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The True Story Behind The Movie 'Argo'

Updated October 8, 2019 3.3k views13 items

Iran and the United States have a tumultuous relationship that remains in turmoil today. After the CIA helped install Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the shah overturned Iran's constitutional monarchy and became a dictator. The shah, and by extension the US, was responsible for countless human rights failures. Shah Pahlavi fled the country in 1979 after Iranian citizens deposed him. The US allowed the shah to enter its country to undergo medical treatment in late 1979, which angered Iranians who wanted the shah extradited to Iran to face a court on charges of human rights violations, thus setting the stage for the infamous Iran hostage crisis.

The Iran hostage crisis occurred on November 4, 1979, when a peaceful protest turned into a takeover of the American embassy in Iran. Protestors climbed the walls of the embassy and took 52 hostages for over a year. The few who escaped faced a difficult challenge: They had to remain in hiding and figure out how to covertly leave the country. With the help of the Canadian embassy, six Americans hid out in Iran for three months as other US-owned properties were raided by demonstrators. They managed to escape by pretending to be film producers scouting locations in Iran, an operation which came to be called the "Canadian Caper." The 2012 hit Argo told the story of the escaped diplomats. While the film slightly embellished the truth, the tale is a compelling one regardless. 

  • Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Iranian Students Stormed The US Embassy In Tehran And Took Hostages

    On November 4, 1979, hundreds of Iranian students climbed the walls of the American embassy. They took over 50 Americans hostage due to renewed worry about the United States involvement in overthrowing Iran's constitutional monarchy. After Iran's deposed shah entered the US for medical treatment in 1979, citizens feared the US might attempt to reinstate him as Iran's leader, as it had done in the early '50s.

    Although the protest began as a symbolic gesture, it turned into a hostage situation after the angry crowd stormed the embassy. Iran's Ayatollah Khomeini issued a statement of support for the protest, turning the occupation from a student-led movement into a state-sanctioned demonstration.

  • Photo: Assabah / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    The Escaped Embassy Workers Changed Locations Multiple Times

    The movie Argo focuses on six American embassy workers who escaped the Iran hostage crisis. Cora and Mark Lijek, Joe and Kathy Stafford, and Bob Anders were instructed to go to the British embassy. After discovering it was blocked by protestors, Anders advised the group to instead go to his apartment, where they hid out. The five were eventually joined by Lee Schatz, who had taken refuge with the Swedes.

    Over the following week, the six workers changed locations five times. They initially fled to the British embassy in Iran. But British residences were nearly confronted, and protestors briefly overtook the building. The group stayed mostly in apartments owned by Americans, but they knew Iranian demonstrators would raid the space once they checked records of American-owned properties.

  • The Six Moved To A Canadian-Owned Apartment For Months 

    One of the embassy workers arranged for the six escapees to move from British residences to an American-owned apartment after the British embassy was overrun by Iranian protestors. They coordinated the move in Thai with the help of a Thai housekeeper nicknamed Sam, who helped them keep their plans private. After moving to the new apartment, however, Sam got into an argument with the housekeeper there, who didn't understand the hostage situation. For fear of being exposed, the group moved to another location nearby.

    The new apartment had been unoccupied for a while, and the escaped embassy workers knew it was only a matter of time before someone noticed people were living in the American-owned space again. So the Americans coordinated another move with Canadian John Sheardown. British embassy workers picked up the Americans and dropped them off at Sheardown's home, where embassy worker Mark Lijek said he felt for the first time since the hostage crisis began that he'd eventually be able to leave Iran.

  • Photo: Government of Islamic Republic / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    The Six Diplomats Presented A Problem For Negotiators In Washington

    The embassy escapees were in a tricky situation when it came to hostage negotiations. Should the US have successfully negotiated with Iran to have all the hostages freed, they would have to mention the six embassy workers in hiding. It would have likely upset Iran powers, who would have wanted to interrogate each hostage.

    As the Americans' time in hiding continued, the path for escape only became less clear and the risk for capture greater. It wasn't until late January, nearly three months after the initial protests, that the embassy workers were able to leave Iran.