Accidental Spy

 

It was not the most provocative speech in Berkeley’s history, but Kenneth Taylor’s 1980 commencement address is remembered for its reception.  The former Canadian ambassador to Iran had just left that post, after helping six US diplomats escape the fate of the other 52 Americans being held hostage by student revolutionaries.  (The taking of the US embassy was both a culmination of anti-American feeling in Iran  – the CIA had helped put the Shah in power and supported his brutal regime – and the beginning of a new dynamic in US-Middle East relations: Ayatollah in, Jimmy Carter out.) And while Taylor was being hailed as a hero in the rest of the U.S., the local police expected protests from Iranian students and their supporters, as well as counter-protests, at the commencement. The hostage crisis also marked the beginning of anti-Iranian feelings in the US; all a lot of Americans knew about the country was that they hated us, and they came to hate them in return.

Rather than cancel his address the authorities decided to give the UC alum (1959) a bulletproof vest to wear under his gown, as well as a phalanx of bodyguards, similarly attired. Putting on their body armor beneath their garb one of the cops announced, “I only graduated from high school and now I’m a full university professor!”

No shots were fired during the ceremonies, Taylor recalls today, though “halfway through the thing people started burning flags – US flags, Iranian flags. I figured the best thing to do was to keep on talking. Nobody cared what I was saying anyway.”

Such self-deprecation is the norm for the foreign-service veteran who found himself, in what he has described as a “Walter Mitty world,” during the early months of the hostage crisis.   As someone who was both a Canadian diplomat and a spy for the U.S., he believes his role in the escape of the six is underplayed in Argo, Ben Affleck’s slightly fictionalized film version of the CIA’s contribution, but after a highly publicized meeting with the director-star (and a chance to rewrite the movie’s final postscript), the dapper Canadian is, well, diplomatic. “I think you can get further by talking about it, citing the role of the Canadians without embarrassing the CIA,” he says.

I met with Taylor at his apartment building in New York a week before Argo’s release in October.  Most of the controversy about the film had already died down and he seemed to be apologizing for being impolitic with the press in the previous weeks. This was after the film had debuted at the Toronto Film Festival but before Affleck had flown Taylor and his wife, Pat (who was with him in Iran) to Hollywood for a private screening. After some scathing publicity in Canada (sample headline in Macleans: “Ben Affleck Rewrites History”) Taylor got a phone call.

“Hello, Mr. Ambassador? It’s Ben.”

Taylor, who met me in the lobby wearing a  bespoke suit sans tie, harbors no hard feelings. “Ben Affleck is a very affable guy, we got along just fine, despite the fact that the CIA was a very minor player [in the rescue depicted in the film] and according to the movie we were incidental.”

In one sense, everyone ensnared in the drama of post-revolutionary Iran was incidental – the Americans who were held hostage in Tehran for 444 days, the half-dozen Americans the Canadians helped escape, even the Canadian contingent itself. Taylor had come to Iran in 1977, at a time when it was considered a plum appointment; business between the two countries was booming, thanks to what he calls “the mutuality of oil interests,” the discos were open all night, the Shah was still in power. ”Iranians love to entertain,” says Taylor, and he and his wife were no slouches, either. He also liked to dance; when he served in his last diplomatic post in NY in the eighties he was sometimes called “the ambassador to Regine’s” because of his fondness for a hot disco of the day.

“There were any number of attractions,” he says now, “and I didn’t meet anybody who saw it coming. People who had been there for years, journalists, bankers, diplomats, Iranians – I couldn’t find anybody who said, ‘Be careful: two years from now the Shah is going to be deposed.’”

 

Kenneth Taylor never set out to be a diplomat. After getting a general arts degree at the University of Toronto, the Calgary native went to Berkeley to get an MBA, and had what he describes as “a marvelous two years… It was an open campus; what best illustrated that is that there were two booths near Sather Gate, one pro Batista, one pro Castro. Take your choice!” He admits to being puzzled by the political unrest that later roiled the university. “Maybe it was because I was in a graduate program and didn’t get a sense of the undergraduate emotion.”

Taylor was under the influence of a different kind of emotion: It was at Berkeley that he met Pat, a fourth-generation Chinese-Australian microbiologist who was completing her Ph.D. (1960) while working as an associate in the School of Public Health. That’s when she wasn’t dancing with the Oakland Light Opera Ballet Company or playing violin with the UC symphony. “I always thought there were three or four of her,” says her husband. The two were married at the Anglican Church near their old home at the International House shortly after Taylor got his first  Canadian government post to Guatemala.

“In those days there was no democracy in the foreign service,” says Taylor. “Today you’d get a list of posts, put your preferences, they’d talk to the ambassador. In 1959 you went where you were told.”

Even his choice of career was rather accidental. “I wanted to work internationally and there weren’t many jobs available,” Taylor recalls.            They were tumultuous times in Guatemala – a US-backed coup in 1954 set the stage for the civil war that began in 1960 – and the small office there covered all of Central America, so he did get to travel a lot. Pat, meanwhile, was working for the Center for Nutrition and Infection there establishing a pattern that would hold through all of her husband’s diplomatic posts.

”I had already worked for a decade,” says Dr. Patricia Taylor of her ability to skirt the rules about spouses working then. “It didn’t impinge on my responsibilities as Ken’s wife. I think they felt it wouldn’t allow me enough time to entertain.”

From Guatemala Taylor went where they sent him. Detroit (where their son Douglas was born in 1964) and Karachi were not on many people’s must-visit lists but he managed to keep his sense of humor at each post. When personnel called him in Detroit to inform him of his post in Pakistan he was told he would be in charge of the whole office – which turned out to be true. Almost upon his arrival everyone else stationed there was moved to Islamabad, leaving Taylor alone. “I reported to myself,” he says. “I told my friends in Ottawa, ‘I’ve got a big responsibility. I have an organization chart that goes in circles.’”

After a detour to swinging London in 1967 (“Carnaby Street, Twiggy, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones – we had a great time”) they returned Canada before being assigned to Iran. “It was quite a phenomenal time,” he says. “I was trying to promote Canadian business interest, trying to keep track of the region, trying to cultivate a relationship with the imperial court… Then of course everything fell apart.”

The speed with which things changed in Iran seems stunning even now, in the wake of the Arab Spring.  By the end of 1978 the Shah had left the country; in February 1979 Khomeini returned from exile.  In between the two events, Taylor arranged for the evacuation of 850 Canadians from Iran – “a tremendous feat of organization,” as Foreign Affairs later put it. You could call this prescience on Taylor’s part. There was no immediate threat to his countrymen then; as he says today, “Canadians don’t count as symbols. We may have been allies with the US but the US has the power and influence.”

And it was the US, as well Great Britain, that had so influenced events in modern Iranian history, starting with the CIA-sponsored overthrow of the nation’s left-leaning leader Mossadeq in 1953, to its support for the Shah in the decades that followed. By the time America allowed the ailing exile into the country to be treated for cancer in October 1979, the anti-US sentiment was uncontainable. When the followers of the Ayatollah Khomeini (who had returned from exile as a de facto leader of the popular revolution earlier that year) overran the US embassy on November 4, 1979 it was after months of  angry protest.

“I was troubled – well, ‘troubled’ is an understatement,” says Taylor of the invasion. “This was a total breach of diplomatic conventions and really, diplomatic conventions are far more valuable to a country like Iran, or Canada, than they are to Great Britain. They more or less stand on their own. “ He also felt it was a bad move for the Iranian people: “They were going to pay a heavy price for this, which they did.” The country’s isolation has only increased in the years since, with Canada finally closing its embassy there in September 2012 (a move that Taylor opposed).

 

The six Americans who slipped away from the embassy as 52 others were being captured and blindfolded were lucky: The consulate building they were working in appeared empty, thanks to recent renovations, and by the time they escaped it was pouring rain and the street was deserted. Initially they were headed for the British embassy but in trying to avoid various street demonstrations they ended up in one of their apartments (that of Robert Anders, a senior officer in the visa department). They spent the next few days moving between temporary hideouts (including the homes of their now captive coworkers) before Anders called John Sheardown, head of immigration at the Canadian embassy.

”We’ve got lots of room, Bob,” Sheardown said when Anders told him of their predicament. “Bring them along.”

They spent the following three months divided between Sheardown’s  and Taylor’s houses, playing board games (an Iranian version of Monopoly called Persepolis, with leather case and gold pieces, had been a gift to Taylor from the Shah), watching the news and drinking what booze remained while the Canadians made plans for getting them out of the country undetected. Flora MacDonald, Canada’s Minister for External Affairs, suggested disguising them as petroleum engineers, and told US Secretary of State Cyrus Vance they would put the houseguests, as they came to be called, “on donkeys and send them across the border” if America didn’t act.

On January 2, 1980, the CIA sent Tony Mendez to Ottawa to help plan the “exfiltration” of the houseguests from Tehran. Mendez (Ben Affleck in Argo) specialized in creating “cover legends” for CIA operatives and sneaking them out of tight situations. It is his 1999 book, The Master of Disguise, and a 2007 Wired article by Joshua Bearman that formed the basis for the film’s version. And it was Mendez who came up with the idea of passing the six off as Canadians who’d been in Iran scouting locations for a sci-fi flick.

“The thing about Hollywood is that they’re so eccentric they wouldn’t care what the political situation was,” Mendez told Robert Wright, author of the definitive account of the escape, Our Man in Tehran (2010).

Focusing on the Hollywood Option (as Mendez called his plot) diminished the role of the Canadians. “We were not innkeepers!” says Taylor. (It can’t help that Victor Garber, the Canadian actor who plays Taylor, is 63 while the then 45-year-old ambassador cut a fashionably youthful figure, with his long curly hair and oversized glasses.) “We did everything: we provided the passports, the documents, the birth certificates, the credit cards – their identities. Tony had spent time in Hollywood schmoozing with people.

“While we were [with the escapees] three months in Tehran, he comes out for a day and a half and in that time was totally within our cocoon,” Taylor continues.  “I was not going to have somebody from Washington come in, and say, ‘This is how we’re going to do it.’” (Truth to tell, Mendez presented the houseguests with three cover options – petroleum workers, agricultural nutritionists and movie scouts – and they felt most comfortable with the latter.)

That a Hollywood film is not historically circumspect doesn’t seem like a stop-the-presses moment, and all agree that Argo is true to the tenor of the times. “The early scenes were vivid,” says Pat of the takeover reenactment; she worked just blocks from the US embassy. “It brought me right back to that day.” But someone at Warner Bros should have been prepared for the hostile reaction Canadians would have to both the portrayal of their country’s role in the rescue and Taylor in particular. The latter oversight seems the most peculiar since upon his return Taylor was hailed as a hero throughout the United States. Americans, desperate for some bit of good news as the hostage crisis dragged on fifteen months, unseating President Jimmy Carter in the process, fell at the ambassador’s feet.  He was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal (other non-Americans so honored include Winston Churchill, Nelson Mandela and the Dalai Lama) and given the keys to New York City, LA, SF, Dallas, Las Vegas and Kansas City. With the blessing of External Affairs he crisscrossed both countries for six months, speaking at fairs and riding in parades.  His own country made him and Sheardown (and later their wives) Officers of the Order of Canada, and later appointed Taylor Consul-General in New York. As his son said in an interview during their year of adulation, “Unless my dad gets three standing ovations a day he feels sick.”

In 1984, Taylor left the Canadian Foreign Service after almost 25 years of practicing diplomacy. “I was still young enough to think about a so-called second career,” he says, “so I resigned and went with Nabisco Brands, which became RJR Nabisco. Seven years later some of us tried to take the company private and we lost to [Henry] Kravis.” That battle, recounted in Bryan Burroughs’ and John Helyar’s Barbarians at the Gate, was a different sort of hostile takeover than the one he had witnessed before. “I’ve been through two revolutions, one political and one corporate,” he says. “And there’s a big similarity because nobody can predict the outcome. We thought we were winning and that I would be living in southern France by now.”

Instead Taylor and his wife live in a high rise in Manhattan, overlooking the East River. He seems comfortable with the press he’s been getting in the last few weeks. The last time his name was in the news was in the wake of Wright’s book, which candidly discussed his work with the CIA, and not just in getting the six Americans out of Iran. He also helped them with the planning of Operation Eagle Claw, the abortive US Delta Force attempt to rescue the 52 hostages.

“With Eagle Claw we were actually actively involved ten hours a day setting out tactical moves for the commando raid, under guise of the embassy,” says Taylor. “That’s pretty serious stuff, or would have been seen as serious stuff to the Iranians.”

While some Canadians did not like the idea of one of their diplomats working with the American CIA, Taylor says he didn’t need a lot of persuading. “They asked me and I said yes. To me – how do I say this without being trite? – it seemed the right and responsible thing to do. The US didn’t have anybody there.

“I was happy with what I attempted to do and would not have done anything otherwise,” he continues. “I didn’t ask if it was a role Canada should play; I just happened to be the person on the spot at the time. When I went to Tehran in 1977, I expected a pretty conventional post.”

Then history got in the way, I say.

He laughs. “I stumbled over it!”

(published in California, The UC Alumni Magazine, Winter 2012)

 

 

 

 

 

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