by Jonathan O’Callaghan
In 1979, Mark Lijek was working at the US Embassy in Tehran as a consular officer along with his wife, a consular assistant. On 4 November 1979, the embassy was stormed by Iranian protestors, forcing Lijek, his wife and four others to seek refuge across the city as they awaited a daring rescue by Canada and the CIA.
At 9am on Sunday 4 November 1979, Mark Lijek and his colleagues sat in shocked horror as hundreds of Iranian protestors climbed the gate of the US Embassy in Tehran. The attack was the embodiment of months of increased tension between Iran and the US, culminating in what would be one of the modern era’s highest-profile hostage crises. As the embassy fell into Iranian hands, however, Lijek and five others, including his wife, would become part of a remarkable escape plan to get out of the country. Their incredible story was retold in the Oscar-winning 2012 film Argo, but here Lijek tells us what really happened.
Lijek served as a consular officer for the US Embassy in Tehran, while his wife Cora was a consular assistant working in the visa tourist office. “Most of the Americans worked in two buildings; the vast majority were in the Chancellery, which was in the south centre of the compound, and the rest of us worked in the consular annex, which was about a five-minute walk to the northwest,” explains Lijek. “Our compound was very large, 26 acres [10 hectares] and about a mile [1.6 kilometres] of wall, and we had 13 marines with orders not to shoot to defend the thing, so any kind of perimeter defence was out of the question. The plan was to try to hold onto our two buildings long enough to destroy sensitive information and equipment and wait for the hopeful rescue.”
It quickly became apparent, though, that rescue was out of the question. “We had one marine in our building and he pushed all the buttons, locked everything down, and we basically just sat there,” continues Lijek. “We didn’t see any of the demonstrators for about half an hour. Finally they worked their way up to our area and broke into this little courtyard that was immediately south of our building.
“Eventually, somebody noticed our building was not fully protected. It was brand new, we had all these latest security upgrades, but some genius had overlooked the upstairs bathroom windows. They were just normal glass, no bars, no nothing. So somebody tossed a brick through one of the windows and the marine ran in, and he saw a guy climbing up the ladder. He pushed the ladder away and tossed a tear gas canister into the ground below. A friend and I grabbed some of the metal coat hangers and we wired the doors together, but if they really wanted to break through they could have, and I’m not sure why we were left alone from that point on, but we sort of were.”
It became a very nervous wait for Lijek and his colleagues. The electricity went off and they could hear footsteps on the roof but there was seemingly nothing they could do except sit in the dark and wait, which they did for two hours. “Finally we were told that we should try to get to the British compound,” says Lijek. “There was no way for us to know whether we would be allowed to go, but given the circumstances we didn’t have much choice.”
The marine opened the door and one of Lijek’s friends crept out, finding three policemen who didn’t have any objections to them leaving. The Iranian customers and employees in the building had already made a break to get home, leaving just 13 Americans behind. It was decided to split into two groups to increase their chances of success; the two married couples, Lijek and his wife being one, left in the first group of six with two civilian Americans who were there on business. “I assume they figured that we would have a slightly better chance of getting away if we went first, and in fact that’s how it turned out,” explains Lijek. ”We made it. That second group that left a few minutes after us did not, with the exception of one guy who actually caught up to me, this fella Bob Anders, our immigration chief.”
In addition to the embassy swarming with protestors, the streets were alive with revolutionaries. ”I was holding my breath because we knew at any time somebody could come up and stop us,” says Lijek, “and in fact that’s exactly what happened to that second group of Americans. They followed us but we came to the first major north-south street, and we turned south, which was the proper direction to go to the British compound. The second group, which included our boss, the consular general, decided to go to his house and play bridge instead, so they turned north. And apparently that little change in plan got them caught, because they got about 150 yards [135 metres] north and some guy with a G3 [rifle] came running after them, rounded them up and made them march back to the embassy.”
Lijek and his group made their way to the British compound through the narrow city streets, but when they got to Ferdowsi Square, which was right in front of the compound, they came across a big demonstration that was blocking their path. Ducking into an alley, they held a quick meeting and decided the best course of action would be to go to Anders’ apartment and wait out the trouble. “You have to remember, we’re still thinking all we’ve got to do is hide out for a few hours, we did not know that there would be no rescue,” says Lijek. “So once we got to Bob’s place we were feeling pretty good. We sat around, had a nice lunch, had a few drinks, listened to the BBC describing the attack on the radio and we just thought by the end of the day it would probably be over and we’d be back at work tomorrow.”
By 11pm, four of them, Lijek and his wife and the other couple, Joe and Kathy Stafford, made their way to the Iran-America Society to spend the night. The following day they were on the move again, this time finally to the British compound after a brief stop at the Staffords’ apartment, but all the while an uncooperative Washington was failing to give them details of exactly how bad things were.
That Monday, 5 November, the British Embassy (separate from the British compound they were in) was attacked. “The compound we were hiding in was visited by a mob that wanted to break in,” says Lijek “Frankly it was just a clever guard who talked them out of it. So London and Washington conferred and decided it was too risky for us to be with you.” Lijek had hoped they would be allowed to stay in the compound but instead they were told to move again. “As it was, we did feel like we’d been abandoned,” he reveals. Virtually every neighbourhood had a revolutionary committee, known as a komiteh, and Lijek was fearful that it was only a matter of time before they were caught.
The group were moved to a US Embassy house under the care of a Thai cook called Sam, but after a few days it became apparent that the housekeeper, an elderly Thai lady, was not comfortable with them being there. After a row between Sam and her on 10 November, she left the house in a foul mood, and the Americans were worried she would alert the local komiteh to their presence. Fortunately, Anders had been in contact with his Canadian counterpart, John Sheardown, who insisted they join him at his residence at the Canadian Embassy, which hadn’t been touched by the Iranians.
At the Sheardown residence they were able to relax, to an extent. As Americans who had been in the US Embassy they were still unable to leave the country knowing that the Iranians would almost certainly hold them captive, along with the 52 other American hostages. The Canadians were extremely welcoming, however, and Prime Minister Joe Clark sanctioned their stay, unbeknown to the Iranians, of course. They would end up remaining there for two months and, while not uncomfortable, it was not without peril.
“In terms of specific threats, one really was John’s gardener,” explains Lijek. “He was a member of the local komiteh and we needed to be sure he did not see us, and that was kind of a problem because John’s house had a lot of glass walls, and the gardener had a key and could show up whenever he wanted. There were other little things, like the garbage; John had to start getting rid of the excess garbage because all of a sudden instead of three people in the house you’ve got seven [an additional member of the group was added, who had been hiding with the Swedes, while the Staffords were in a residence nearby]. The garbage man was also a member of the komiteh, so John had to start carrying the garbage to work. The other thing that happened was that the house was put up for sale by the landlord, so from time to time people would come to look and we would have to evacuate on those days. But we didn’t like going outside, we were kind of paranoid for a range of reasons. On one of those trips the car skidded off the road in the snow and a bunch of Iranians came and helped us pick it up and put it back on the road. That was really nice of them but, I mean, it was outside of my comfort zone! It’s not that I expected everybody to know my face or whatever, it’s not like they were putting up wanted posters, but we were paranoid and these things were not helpful.”
By January, Lijek’s group was getting restless, so they asked the Canadian ambassador Ken Taylor to relay a message to Washington asking for help to leave Iran. But it would not be until late January that it became apparent that a plan was afoot to get them out. The CIA had put together a fake science-fiction movie called Argo, complete with posters, a script and press releases, and the plan was to pretend the group were Hollywood employees out in Tehran shooting a movie.
”We didn’t really know anything about the CIA or the specifics of the plan until 26 January when [CIA agent] Tony Mendez and his partner, Julio, came to the house in the evening,” explains Lijek. ”We were briefed on three possible options [for escape]: one of course was the Hollywood scenario, but it was pretty obvious from the way Tony presented them that the other two were throwaways. One, I think, had us as agronomists or something like that, and the other I think we were people involved in a petroleum venture.
The Hollywood thing was definitely audacious but it had a certain credibility, frankly, because who else is going to show up in a country in the middle of a revolution and realistically expect that they can get their work done? Hollywood people have a bit of a detachment from reality, it seems, and frankly they also have a certain carte blanche that maybe they can actually get cooperation from this revolutionary regime.”
Lijek and his group were mostly behind the plan. They were each given roles to play; Lijek was the transportation coordinator for the ‘movie’, his wife the scriptwriter, and so on. They were given new identities, new passports and told to alter their appearance. However, one member of their group, Joe Stafford, did not like the plan at all. “He thought we had a moral obligation to stay until the hostages were released, which to me made no sense,” says Lijek. Stafford’s refusal to cooperate threatened to derail the entire mission.
Thankfully, in the morning of 27 January, the plan was put into motion and it worked perfectly. Unlike the 2012 movie, their journey to and through the Mehrabad Airport in Tehran was largely uneventful, apart from a brief delay for their plane. There was no final chase down the runway like the film portrayed. Indeed, the plan went so well that Lijek admits it was probably more for their own benefit than the Iranians: “What Tony told me later was that the cover story was created basically for us,” explains Lijek “A professional immigrations customers officer is trained to detect nervous behaviour, so the thing Tony didn’t want was for us to be nervous, so he needed us to believe in the scenario. We made a game of it, and with the exception of Joe we were having fun.” Aside from the inconvenience with their plane being delayed for half an hour, the group ultimately boarded a Swissair flight to Zurich on the morning of Sunday 27 January 1980, finally bringing the ordeal they had endured for nearly three months to a close.
“Once we got out of Iranian airspace it was a tremendous relief,” says Lijek. “We toasted each other and it was an amazing moment. It’s kind of hard to describe, there were just so many different emotions, including concern about the hostages we were leaving behind, but for ourselves it was like magic. I don’t think I’ve ever had any emotions to really compare to the freedom of getting out after three months of living with daily stress, finally it just all of a sudden goes away. It was incredible.”
Although they managed to escape relatively trouble free, not everyone was sure they would make it out of the country so easily, and one man who remained uncertain was President Carter, who later said the Argo six’ had just a fifty-fifty chance of successfully leaving Iran. “I’m surprised he would have launched the operation with only a 50 per cent chance of success,” admits Lijek. ”I did ask Tony about that and he denied it, he said he figured we were at least 75-25 in favour, and that’s kind of what I would have thought at the point when the proposal was put to us in Tehran.
“If Tony had told us we had a fifty-fifty chance, I don’t think we would have voted [to go]. One thing I did learn from the [2012 film Argo] was the risk we were running. It didn’t occur to me at the time that if they caught us at the airport with false documents and a CIA escort, you know we are spies at that point, and so who knows what they would do. That never really occurred to me until the movie came out.”
Thankfully, the escape went according to plan, but while Lijek and his group were free in the USA by early 1980, the ordeal was far from over for the 52 other Americans who were still being held hostage in Iran. They would not be freed until a year later, on 20 January 1981, after Iraq invaded and forced Iran to enter negotiations with the US. Had the ‘Argo six’ left the embassy just a few minutes later on the day it was stormed, on 4 November 1979, it’s almost certain they would have joined this group of hostages in captivity.
However, they were able to evade capture and make it out of the country, thanks in no small part to the help from Canada, a gesture widely heralded across the United States. Such was Canada’s role alongside the CIA that the rescue of the ‘Argo six’ is now known as the Canadian Caper, and this daring and bizarre rescue mission will not soon be forgotten.
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Origins and aftermath
In the year leading up to the uprising, tensions between Iran and the United States had escalated when Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, the Shah (or ruler) of Iran, was admitted to the US for cancer treatment. In February 1979, he was overthrown in the Iranian Revolution, leaving a provisional government in place. This government failed to quell the revolution and ultimately, on 4 November 1979, another uprising saw a group of Iranian students take over the US Embassy in Tehran. Although Lijek’s group escaped within a few months, 52 other Americans were held hostage until 20 January 1981, when they were released as a result of Iraq invading Iran in September 1980. The revolution brought to a head tensions between Iran and the US that still continue.
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Embassy attacked – Cronology [Local time]
09-00 am ♦ Storming the walls Iranian protestors climb the walls of the US Embassy in Tehran.
09:15 am ♦ The protestors storm and take the chancellery at the US Embassy.
9:30 am ♦ Lijek and his colleagues get their first glimpse of the protestors in the compound.
9:45 am ♦ Doors smashed in. The protestors bash down the doors of the commissary.
10:00 am ♦ The protestors turn their attention to the building Lijek and his colleagues are holed up in.
10:05 am ♦ The protestors throw bricks through the windows, climb onto the roof and cut the power to the building.
10:10 am ♦ Trapped in the building, Lijek and his group have nothing to do but sit and wait, after they destroy sensitive equipment.
12:00 pm ♦ Escape from compound. Lijek and his group make a break for it, and escape onto the streets of Tehran.
01:00 pm ♦ Although Lijek’s group makes it to relative safety, a second group is captured and taken back to the embassy.
Source: All About History, N. 10