Canada’s ‘Argo’ Ambassador to Iran Passes Away at 81

Ken Taylor, Canada’s ambassador who saved U.S. diplomats, dies after battle with colon cancer.


Ken Taylor, a Canadian ambassador who played a critical role in the escape of six U.S. diplomats from Tehran in the hectic aftermath of the 1979 Iranian revolution, died Thursday at 81 after a battle with colon cancer.

Taylor, Canada’s ambassador to Iran as it convulsed, sheltered a half-dozen U.S. officials who managed to escape the U.S. Embassy after Islamist students and militias stormed it, taking about 50 others hostage for more than a year. He and his first secretary, John Sheardown, played a critical role in the diplomats’ eventual escape by procuring Canadian passports and forged Iranian visas, a rare win in a dismal saga that would ultimately help doom President Jimmy Carter’s bid for reelection. Their high-profile operation became known as the “Canadian Caper” and was featured in the 2012 film Argo.

Taylor worked with the CIA and with Canadian Prime Minister Joe Clark to obtain the documents needed to get the U.S. diplomats out of Iran. The risky covert operation came at high personal risk for Taylor and his team, who could have been taken hostage themselves had they been discovered.

“One thing about Ken was that I don’t think he ever doubted what he was doing was right,” Mark Lijek, one of the six U.S. diplomats, told the Globe and Mail, a Canadian newspaper, on Thursday shortly after Taylor’s death. “There was never any hesitation on Taylor’s part to offer us sanctuary.”

Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper also praised Taylor on Thursday, saying that he “represented the very best that Canada’s foreign service has to offer.”

“As Canada’s ambassador to Iran during the Iranian revolution, Taylor valiantly risked his own life by shielding a group of American diplomats from capture,” Harper said in a statement.

The story of the rescue operation was famously, if controversially, depicted in the critically acclaimed film directed by and starring Ben Affleck, who played the role of real-life CIA operative Tony Mendez. While Argo received praise from film critics, and even won the Oscar for best picture, it was heavily criticized by spurned Canadians — and also by Carter and Taylor. They said it misrepresented the rescue scheme and portrayed Taylor’s team as largely passive in securing the U.S. diplomats’ freedom.

“Ben Affleck’s character in the film only stayed in Iran a day-and-a-half,” Carter told CNN in a 2013 interview. “And the main hero, in my opinion, was Ken Taylor, who was the Canadian ambassador who orchestrated the entire process.”

As Taylor explained to the Toronto Star in 2012, several details of the film’s plot were fiction. For instance, there was never any crisis about plane tickets for the diplomats when trying to leave Iran, and the group never visited a bazaar, as depicted in the film. Furthermore, Taylor never threatened to close down the Canadian Embassy and leave the six Americans with nowhere to hide.

But perhaps the biggest gripe was with the film’s ending, where the CIA decides to let Canada take credit for the escape of the six, because otherwise the United States would be blamed and the other embassy staff who were still being held hostage might be killed in retaliation.

After the initial controversy, Affleck reached out to Taylor, flying him and his wife out to Los Angeles for a private screening of the film and listening to his concerns about the movie. Out of respect to Taylor, Affleck amended the film’s postscript, changing it to: “The involvement of the CIA complemented efforts of the Canadian Embassy to free the six held in Tehran. To this day, the story stands as an enduring model of international co-operation between governments.”

“In reality, Canada was responsible for the six and the CIA was a junior partner,” Taylor told the Toronto Star back in 2012. “But I realize this is a movie and you have to keep the audience on the edge of their seats.”

Taylor’s contributions were widely recognized upon the six diplomats’ safe return in 1980. The former ambassador was inducted into the Order of Canada, the country’s highest honor; awarded the U.S. Congressional Gold Medal; and appointed the Canadian consul-general to New York City after he left Iran.

Photo credit: STAFF/AFP/Getty Images

Reid Standish is a journalist based in Astana, Kazakhstan covering Central Asia and Eurasia for Foreign Policy and other publications. He was formerly an associate editor at FP. Twitter: @reidstan

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