The Canadian Caper was the unofficial name given to the covert rescue by the Government of Canada of six American diplomats who evaded capture during the seizure of the United States embassy in Tehran, Iran, by Iranian students on November 4, 1979, precipitating the Iran Hostage Crisis.
Three of the six diplomats were working in an outbuilding of the embassy when the students swarmed over the wall. They hastily fled into Tehrans streets along with an American who had been getting a visa fixed (he was able to fly out by himself). Through the efforts of U.S. Charge daffaires Bruce Laingen, the Canadians were contacted, and by November 10, the three diplomats, two of whom had found their spouses, made their way to the Canadian embassy. A fourth joined the group some two weeks later, having spent the interim sleeping on the floor at the Swedish embassy.
The operation itself was initiated at great personal risk by then Canadian ambassador to Iran, Ken Taylor, and Canadian Immigration officer John Sheardown who provided sanctuary for the six endangered American diplomats in their own private residences. Two friendly-country embassy officials assisted as well, and an unoccupied diplomatic residence was used for several weeks.
Ambassador Taylor contacted then Canadian Secretary of State for External Affairs, Flora MacDonald and Canadian Prime Minister Joe Clark for assistance, who expressed support for the effort. The decision was made to smuggle the six Americans out of Iran on an international flight using Canadian passports. To achieve this, Canada's Parliament convened its first secret session since World War II to grant permission for an Order-in-Council to be made for the issuance of Canadian passports to the American diplomats in Canadian sanctuary. The granted passports, feigning Canadian citizenship and a set of forged Iranian visas prepared by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency would be used to attempt an escape from Iran.
The CIA enlisted its disguise and exfiltration expert, Tony Mendez, to provide a cover story, documents, and appropriate clothing and materials to change their appearance. Mendez worked closely with Canadian government staff in Ottawa, sending as much as he could in the diplomatic pouch, before flying to Tehran with an associate to assist with the rescue. There were alternate passports and identities for a variety of scenarios, but the cover story selected had the six being a Hollywood crew scouting movie locations. The elaborate back-story involved a film named Argo, for a Middle-Eastern feel, and a post office box in Los Angeles for Studio Six, backed by display ads. (The movie scenario was considered one way to get an armed team into Tehran to retake the embassy.)
As the weeks passed, the Americans read and played games, mainly Scrabble, while Taylor made efforts both to fly out non-essential personnel, while sending others on fake errands to both establish erratic patterns and case airport procedures. The tension rose as suspicious telephone calls and other activity indicated the possibility that the concealment was known. Taylor sketched out the escape plan himself using a felt-tip marker.
On January 27, 1980, the American diplomats, now posing as Canadians with valid Canadian passports boarded a flight for Zurich, Switzerland, at Tehrans Mehrabad Airport. They arrived in the friendly nation safely. The Canadian embassy was then closed the same day with Ken Taylor and remaining staff returning to Canada.
The six rescued American diplomats:
Robert Anders, 34 - Consular Officer
Mark J. Lijek, 29 - Consular Officer
Cora A. Lijek, 25 - Consular Assistant
Henry L. Schatz, 31 - Agriculture Attache
Joseph D. Stafford, 29 - Consular Officer
Kathleen F. Stafford, 28 - Consular Assistant
Ambassador Taylor, Sheardown, and their wives, Patricia Taylor and Zena Sheardown, along with embassy staff members Mary Catherine O'Flaherty, Roger Lucy and Laverna Dollimore were awarded the Order of Canada, Canadas highest civilian award. Zena Sheardown, a Guyanese-born British subject, would normally have been ineligible, but was awarded the membership on an honorary basis due to the intervention of former External Affairs Minister Flora MacDonald. Ambassador Taylor was subsequently awarded the Congressional Gold Medal by the United States Congress for his assistance to the United States of America.
Jean Pelletier, Washington correspondent to the Montreal La Presse newspaper, uncovered the situation before the Canadian Caper had reached its conclusion but refused to allow the paper to publish the story in order to preserve the safety of those involved, despite the considerable news value to the paper and writer. Pelletiers story ran as soon as he knew the hostages had left Iran, but by exposing the operation, demolished plans by the U.S. to secretly house the six Americans in Europe while the hostage drama continued. The Argo story was blown, but the CIA role was kept secret by both the U.S. and Canadian governments at the time for the safety of the remaining hostages; its full involvement was not revealed until 1997.
Officially, the U.S. had maintained for negotiation purposes that all of its missing diplomats were held hostage, so the rescue came as a complete surprise to the public. American gratitude for the Canadian rescue effort was displayed widely and by numerous American television personalities and ordinary people alike. Thousands of businesses flew the Maple Leaf flag or changed their outdoor signage to phrases like Merci Canada, and Canadian tourists were treated to free meals and hotel stays.
In 1981, the Canadian Caper was made into a television movie called [[Escape from Iran: The Canadian Caper]], directed by Lamont Johnson, with Ken Taylor and John Sheardown played by Gordon Pinsent and Chris Wiggins, respectively. The movie was filmed in and around Toronto, which the cast and crew nicknamed "Tehranto".
Laura Scandiffio wrote a short story based on this event: Fugitives in Iran
Pelletier, J. & Adams, C. The Canadian Caper, Macmillan of Canada 1981, illustrated, 239 pages. ISBN 0-7715-9583-2
Bearman, Joshuah. "How the CIA Used a Fake Sci-Fi Flick to Rescue Americans from Tehran", Wired Magazine, issue 15.05. [*]
Department of Foreign Affairs website [*] retrieved 25-01-2008