Canadians and Brits, getting there is not easy. Neither country has
diplomatic relations with Iran at present. Canadians must mail their
passports to the Pakistani Embassy in Washington, DC, Brits must apply
to the Omani Embassy in London. (Britain and Iran have only recently
agreed to open consular services following a meeting between Iranian
President Hassan Rouhani and British Prime Minister David Cameron at the
UN in New York in September 2014). As a Canadian, visiting the Nest of
Spies is no easy job--Canadians must get their visas from the Iran
Interest Section of the Pakistan Embassy in Washington, DC.
Like most Iranians, my guide Shadan, a gentle and cultured journalist speaking fluent American English, is eager to see relations with the US restored. "It is still US property," she asserted. "In Islam, we respect private property and we want peaceful relations with the US." The embassy building is a long, low two-story brick building, similar to American high schools built in the 1930s, and nicknamed "Henderson High" by the embassy staff, referring to the ambassador appointed by President Truman in 1951.
After the hostage crisis,
the Revolutionary Guard used it as a training centre, eventually opening
a museum, variously called the Espionage Den or Den of Spies.
Provocative murals and posters on peeling walls are updated regularly to
reflect US invasions since then (Afghanistan and Iraq). One startling
frieze is a parody of Michelangelo's "Creation of Adam" showing Uncle
Sam handing dollars to a greedy banker. The perimeter walls feature a
number of anti-American murals commissioned by the government of Iran,
notably a Statue of Liberty with the slogan "Death to America!"
original furnishings--now much the worse for wear--include clunky 1970s
state-of-the-art electronic 'computers' and electronic devices used to
encrypt messages and send them to US plotters around the world, now
forlornly gathering dust. The "glass room" shows mannequins of agents
sitting enclosed entirely in glass to allow them absolute secrecy. One
must proceed through thick safe-like doors kept sealed by mighty Yale
locks. No Madam Tussauds could dream up a more eerie exhibit.
display are up to 20 volumes of documents seized by the "Muslim Student
Followers of the Imam's Line" (including painstakingly reconstructed shredded
documents) in a series called "Documents from the US Espionage Den".
These books included telegrams, correspondence, and reports from the US
Department of State and CIA, some of which remain classified to this
Westerners can see a Hollywood re-enactment of the early days of the hostage-taking, "Argo", the wildly popular but very inaccurate docudrama, winner of 2012 Best Picture Oscar, depicting the escape of six US diplomats in the early stages of the siege. Then-Canadian ambassador Kenneth Taylor hid the Americans who had scaled the rear embassy wall, made it to a safe house during the 1979 hostage crisis, and were issued Canadian passports.
In addition to
Canada's cloak-and-dagger role during the siege, the visit is made
especially piquant because of the "conspiracy" surrounding the Stephen
Harper's decision to cut all diplomatic relations with Iran in 2012.
Harper's personal crusade to demonize Iran reached a bizarre high/low
point when Minister of Foreign Affairs John Baird announced the severing
of relations with Iran in 2012 just hours before "Argo" premiered at
the Toronto International Film Festival. "Life imitates art" takes on
Not all Canadians were impressed with "Argo",
especially Ambassador Taylor, the hero of the "Canadian Caper" as the
affair was called at the time. Taylor was awarded the Congressional Gold
Medal in 1981 for his help and made an Officer of the Order of Canada,
but he was upset by the many inaccuracies in the Hollywood version of
reality. After the film's success, Taylor decided to make a real
documentary "Our Man in Tehran", premiered at the 2013 TIFF, where he
explained that in reality "the CIA was a junior partner. In 'Argo', we
The siege of the US embassy was actually the
second one following the January 1979 revolution in Iran. An earlier one
by leftist students in February had ended when the Iranian government
secured the embassy for the Americans after three days. However, by
November, the revolution was in the hands of Ayatollah Khomeini's
followers, and he was now de facto head of the government. The
occupying students demanded the return of the Shah for trial and the
Ayatollah could hardly tell them to get lost.
rescue operation itself was initiated at great personal risk by the
Ambassador Taylor and Canadian immigration officer John Sheardown, who
provided sanctuary in their own private residences for the six
Americans. Then Canadian Secretary of State for External Affairs Flora
MacDonald and Prime Minister Joe Clark issued an Order in Council to
forge the passports (plus one for CIA disguise and exfiltration expert
Tony Mendez), and the CIA provided the fake visas.
hero Mendez proceeded to Tehran as a Canadian film producer, joined his
compatriots at the Canadian ambassador's residence, and they were soon
left for Switzerland aboard the appropriately named Aargau airplane,
ending the hostages' six-week ordeal. A last-minute glitch--the CIA had
the wrong visa dates, apparently unaware that Iran uses its Islamic
calendar--was overcome by an alert Canadian official.
The Tehran embassy had indeed been a 'nest of spies', as the Shah was the most reliable US ally in the Muslim world, along with Turkey's Kemal Ataturk the only Muslim leader who recognized Israel, and it was only natural that the CIA made the US embassy in Tehran 'mission control centre' for all US espionage activity in the Muslim world. Officially, the US has since admitted that there were at least three bona fide CIA agents among the captives. The six diplomats rescued by Taylor were consular workers, so they probably were not CIA agents.
students representatives insist they did not torture any of the
hostages, and, declaring their solidarity with other "oppressed
minorities" and "the special place of women in Islam," freed 13 women
and two African-American guards two weeks into the siege, and later a
man suffering from
multiple sclerosis. None of the women hostages complained of sexual
harassment. But following his unsuccessful escape attempt, hostage Bill
Belk said he was beaten and publicly humiliated, put in solitary
confinement and had his hands bound for weeks.
arranged for a Christian minister to provide religious services. Photos
in the museum show Iranian cooks preparing a turkey Christmas dinner for
the hostages, and two women and the guards relaxed and laughing. A
photo of one of the guards showed him with an imam, and he publicly
thanked Ayatollah Khomeini for allowing him to go free. A touch of the
No money changed hands as a result of the
siege, and there were no American casualties, except for eight Marines
who died when their helicopter crashed in the Iranian desert in Carter's
first bungled rescue attempt in April 1980. The 52 hostages were flown
to Algeria January 20 1981, 20 minutes after Reagan concluded his
inaugural address, the first move in what came to be known as the
Iran-Contra affair. Reagan's foreign policy team had secretly agreed to
exchange arms-for-hostages with the Iranians, now at war with Iraq.