would be considered CIA spies and executed—their papers placed them as embassy officials, all of whom were supposedly now hostages.

“If the hostage-takers did realise there were six American diplomats still free in Tehran,” recalled Mendez, “the Revolutionary Guards might search all diplomatic buildings, immunity be damned.”

In very real terms, they needed to get the hell out of Dodge. After a few sleepless nights, passing between safe houses, they chanced the Canadian embassy and, under cover of the cold night, were smuggled inside. This was, however, only a temporary reprieve; they couldn’t be hidden forever.

As the weeks passed, the threat of discovery grew. The militants had been rifling through US records, trying to spot CIA agents from among the US embassy staff, even to the point of forcing child carpet-weavers to reassemble shredded documents. Surely they would work out the headcount was short, and realise they had missed six names. Rumours of their presence had already reached street-level. The message was crystal — they needed rescue.

Among the intelligence community precious little progress was being made, and the US and Canadian governments were growing increasingly antsy. Plans were formulated, wild CIA-manufactured rescue missions that would have them smuggled out via ancient trade routes to the north. The US Secretary Of State, going by the robustly movie-tinted name of Cyrus Vance, was confronted at one stressed-out brainstorm by the Canadian Minister Of External Affairs with a plan to have them cross the Turkish border — by bike. There was nothing concrete, nothing rational. And the clock kept on ticking…

On December 11, 1979, a month after the embassy was taken, Antonio Mendez, known to everyone as Tony, took up his new post at the CIA. He had spent 14 years in the Office Of Technical Service, that department at the CIA’s Langley headquarters responsible for the kind of gadgetry widely considered the movie-world’s exaggeration. In other words, he worked for the American ‘Q Branch’, devising methods of planting explosives in Fidel Castro’s cigars, developing spring-loaded mannequins that would bounce up to make an empty car appear occupied, and dreaming up a scheme to wire cats with microphones for specialised eavesdropping. Mendez’ speciality was disguise. Like those face-hugging prosthetics in Mission: Impossible, his intricate masks could turn agents into ringers for Victor Mature or Rex Harrison, or transform an Asian diplomat into a Caucasian businessman, always backed up with a fully-fledged false identity.

Now he was chief of the Authentication Branch, responsible for false documentation and identity in all counter-terrorism. He had already been involved in the Iranian situation, formulating plans to defuse the entire crisis, which Carter ended up rejecting. “He has since _ lamented that decision,” Mendez later reported | in a CIA debrief declassified in 1997.

On the very first morning of his first day at the Branch, as he unpacked the picture of his wife and laid out his personals, the case file for the six state department employees landed bluntly in his in-tray.

“I know you’ve got plenty on your plate,” said his division chief. “But this job is going to have to take an equally high precedence.”

“I immediately formed a small team to work on this problem,” Mendez explained, stimulated like a modern-day Sherlock Holmes by the peculiar demands of the situation. “The complexities were evident. We needed to find a way to rescue six Americans with no intelligence background. The stakes were high. A failed exfiltration operation would receive immediate worldwide attention, and would seriously embarrass the US, its President and the CIA. It would probably make life even more difficult for all the American hostages in Iran.”

The basis of Mendez’ plan couldn’t be simpler: the Americans would be given false identities, walk into Mehrabad Airport, get on a plane and leave. The tricky bit was getting into Iran, making contact, and training them to wear their new lives to a good enough level to fool the Iranian authorities. That, and coming up with a convincing set of false identities. The answer to the first problem was simple — Mendez himself would get into Tehran, make connection and create a set of fictional people, complete with false documents and, to some extent, whole disguises.

“The next significant challenge we faced was to come up with a cover story,” he claimed. There were three issues here: what nationality should the passports be? Would they be moved out as a group or individually? And why exactly would they be in Iran in the first place?

It was way too chancy to have them adopt a foreign accent: “They could well prove unable to sustain a foreign cover story.” Mendez understood a good plan is the one that removes the most variables. Given their presence in the Canadian embassy — and Mendez was quite prepared to drive them right out of the front gate to the airport — he decided to have them carry Canadian passports. An emergency meeting was called for the Canadian government to allow the unconstitutional creation of six false citizens.

The next question was why exactly were these six Canadians in Iran? It was suggested they could be nutritionists, there to inspect crops, until Mendez pointed out that January usually brings snow to Tehran. “There’s no agriculture,” he grumbled.

For a week nothing fitted, nothing that would credibly have these individuals (including Mendez and a fellow operative once they were in) freely moving about what had become tantamount to a forbidden zone for anyone hailing from the West (all journalists, oil- industry advisors and humanitarians present were being heavily monitored by the Iranian authorities). Then Mendez recalled a contact he had from his days in the Disguise Section, a Hollywood make-up artist called John Chambers who had won an Academy Award for his work on Planet Of The Apes. More to the point, Chambers provided an inlet into the perfect plan — a movie. Mendez would become Irish film producer Kevin Costa Harkins, in Iran to begin pre-production on a big-budget Hollywood epic. What better fit for what he did: create and maintain false realities?

So he got together with Chambers (motivated by nothing more than patriotism, then codenamed “Jerome Calloway”). Chambers specified that usually eight people would form a party scouting for a movie production: a production manager, a cameraman, an art director, a transportation manager, a script consultant, an associate producer, a business manager, and, of course, a director. “Moviemaking is widely known as an unusual business,” explained Mendez. “Most people would not be surprised that a Hollywood production company would travel around the world looking for the right street or hillside to shoot a particular scene.”

Plausibility is the key to espionage. He surmised that even as far off the regular map as Iran, the glamour of the movies would blind people to reality.

As Mendez started black-bag drops to LA, deliveries of cash straight to Chambers in Hollywood ($10,000 a time), the make-up man brought in a special-effects colleague, Bob Sidell, and they set up shop along with Bob’s wife, Andi, at Studio Six Productions (the name, in hindsight, carrying obvious meaning) in offices previously occupied by Michael Douglas for The China Syndrome.

Using his contacts, Chambers greased his way to having a fully working Hollywood office in four days flat, right down to the sign on the door — a process that tended to take months. “We arranged for full-page ads in Variety and The Hollywood Reporter,” recalled Mendez. “Word was out that something big was brewing in the industry.”

The deception was becoming real — it was pure Hollywood. Now all he needed was a movie. One that Hollywood fully believed was going to be made, a cover that was tight enough to be investigated by the Iranian intelligence services.

This is the point at which chambers brought forth his gift. It just so happened that he had a script, the origins of which read like a case example of demented Hollywood hubris. A few years previously he had been called by a producer named Barry Geller, who had purchased the rights to Roger Zelazny’s science- fiction novel Lord Of Light, with the idea he could provide the necessary make-up effects.

Zelazny’s novel, thought of as one of his best, is set on a far-flung desert planet colonised by humans, whose leaders have developed godlike powers based on the Hindu pantheon. Yama, the god of death, Agni, the god of fire, Shiva, the destroyer and Kali, the goddess of death and despair all take a bow in human form as a rebellion is fomented among the masses. The Eastern leanings played acceptably into their notion of filming in Iran.

Geller had wealthy investors, he had concept drawings by Jack Kirby (the comic-book artist who co-created X-Men), and he had grand plans. On the back of the movie he had conceived a giant theme park to be built in Colorado called Science-Fiction Land. There would be a 300-foot Ferris wheel, cars powered by magnetism and a dome twice as tall as the Empire State Building. It would be a place staffed by robots. Geller had gone public with this at a press conference the previous November, where he had his staff dress like visitors from the future. Then his right-hand man was arrested for embezzling production funds, and Lord Of Light was no more.

Still, Chambers had the script and some of the drawings. He knew that Iran would provide very credible rugged, planetary settings. Mendez was convinced. “It was perfect,” he enthused — after the success of Star Wars everyone was getting into sci-fi. There was even a scene set in a bazaar just like Tehran’s Grand Bazaar.

Obviously, the title would have to go — it could be readily traced by journalists and thus threatened to expose the entire mission. So Chambers ripped off the overpage and replaced it with Argo’, the name of the ship from Greek legend that Jason helmed into the mystical East to defeat the many-headed hydra and claim the Golden Fleece from the sacred garden. The symbolism was too juicy. “This perfectly described the situation in Iran,” Mendez gleefully reported. It was also a contraction of “Ah, go fuck yourself”, which pleased the CIA man.

A logo and poster were designed, and everything marked with the logo in case of any inspection at the airport. Apart from actually making the film, it was a fully-fledged production. Two ads ran in Variety and The Hollywood Reporter proclaiming, “Studio Six Productions Presents Argo’… A cosmic conflagration… story by Teresa Harris.”

‘“Teresa Harris’ was the alias we had selected for our story consultant,” explained Mendez. “It would be used by one of the six awaiting our arrival in Tehran.”

This being Hollywood, everyone started talking. Journalists rang Studio Six, asking who might be cast. Directors rang offering their services. Producers called pitching new films. The major studios started circling, wanting a piece of the Argo pie. How, some demanded, were they going to shoot in the politically unstable Middle East? And Sidell spent his time politely batting them all away, marvelling about how this town thrived on deceiving itself.

With President Carter’s approval fixed, he had the greenlight — time to move.

Mendez first slipped into Bonn, west Germany’s industrial capital. Under his Studio Six cover, maintaining his Irish accent, he sauntered into the Iranian consulate to get a visa.

“What is the purpose of your visit?” asked the clerk behind the glass window, eyeing him with the suspicious leer of all bureaucrats. He explained he would be meeting six business associates in Tehran who would be travelling in from Hong Kong. “I had altered my appearance slightly with a simple disguise,” he noted. “In response to the official’s polite questions, I said, in my best accent, that my purpose in Tehran was to meet with my associates in the Sheraton Hotel.”

“Why didn’t you obtain a visa in your own country?” the clerk asked, flipping through his passport, dotted with fake visas.

Always play it casual. Mendez shrugged, explaining he was already in Germany and needed to be in Tehran by the next day.

Fake movies are common in Hollywood — most major productions operate under false identities, such as…

The clerk simply nodded and stamped the month-long visa.

It took 15 minutes.

The detour to Europe also gave him the chance to pick up ‘Julio’, a CIA operative of Latin American extraction who spoke multiple languages and was considered an exfiltration expert.

Sitting at the airport, awaiting the plane that would take them into the inferno, Mendez found himself in a cold sweat. It’s something any spy could tell you: fear is part of what you do, fear is necessary. It is fear that keeps you sharp. Mendez had been in the spying business since parachuting into Europe during World War II. Like that leap into the fateful dark, there was no turning back now.

On January 25, 1980, the air crisp and cold, Mendez entered Tehran as bold as brass, a Hollywood producer on the lookout for an alien world. Hidden inside his luggage was his ‘watercolour kit’, a bag of tricks teeming with an almost comedic assortment of theatrical make-up, contact lenses and stick-on moustaches. Exactly the kind of material you find on a movie set, only this time it was to transform its stars into the people behind the camera. He also had all his Argo production data, a lens (for the cinematographer), business cards, real matchbooks from Hollywood hang-out The Brown Derby, and six Canadian passports marked with the appropriate visas for six filmmakers who didn’t exist.

He and Julio first checked into the Sheraton, before going to the Swissair office downtown. “In an exfiltration operation, it is important to reconfirm your space on the airplane for the day you are supposed to leave.” You don’t want to be stuck in an airport with no flight and six terrified people having to beat a retreat back into trouble.

From there it was straight to the Canadian embassy to make contact. A passage that took him past those very US gates that had been so recently forced apart.

“It seemed eerie approaching the US embassy compound knowing that more than 50 Americans were being held inside, including » CIA officers. We knew there was nothing we could do to help at the time.”

Concentrate on the mission in hand. Mendez and Julio sauntered, without trouble, in through the gate of the Canadian embassy. They didn’t actually meet their targets until that evening, when their hosts had arranged a surreal dinner party. A fire burned in a nearby grate, starters were being laid out, and glasses of Champagne already being sipped as if they were at a Washington meet ’n’ greet rather than facing the very real threat of death. Then in walked this man they’d never seen before.

As they began dinner Mendez leaned forward, gaining the attention of the entire table, and simply said, “We have prepared for your escape.” And then he explained the plan, handing out their new business cards and presenting to these embassy officials the most extraordinary proposition of their lives. Cora Lijek was now Teresa Harris, Argo’s celebrated writer; Mark Lijek was in charge of transportation; Kathy Stafford was set designer; Joe Stafford was associate producer; Bob Anders was given the plum role of director; and Lee Schatz was cameraman, so he got to handle the lens.

Naturally, they were nervous as hell. Would they convince the airport authorities they were genuine? Would they be able to hold cover? Would their faces be spotted from some wanted list circulated among the heavily armed soldiers who patrolled the airport?

Mendez, keeping full eye contact, matched their worries with his own calm. “It’s going to be easy,” he said. “We’ll be able to fool them all.”

Back in LA, at Studio Six, Bob and Andi Sidell were kept on their toes handling the calls that still persisted, as people checked for updates and gossip on Argo’s non-existent progress to the big screen. There was a handful of phonelines all buzzing away merrily — except one, a CIA number that had two purposes: to report crisis or success. The Sidells would watch it like a ticking bomb, not knowing whether to hope or dread it ever ringing.

That night, Mendez and Julio slipped back out of the embassy to the Sheraton to put the final touches to the plan. There were two days until they would leave, waltzing right through the airport onto the big jet with all the dumb-ass Hollywood swagger six desperate individuals could muster. To cover his tracks, Mendez, dressed in tweeds as this Irish producer, arranged for an appointment with the sinister-sounding Iranian Minister Of National Guidance to present a proposal for a ten-day shoot for Argo. In it he listed their departure date.

On January 27, 1980 — a Sunday night — they reconvened at the Canadian embassy. It was time to become Hollywood. The mood had lightened and they joked about getting into character, taking on the personalities of movie types the opposite of their own. Bob Anders, a straight-up kind of guy, was given a ‘mod’ blow-dry and dressed in tight slacks and a blue silk shirt unbuttoned almost to his navel, where a gold medallion nestled in his chest hair. To top it off he slung his overcoat across his shoulders and affected a dandyish air. The team, surfing adrenaline rushes, were on the verge of giggles.

“The mental attitudes of the six were positive,” recalled Mendez. “We began briefing them on the details of their travel prior to arriving in Iran.” He set up an intense interrogation after dinner to test their recall, which had the added advantage of sobering them up. But the jollity was an illusion — they were still operating in deadly peril.

Their chosen flight would leave at 7.30am the next morning. It was a good time — the airport would be quieter in the early hours. The desk staff would be sleepy and less observant, most of the Revolutionary Guard wouldn’t be on patrol yet. Phoning ahead, Mendez established that the flight had arrived safely.

The group assembled with hastily borrowed luggage appropriate for a Hollywood team on the move, their cases smothered in travel stickers and maple leaf symbols. They were set to go.

A good movie plot would hold one more dramatic twist in store for the airport, one more skid along the knife-edge, but such had been Mendez’ planning that it proceeded smoothly. They passed through customs and check-in with barely a second glance, and at immigration Mendez hung back to make sure they all passed through safely. Each had falsified exit documents and it was the most fragile stage of the plan. “The Iranian official could not have cared less,” said Mendez. “He stamped each of us out and collected the yellow forms. One yellow form floated off his counter and was some distance away on the floor. When no-one was looking, I picked it up and stuck it among my papers. It was the form we had forged for Bob Anders.”

They proceeded, dropping into the tourist shops for authenticity’s sake, to the gate, just a bus ride from the waiting jet. Then, a final hitch — the plane was delayed due to a technical problem. A chill must have shot through the team, the Guards somehow suddenly seeming more observant, their disguises now paper-thin. An hour passed, every second an eon, then came the announcement to board. Finally, they stepped out into the dawn air, took the bus to the stairway and stepped up to the plane feeling like a thousand guns were trained on their backs.

Halfway up the stair, Anders turned back to Mendez and punched him on the arm. “You arranged for everything, didn’t you?” He pointed towards the nose of the jet. Its name was Aargau, a region in Switzerland. As the plane took off and left Iranian airspace, Mendez ordered a round of Bloody Marys. Turning to face the group he raised his glass, “We’re home free.”

“Argo!” was the collective reply. “Ah, go fuck yourself.”

Back at the Canadian embassy a cable was put through to Langley — they were out. In turn, a call was made to Studio Six, and Argo was no more. One of the CIA’s great modern achievements had been pulled off without a hitch. The details were kept secret until 1997.

There is a coda to the story—events coming appropriately full circle, as a tale about unreal Hollywood becomes real Hollywood. George Clooney and his producing partner Grant Heslov, the team behind Good Night, And Good Luck, have optioned Mendez’ story, under the title Escape From Tehran. The film is set up at the actor’s offices at Warner Bros., for Clooney to direct and star. Variety, so convinced by Argo all those years ago, reported that the script would be a “dramedy”…

Source: Empire, February 2008, pp. 119-125

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