Escaping Iran: A True Account of the Best Bad Idea

Escaping Iran is a revised and expanded version of The Houseguests, originally published in 2012. It contains substantial new material.

Table of Contents





Table of Contents
Prologue: Storm Clouds
List of Useful Names

Part I: How to Lose an Embassy but Find True Friends
1. Not an Ordinary Day
2. Telephone Tribulations
3. Britannia Overruled
4. Roller Coaster Ride

Part II: Home Sweet Hideout, or Hello to Hollywood
5. Who Is That Young Man?
6. See Ya Later, Exfiltrator
7. Let's Argau Home

Part III: Fleeting Fame and a Touch of Fortune
8. Ready for Re-Entry
9. Like Wow, Man
10. Lying for One's Country
11. What Now?
12. New Place, Lots of the Same Stuff
13. The Hostages Come Home
14. Living the Little Lie
15. Five More Minutes of Fame
16. From Argaunaut to Argonaut

Part IV: Dancing toward the Debacle
17. Exceptional or Expendable
18. From Chaos to Confusion
19. Goodbye Washington, Hello Tehran
20. Check your Guns at the Door
21. Cora comes to Tehran
22. The Shaw comes to New York
23. Twenty-Fifty Hindsight

Embassy Reporting Telegrams
Map of the US Embassy in Tehran
Epilogue: Where are they Now?
About the Author

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Prologue: Storm Clouds

There was a time, remembered best by those of us who were born before 1960, when Iran and the United States were close allies. Former President Jimmy Carter went to Iran in 1977 and said to its ruler: "There is no leader with whom I have a deeper sense of personal gratitude and personal friendship." He went on to describe Iran as an "island of stability in one of the more troubled areas of the world."

Less than two years later; that man, Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, was in a New York hospital undergoing treatment for cancer. His successor, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, was an anti- Western theocrat intent on turning Iran into an Islamic state.

The revolution that drove the shah from power had shaken the Iranian nation to its core. The American Embassy in Tehran remained ensconced in a walled twenty-six acre compound, a reminder of the close relations the two countries had once enjoyed. Although in people terms a shadow of its former self, the embassy retained seventy-five American employees, engaged largely in the difficult task of trying to build a relationship with the new Iran. That process came to an abrupt, total, and dramatic halt on November 4, 1979, and has yet to resume in any significant way.

Certain dates in history stand out. While I admit to a personal interest that may color my judgment, I would argue this was the day the long-simmering volcano of Islamic discontent against the West finally erupted. The eruptions have continued, some more dramatic than others. In the years since, the West has experienced numerous attacks by Islamist radicals, and the US and its allies have engaged in two large wars and many small ones in an effort to protect against further attacks. Regardless of one's beliefs about the politics of the conflict or the rightness of any particular policy, there can be no disagreement that November 4, 1979 marked an irrevocable shift in the nature of the relationship between Islam and the Western world.

The shah had been in exile for nine months, moving from place to place as his various local hosts found him inconvenient. The pressure mounted to admit him to the US. The Carter administration initially resisted, recognizing that allowing the shah into the United States would vastly complicate the task of building relations with the new Iranian leadership and could potentially endanger embassy employees. But when the shah's illness became publicly known, and his supporters argued the medical expertise available exclusively in the US was uniquely able to save him, Carter surrendered.

It had been two weeks since the shah had flown to New York. We were told to expect trouble. The security officer did not have any specific threat information or explicit warnings of things we should or should not do. Realistically, we had no choice except to carry on as before, despite the frequent demonstrations in front of the embassy. Many Iranians did not believe the shah was ill. His entry to the US was considered by some as a prelude to a CIA attempt to put him back in power.

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 (technically chargé d'affaires ad interim – we had no ambassador as the Iranians had rejected our candidate) 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.

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About 4:00pm, Charles said there was smoke coming in under the vault door and he had completed destruction of all he could. Then he said, "We're coming out." This was a somber moment for us. We no longer controlled any of the compound, and after six hours there was still no indication the Iranians were prepared to do anything to rescue those trapped on the compound.

After that, there was only Farsi on the radio. Even Palm Tree had gone silent. I tried channel two, but aside from a little Farsi from time to time, it seemed unused. The embassy was gone. The chargé and his two aides were at the foreign ministry. Lillian was stuck at the Ardalan apartments. Kate Koob and Bill Royer were at the Iran-America Society. And then us. We still did not know about Morefield and those with him, but after five hours without contact, we strongly suspected they had been captured. Had they gone to any embassy house, they would have had access to a radio and would almost certainly have reported to the chargé. The fact they didn't very likely meant they couldn't.

As the afternoon passed, Lorraine became increasingly concerned by her inability to reach her husband. Apparently he was a bit of a hothead, and she was worried he would try to break into the compound looking for her and get himself into trouble with the terrorists. It may also have had to do with his political leanings. We learned in the spring of 1980 that he had been executed for counter- revolutionary activity. Lorraine had contacted us then because she wanted to make sure we did not use her last name in any press statements.

She again started calling various relatives. All of a sudden Bob's phone went dead. This happened just after she said she was with a group of Americans. In normal times, a telephone going dead would be considered a routine event. But it was widely known the shah's secret police had an extensive system for monitoring telephone conversations, and it was generally assumed the new regime had retained both the system and the technicians who ran it. While the secret police changed their acronym from SAVAK to SAVAMA, and some of the higher up thugs were executed and replaced by Islamist thugs, most things had not changed. We had no way of knowing whether telephones of American diplomats were routinely tapped by the shah's government. If so, the network was now in the hands of Khomeini's people. Still, we figured the embassy takeover was probably not coordinated with SAVAMA, so even if they were listening, the risk of these calls leading to us was small, at least in the short term.

Bob mentioned the telephone wiring in the building had recently been replaced, leading to a further discussion whether that made the failure more or less suspicious. But we needed to communicate, so Joe, our best Farsi speaker, went upstairs and arranged to use a neighbor's phone. Bob from time to time went to the landlady's apartment and used her phone, but it soon became clear this made her very nervous. With a komiteh around the corner, we did not want to risk creating a situation where someone would feel obliged to turn us in for self-protection.

The afternoon passed slowly. The embassy radio net was now all Farsi all the time. The shortwave news was the same old stuff over and over: the US government was seeking information and asking the Iranians to live up to their obligations under international law. With Bob's phone inoperative, his apartment was clearly less attractive as a hiding place. There were still a few Americans on the loose and we needed to be able to talk to them. Furthermore, it was too close to the embassy, and far too close to the local komiteh headquarters.

Despite these disadvantages, Bob wanted to remain there. After some discussion, it was agreed we and the Staffords would accept Kate Koob's invitation to move to the Iran-America Society and help staff the phone line. Around 6:00pm, Joe made another trek upstairs and called Kate. She would send her driver over later that evening to pick us up.

Around 7:00pm, Lorraine's husband appeared. He had gotten her message, though apparently it took a while to track him down in that pre-cell phone era. For the second time that day an Iranian offered to risk themselves for us, as Lorraine and her husband suggested we should all go with them. We declined, both because we had a plan in place to go to the Iran-America Society, and because we did not want to impose. And again, tiring as it is becoming to repeat, we were still operating under the St. Valentine's premise that this was a short-term problem.

Ten minutes after they left, Lorraine and her husband returned with some chelo kebab, Iranian barbecued lamb with rice, a popular take-out item. Several subtle hints such as "I'm hungry" and "It's time to eat" had triggered no response from Bob, so Lorraine may have assumed Bob didn't have anything left to offer. Regardless of the condition of Bob's pantry, the chelo kebab was very welcome, and we thanked them profusely for their thoughtfulness. We never saw either one again, although, as I mentioned previously, Lorraine did call to ask we protect the identity of her husband's family in the months following our escape.

Thursday was also the day I lost contact with Massoud. I had called him every day or two to find out what news he might have. Initially I still felt some responsibility for Kim King. While theoretically true, it was increasingly clear the chances of my being able to help King had disappeared. But Massoud was providing other information as well. He had telephoned the consulate, pretending to be a visa applicant concerned about getting his passport back. Successful applicants had to leave their passports overnight so we could stamp a visa into them.

Originally he was told not to worry, the takeover would last no more than twenty-four hours. Then, as the days passed, the duration was extended. First they said two days, then three, then quit answering the phone altogether. This was not a surprise, but it did lend credence to the idea that at least some of the organizers really did intend, initially at least, just a temporary occupation. Their good intentions provided little consolation.

I tried calling Massoud three times that day. Each time his wife answered and said he was out. She sounded nervous, and perhaps for that reason I got the distinct impression he had decided keeping in touch with me was too dangerous. He was using his wife to get rid of me without having to tell me himself. That would be very Iranian, avoiding a potential confrontation, which is perhaps why I believed it at the time. Of course it is very possible he was with King that day. But it really didn't matter. I was no longer in a position to help Kim or anyone, and I had no intention of imposing on Massoud. Given our fear of possible compromise of the telephones, keeping in touch with him had become an unnecessary risk.

Meantime, Thursday ended with the night from hell. For some reason, Sam was convinced the komiteh men would come that night. Perhaps he had heard something from the good watchman, but he wasn't specific about his reasons. As this was now our third night at Graves's house, the rest of us were none too stable either. Aside from my personal paranoia about being in an embassy house, which I presume was shared to some degree by everyone but Joe, the lack of normal bed linens was interfering with our sleep, and the lack of much of anything to do during the days was collectively picking away at our judgment. We somehow convinced each other Sam was right and they were coming. Sam developed an escape plan. We would go out the back, around the side of the house and out the front gate. Then by going around the block we could eventually make our way to Kate Koob's house, which was a couple of blocks away on the same street.

In retrospect, it is a sad comment on our mental state at the time that we even bothered to concern ourselves, as the chances of our being able to go around the side of the house and back out the front without being detected were slim to none. The high walls that gave us privacy also made escape into a neighboring yard impossible. Still, we felt it was necessary to do what we could. In order for the plan to have any chance at all, we had to be prepared to exit out the back of the house at literally a moment's notice.

We did not sleep much. We changed room-mate arrangements, putting the ladies in one room while Joe and I were in the other. I think Bob, perhaps with the wisdom of years, was willing to let fate take its course. Like us, he slept with his clothes on, but I think he actually did sleep. Joe and I sat up listening to the shortwave, talking and smoking. During the night hours we could receive broadcasts from all over the world, including Australia and South Africa. As usual, there was nothing encouraging in the news. The resignation of the Bazargan government had left us paralyzed. Our official position remained that we expected the "government" of Iran to live up to its obligations under international law. But what if there was no government, at least not in the usual sense of the word?

That night was a terrible experience. We listened to every little sound in case it was the prelude to the komiteh raid. Unlike earlier nights when we found it annoying, we waited expectantly for the komiteh watchman's whistle, because it probably meant he was on his usual patrol rather than leading the raiders to our door. If too much time passed between whistles we got even more nervous. In the end nothing happened, but psychologically it was devastating.

Since the early plan to have us escorted to the airport by a group of friendly ambassadors, no one had talked to us about how we might leave. I think we all assumed it would be as Canadians, but beyond that there were too many options, and we ourselves had too little information about the realities on the ground throughout the country. Was it possible, as Claude suggested the night we first met him, to get across by land? We just didn't know.

On the other hand, certain facts were clear. First and foremost, our situation was now separate from that of the hostages. Even in the unlikely case a diplomatic breakthrough occurred and the hostages were released, having us show up unexpectedly could blow up the entire plan, for reasons I have outlined previously. The Iranians might conclude the failure of the Carter administration to acknowledge our existence meant it had negotiated in bad faith. Were an agreement to be reached, it would almost certainly rest on a knife's edge, with the slightest misstep having the potential to destroy the deal.

It was also obvious to me that time was not our friend. With every passing day, the odds of our being discovered increased slightly. With the landlord wanting to sell John's house, we had from time to time to go to Roger's. 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?

As I wrote earlier, the release of most of the women hostages and the naming of the remaining two could raise questions about the whereabouts of Cora and Kathy. Although we did not know at the time, some members of the media figured out there were a few Americans on the loose. We also later learned about a mid-January telephone call to the Taylor residence. Someone speaking with a "vaguely North American" accent had asked to speak with Joe Stafford. Pat Taylor told him there was no one by that name there, but this could not be a simple wrong number. The caller verified he had reached the residence of the Canadian ambassador, and then once again asked for Joe. He seemed insistent.

The optimistic explanation was someone in the media figured out Joe was hiding in Tehran and was guessing where an American might safely be. By the time this call took place, the planning for our departure was well underway, but the call highlighted that both governments were right to be concerned about what the media might know. While we ourselves were purposely left in the dark, the Department and the Canadian government, presumably including Taylor, were aware some reporters knew not all of our embassy staff had been captured. Both governments had, so far successfully, persuaded those reporters who knew the story to sit on it.

The US government also knew about other publicity that could have seriously compromised us. For example, Lee's mother was not initially told his being in hiding in Tehran needed to be kept secret, so she shared the information with a local Idaho paper. I remain baffled how this report, not to mention the nationally broadcast King interview on CBS, failed to trigger broader interest in the possibility of embassy staffers on the loose in Tehran. Still, this telephone call marked a new phase. It meant yet another reporter had figured out some of us were out and was guessing where we might be, or one of those already in the know had linked us with the Canadians (to my knowledge, our governments at that point knew of only one who had definitely made the connection and there would have been no reason for him to make the call). Either way, it was an escalation of the risk of media exposure.

Our parents had been invited to the briefing State put on for hostage families, yet our names were never mentioned in press reports nor had we been shown on any of the propaganda clips. Our families, unlike Lee's, had been told not to say anything about our situation, but it put them, and therefore potentially us, in an awkward position. They had to be on guard all the time. My older sister, Mary, had a friend whose husband was a reporter for the local ABC affiliate in Seattle. One evening they were both working on a project for the preschool their kids attended, and a news report about the hostages led to a conversation. It was late, Mary was tired, and she stopped herself at the last second from saying something about me.

Although the information was kept from us, our parents were getting occasional contacts from the press. With a name like Lijek, mine were easy enough to find. And somewhat surprisingly, Amburn, although it sounds like it might be common, isn't. So while I did not know about the press interest in our families, I was concerned our absence from any of the propaganda events, along with the Iranian claim all but two women had been released, could compromise our situation. About this time, I approached Bob and suggested we write a cable to State and, once we were both satisfied it said the right things, ask Ken to send it through his channels. It would summarize the points above (minus the media issue, about which we could only speculate), and request the Department begin active efforts to get us out. Bob agreed with the idea and we discussed it also with Lee. If nothing else, playing with the wording gave me something worthwhile to do for a day.

We asked John to tell Ken we would like to meet with him when it was convenient, and presented him with the telegram. We were careful to stress we remained overwhelmed by the hospitality of our Canadian hosts and were not reacting to any specific, immediate problem. The telegram spoke for itself. Ken was noncommittal, but he took the hand-written paper and said he would see what he could do. I now know the telegram was never sent, but even so, I believe it served its purpose. At a minimum, it told Ken we were ready to leave, despite whatever risks it might entail.

The arguments we used had probably occurred to the Canadian embassy staff as well as those in Ottawa and DC who were working on the Iran situation. Perhaps hearing them from us made a little difference, strengthening the hand of the officials in Ottawa, including Minister of External Affairs Flora MacDonald, who were making the argument to DC that it was time to get us out. I was confident that, at a minimum, our draft justified a paragraph in the sitrep (situation report) Taylor would send to Ottawa the following morning.

I do not recall whether Joe Stafford was included in the discussion regarding the telegram, as we did not see him on a regular basis. I was aware Joe did not share our desire to leave. He had several times expressed the belief we had an obligation to stay until the hostages were released. He was the only one of the six who felt this way, and all of the arguments we put into the cable, when presented in our mutual discussions, had no impact on his position. Joe was probably the smartest of us, certainly the best linguist, but on this issue logic seemed to escape him. Of course he may have felt the same way about me.

Although we have remained friends, our paths since Iran have seldom crossed so the opportunities to delve into this question have been few. Besides, I have no reason to believe Joe would be more willing to explain his position now than before. A number of the people who read earlier drafts of this book commented that my inability to clarify the reasons for Joe's attitude was unsatisfying. I totally understand. I can only tell what I know, that Joe's subsequent career confirmed my judgment of him as courageous, smart, and driven. Those personality traits eliminate fear as the reason for his views. Perhaps more to the point, staying in Tehran was increasingly dangerous, as Joe must have understood. So, unless he decides to explain his position, the mystery will remain.

I believe history has vindicated the judgment of the five. The hostages were held for an additional year, and expecting the Canadians to keep us that long would have been unreasonable. Even aside from Murphy's Law, the daily increase in the odds of something going wrong I mentioned earlier, the practical logistics were a problem. The Sheardowns brought with them packaged food, liquor, cigarettes, and similar items sufficient for a three year tour. At the point of our departure, virtually everything had been consumed. Some critical items (to me, anyway), like the cigarettes, had run out some time ago and, as I noted previously, John was buying them at his own expense on the black market.

The preparation of the telegram had given me a small sense of having some control or influence over my situation, and it was difficult to return to the normal life of sleeping late, making breakfast, reading, and playing Scrabble. On the other hand, the daily reminders of how fortunate we were in comparison with our colleagues downtown, whether from the newspaper or radio or even a tidbit from John, were more than enough to keep me relatively content. As things transpired, however, it was only a few days before Ken came to us with a question, a hint something might be brewing.

He asked whether we would feel comfortable leaving Iran using US passports. I don't recall the exact flow of the conversation, but our collective answer was a version of "you're kidding, right?" We assumed we would have false identities and a cover story, but even so, "Amrika" was the great Satan and visitors from there would be subjected to special scrutiny at any border crossing, or even if stopped in the street. Besides, I thought, we were almost unofficial members of the Canadian embassy staff. Surely it would be a small thing to send us passports more appropriate to our new status.

Of course I did not actually joke with Ken in that way, but I had assumed (and I think the others did also) that the Canadian government would issue us Canadian passports. While I did not understand the procedures required, I did consider a Canadian passport was far and away the best protection we could have during the exit process. Besides, unless we were to be literally smuggled across the border, some kind of travel document was mandatory. A US diplomatic passport was clearly not a viable option. To this point, no one had mentioned the possibility the CIA might get involved. We were thinking in terms of a Canadian operation, largely or exclusively staffed by embassy personnel, perhaps with some help from the New Zealanders or other friendlies.

A year or two after the Wired article ran, we heard from Tony it had been sold to George Clooney as the basis for a film. This surprised me. There was nothing wrong with the article, but there were many better sources about the Canadian Caper, and Mendez had written his own book detailing his role in 1999. I learned only in 2011 that the Wired piece was written with the specific hope it would catch the attention of the right person in Hollywood, where the magazine is apparently popular with the movers and shakers. In addition, Bearman had an associate (I am not sure what term best applies) whose job it was to take the article around town and sell the film idea. He was successful, but Tony told us Clooney normally had a backlog of projects and there was no way to know when and if it would actually go into production. And so began yet another few minutes of fame.

While I was pleased to hear there might be a film, the more I learned about the Bearman article, the more exploited I felt. Aside from the obvious fact this was my life too, I resented being asked to cooperate under false pretenses. Even had I been told it was Bearman's intent to sell the story as the basis for a film, I doubt I would have been sophisticated enough to do what Tony did: ask for a percentage before agreeing to take part. Tony told me later that he had an attorney in Hollywood, a relationship that started when he first began doing consulting there after retirement. And Tony had a much better case for seeking a significant financial stake as the movie as ultimately scripted was primarily about him. If I had made the same request, Bearman would probably have said no and gotten his information elsewhere. Still, I can't help but find it odd that we were paid more for our participation in a failed Vivendi/Universal film than in a highly successful Warner Brothers release seven years later. But enough with the griping.

In early 2011 we started hearing rumors there was going to be a film. Then we learned Ben Affleck was particularly interested in playing Mendez. Before long friends were sending us press items about the film, to be called Argo in honor of our fake movie. These indicated Affleck would direct as well as star. In late spring we were contacted by one of the executive producers and sent a copy of the script as well as "True Event Character Consent forms." In exchange for a modest payment, we agreed to be depicted in the film and also to act as consultants.

The first part of the agreement was designed to keep the lawyers happy, since we were public persons and could not prevent anyone from using our story. The second part did involve some work, as I, and to some extent Cora, answered quite a number of questions, including from the actors who were to portray us. Much of my work was with the historian, who asked about layout of offices and what the signs on our doors looked like. Both Cora and I read the script and offered our suggestions, which not surprisingly centered around the way the Canadian role was depicted. While we did understand the movie was primarily about Tony, we were disappointed the Sheardowns were not even mentioned.

At the end of September 2011, we were invited to Los Angeles for several days. Tony, his wife, and several other members of his family had arrived earlier. We had the opportunity to visit some of the sets. A facade resembling the chancery exterior had been constructed at a partially vacant Veterans Administration facility north of the city, and an empty building nearby was used for some of the interior shots. There we watched several actors rush down a hallway with a cart full of documents and begin to shred them. We watched it over and over and over again, and I wondered how it must be for the actors to have to repeat a scene endlessly. But I guess repetition pays off in terms of the final product. And as an old friend of mine would have said, it was indoor work with no heavy lifting.

We met the actors who were playing the six of us, as well as several other cast members, and had lunch inside a large tent filled with rows of tables and chairs. This is where everyone was fed. I had heard movie location catering was outstanding and the food more than met my expectations. I opted for New York strip steak with all the trimmings. Affleck joined us for the lunch, although as I recall he did not eat. He was dressed in jeans and an old t-shirt with some kind of logo too faded to read clearly, but from his conversation it was clear he was the man in charge.

It was also evident he was committed to making the film authentic. While the events would only partly track actual history, he wanted the mood and atmosphere to be genuine. I now understood why many of the questions I received had to do with details of our physical surroundings, as well as what we were thinking or feeling at a particular moment. Later we heard that thousands of dollars were spent recreating the huge eyeglasses, which were fashionable at that time and were worn by several of the characters, including unfortunately the actor who played me. If they'd asked, I could have loaned them my pair, which is still around the house somewhere.

We also learned from a producer why the Sheardowns were not in the film: money. Including them would mean two more actors, another set, and camera time devoted to explaining their role. This was all avoided by housing the six of us with Ambassador Taylor, already a necessary character. During this visit we also recorded interviews for the special features segment of the DVD version of the film scheduled for later release.

Later, another executive explained the reasoning differently. The movie was about the exfiltration. There were many angles from which the story could be told, but regardless of which angle was chosen, the nature of the film medium demands a limit on the number of characters. Despite their importance to the four houseguests they hosted, the Sheardowns did not fit within this particular version of the story. There were already more than 125 speaking roles, and good storytelling, particularly in a thriller format, required a tight focus on the primary elements of the plot. Both answers made sense to me and I suspect both were largely true.

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