Escape from Iran: The Canadian Caper

Demonstration in front of US Embassy Tehran

During the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran, young militant supporters of the Ayatollah Khomeini demonstrated in front of the United States Embassy in Tehran. The focus of their anger was Reza Shah, who had left Iran for exile in Egypt in mid-January 1979, but had become very ill and was how hospilatized in the US. On the 4th of November the militants stormed the main dipomatic compound and took the American diplomats and their colleagues hostage. Their demand was the return of the Shah. Other than a few hostages that were released by the militants, the majority would remain captive until 1981.

The House Guests

The Guests

When the American compound was being stormed and its staff taken hostage, several other diplomatic employees were working off site at the American Consulate. When they heard that the Embassy had been seized, they decided they would break into two groups and head for the British Embassy. While one group that took an indirect route was ultimately captured by the militants and returned to the compound, the other group avoided capture when they spotted militants near the British Embassy and took refuge at a nearby residence. Over the next few days the free diplomats moved from house to house to evade being taken prisoner. Five of remaining group eventually contact John Sheardown, a Canadian Immigration officer, who enthusiastically offered the group sanctuary. Three of the group, Robert Anders, Cora Amburn-Lijek and Mark Lijek stayed with the Sheardowns, while Joseph Stafford and Kathleen Stafford went with Ken Taylor, the Canadian Ambassaor, to his residence. Lee Schatz had initially found refuge with the Swedish Embassy, but after the Swedish Ambassador discussed the matter with his Canadian counterpart on November 27th, Taylor agreed that Schatz should be located with the rest of his colleagues at the Sheardown residence.

The Plan and Preparation

Diplomatic Shenanigans

Now that Canadians were at great personal risk for hiding the American diplomats, Ken Taylor informed his superiors about the house guests. He contacted then Secreatary of State for External Affairs Flora MacDonald and Prime Minister Joe Clark who expressed their support and offered full assistance to help exfiltrate the Americans.

The plan was to have the Americans use an international flight out of the country traveling on Canadian passports. False Canadian identities would be provided to the Americans with their documents, which would require the creation of counterfeit visas and other authorities. The Americans would need to act and look Canadian, with nothing linking and exposing them to their actual nationality.

A limited number of members of the Department of External Affairs of Canada were brought on board in order to assist in implementing the plan. There was a requirement for secure communications provided by department techncians and communicators, as well as carrying of documents by departmental couriers. While the Americans were living for an extended period in the Canadian residences, efforts needed to be made to minimize suspicions about who they were and provide cover for the operation. All this with the need for increased activity between the Canadian Embassy and its headquarters to actually put the plan into action and at the same time wind down the normal operations of the Embassy.

The Exfiltration

On January 27th, 1980 the Americans arrived at Mehrabad International Airport in Tehran in the guise of their Canadian identities and with Canadian passports. They boarded flight Swissair 363 for Zurich and departed without incident. They arrived back in the US on the 30th of that month.

On the same day that the Americans departed, Ambassador Taylor and his remaining staff (Roger Lucy, political officer and first secretary; Mary O'Flaherty, communications officer; and Warrant Officer Claude Gauthier) destroyed all remaining classified and sensitive equipment and documentation and closed the Embassy. Then they made their departure from Tehran.

Celebration and Awards

Ken Taylor

Though it was intended not to reveal the rescue of the Americans until after the resolution of the hostage crisis, a Canadian reporter in Washington had earlier learned of the operation, published his story on January 29th when he knew the Americans were safe. Once this information was public, the returnees were celebrated, along with the Canadians who helped make it possible. Ken Taylor, as Ambassador, became the recognizable face of Canada for Americans, and he was eventually rewarded with the position of Consulate General for Canada in New York.

The Canadians involved in the rescue were appointed to the Order of Canada, Canada's second-highest civilian award. They included:
Ambassador Taylor and his wife Patricia Taylor
Immigration officer Sheardown and his wife Zena Sheardown
Mary Catherine O'Flaherty – communications officer
Roger Lucy – political officer and first secretary for the Canadian Embassy
Laverna Katie Dollimore – personal secretary for Ambassador Taylor

Honouring Mary O'Flaherty

About a month after her passing, Mary O'Flaherty's obituary appeared in the Ottawa Citizen. It was brief and did not mention her exploits or award.

This is a link to Mary O'Flaherty's official award.

A short time after Mary O'Flaherty's obituary appeared, Blair Crawford, a reporter with the Ottawa Citizen, published an article about her exploits in Tehran.

After this CBC Radio did an interview with Roger Lucy, who shared his recollections about Mary and their time in Tehran.

© OFARTS Canada 2006-2018 Old Foreign Affairs Retired Technicians, Canada

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