Reviewed by David T. Jones
Our Man in Tehran: Ken Taylor, the CIA and the Iran Hostage Crisis by Robert Wright, Random House, January 2011, ISBN 978-1-59051-413-9 (1-59051-413-0), pp. 432, $25.95
One would have thought that there was nothing new to reveal about the 1979 Tehran Hostage Crisis—where American diplomats in various numbers (at the end 53) were held by Iranian militants/terrorists for 444 days. It would have seemed over the past 30 years that all of the hostages and every senior USG official of the era had recorded and published their experiences, thoughts, and conclusions from the diplomatic and foreign policy disaster.
With the U.S.-Iranian relationship still frozen over, however, and the overhang of the ongoing Egyptian succession crisis snarling in the background, Our Man in Tehran fills a north-of-the-border/made-in-Canada niche. Our Man is Canadian Ambassador Ken Taylor, who in 1979 was the most famous diplomat in the world for having with unprecedented courage and panache orchestrated the exfiltration of six U.S. diplomats that he had concealed in his residence for nearly three months. The elements of the story are well known, and Taylor and his Canadian diplomatic colleagues have “dined out” on the event for a generation. But there is more to the story than cool courage and diplomatic aplomb—and Our Man delves into previously unexplored elements.
Robert Wright, professor of history at Canada’s Trent University in Ontario, has stepped into the breach in retelling a much-told story, but with convolutions not previously exposed. Wright obtained access to formerly classified material through “freedom of information” requests to Canadian archives and benefited from extended interviews with Ambassador Taylor; the revelations leave a “should this really have been told?” question with ramifications still to be played out. WikiLeaks is not the only source of explosive “confidential” material.
Our Man is biography as well as history, and Ken Taylor’s personal career in the Canadian Foreign Service would remind U.S. diplomats of comparable progress through the ranks. Taylor was an economics officer, and was assigned to Tehran as ambassador in 1977 during the flood of the Shah’s oil-fueled power and prosperity. Ottawa had the expectation that Canadian business could get a substantial slice of the goodies. Taylor’s efforts were designed with that objective at the forefront; the thoughts of revolution were pipedreams of wild mullahs in foreign exile. The intelligence projections foresaw the Shah ruling well into the 1980s.
Thus the account of the essentially slow motion revolution (when juxtaposed with the rapid, fast-forward transitions of leadership for the shards of the post-USSR and the ongoing regime changes in North Africa) is illuminating. There were no Internet, Facebook, or cell phones for the revolutionaries to use. The revolutionary forces, in the person and entourage of Ayatollah Khomeini, were outside the country. The Iranian secret police appear to have been particularly brutal, and the Iranian army was willing to fire on the people, killing hundreds of demonstrators in a number of bloody encounters in the effort to preserve the Shah’s regime.
Absent from Our Man for its first 100 pages is any observation about how the Shah’s ultimately fatal illness may have affected events. His physical decline appears evident from contemporary photos; however, his requirement for medical treatment became a driver behind his admission to the United States—and the reaction by the revolutionaries to seize the U.S. embassy.
Even 30 years later, there is debate over the sequencing of the embassy seizure (and a commemorative event at the Department of State honoring the 30th anniversary of the hostage release left open whether our diplomats/Marines should have forcibly resisted the attackers). The conditioning circumstance appeared to be that in February, rioters/students had seized the embassy, but withdrawn within a day. This time, although observers constantly anticipated early intervention by the Iranian Foreign Ministry and subsequent release, it didn’t happen. Nevertheless, the universal conclusion, echoed by Wright’s commentary, is that when we admitted the Shah, we should have simultaneously withdrawn our diplomatic staff.
Nevertheless, the seizure left three diplomats, including charge d’affaires Bruce Laingen, at the Foreign Ministry, and six others in Tehran. For a period, these six other individuals found refuge with other embassies, but relatively quickly the British, for example, said they would have to depart. Taylor, however, was straightforward; without hesitation he offered sanctuary and arranged for its implementation and authorization by the Canadian Foreign Minister and Prime Minister. Our Man recounts their extended stay as “houseguests” in Taylor’s residence and the combination of tension and boredom that made them inter alia into expert scrabble players. Ultimately, Taylor in conjunction with U.S. CIA technical expertise orchestrated Canadian passports/Iranian visas for the six Americans. Finally, in conjunction with the “temporary” closure of the Canadian Embassy, the Americans were exfiltrated directly through the main Tehran airport depending on the lackadaisical oversight by airport personnel and a dangerously thin “legend” of a Hollywood-style movie group researching a new film.
The Iranian outrage at their escape—all but sputtering indignation that Canadians had illegally used their passports for non-Canadians—reminds one of the classic illustration of chutzpah: having murdered his parents the killer seeks mercy from the court as an orphan.
But beyond concealing U.S. diplomats, Taylor’s activities were even more stunning: he acted as de facto CIA station chief for several months. He vetted (and rejected one) prospective CIA agents; and he and other members of the Canadian embassy aggressively collected daily intelligence on the operations of Iranians within the embassy compound, in preparation for the U.S rescue attempt. Taylor responded to many requests from Langley and sent detailed daily messages on the full range of activity at the embassy. The operation entailed considerable risk; one Canadian was picked up during surveillance of the embassy and interrogated at length (Taylor decided that he was now at risk and sent him out of the country immediately).
There is a severe potential downside to this type of revelation even 30 years afterwards. The revolutionaries of 1979 are still extant–and give no indication of being forgive-and-forget types. It is exceptionally difficult for any Western embassy to operate in Tehran, given the continuing societal repression and the Canadian Embassy already operates under substantial stress, given the unresolved torture/murder of a Canadian-Iranian photojournalist. One suspects that already suspicious/skeptical Iranians will be further convinced that Canada is simply a U.S. cat’s paw and Canadian diplomatic effectiveness will be commensurately degraded.
Moreover, this revelation is hardly Tehran-limited. Although abstractly Ottawa can argue that the 1979 operation was one-of-a-kind, given unprecedented Iranian violations of diplomatic mores, others may conclude that it was revealed truth: that Ottawa and the USA are “Tweedle Dee” and “Tweedle Dum.” Perhaps even more important, these revelations have “burned” any U.S. ability to devise comparable coordination for conceivable future crises. The Taylor-CIA interlock may have been “one off”—but who will assume such to be the case? Collaborative relationships work when they are unknown or plausibly deniable; such are no longer the case for Washington and Ottawa.
Why the document release? Washington appeared unaware that such material was being made public. Although they were Canadian documents, clearly U.S. equities were involved, and standard release procedures in the United States would have required clearance from Ottawa.
David T. Jones, a retired Senior Foreign Service Officer, served as Minister-Counselor for Political Affairs at the U.S. Embassy in Ottawa. He is frequent contributor to American Diplomacy and other publications as well as the co-author of Uneasy Neighbo(u)rs, a book about U.S.-Canada relations.