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06/19/2013

Canadian diplomat involved in Argo skeptical about Iran's new moderate president

Screen shot 2013-06-19 at 10.49.44 AM

A U.S. hostage is paraded by his captors in the compound of the U.S. embassy in Tehran, Iran, in November 1979. (AFP/Getty images)

In the weeks before six American diplomats were snuck out of Iran on Jan. 28, 1980, using fake Canadian passports, fake identities had to be created, documents had to be forged, and nerves needed to be calmed.

The matter of teaching the Americans how to "talk Canadian" fell to Roger Lucy, ambassador Ken Taylor's political officer in Tehran.

"We covered everything from 'eh' to 'zed," Lucy said in an interview. "We were a bit lucky because all of the Americans came from the northern U.S. and their accents weren't that different from ours, with the exception of one woman who was from Virginia.

"We basically kept going over their cover identities, where they were from, where their visas were issued, stuff like that," Lucy said.

By now, the event that inspired the Oscar-winning movie Argo are well-known.

On Nov. 4, militants in Tehran broke into the U.S. embassy and six American diplomats escaped and sought shelter with the Canadians. The U.S. rescue mission, "Operation Eagle Claw," saw the Americans create a bold cover story in which their diplomats were given new identities as Canadian filmmakers scouting for a location for a new sci-fi movie.

Until they left the country two months later, the Americans were hidden by Taylor and his Canadian colleagues.

It's worth re-reading Jim Coyle's interview with Taylor about Argo's shortcomings and it's also worth noting that Argo director Ben Affleck didn't only offend Canadians with his Hollywood treatment.

Lucy was among the Canadian diplomats who spoke Farsi in Iran at the time. He spotted a mistake on the Americans' forged visas that could have been disastrous.

The Iranian new year begins with the spring equinox, meaning that while the western world considers June the sixth month of the year, it's usually considered the third month on the Persian calendar, Lucy said.

"It could have been a big problem for them at the airport," he said.

Lucy, now 65, is retired and living in Ottawa. After retiring from his government job in 2004, Lucy spends his time traveling and writing trade books primarily on old Canadian military vehicles.

"The one I'm working on now is on the Ram tank, a Canadian designed and made tank that went from inspiration in 1941 to production in 10 months," Lucy said. "It wasn't designed as a combat tank, but was a great armed personnel carrier and munitions carrier."

It's hard to imagine that there aren't many days when Lucy isn't asked about Tehran.

"The Americans left at about 7:30 in the morning and we found out later that morning that they had made it out okay, even though their plane had been delayed a bit," Lucy said. "The Iranians called me later that morning and asked if we could have a discussion about air negotiations since they were no longer allowed to fly to the U.S.

"I said I would love to but I was leaving on holiday to Europe and asked to re-book for the next week," he said. "We destroyed our cypher machines, met with a few other western diplomats who were in the know and left Tehran at about 4 p.m. the same day."

Lucy says it wouldn't "be prudent" for him to return to Iran but he still watches political developments there closely.

"I'm guardedly skeptical about its future," he says.

While Iran's newly elected president Hasan Rowhani has pledged a more moderate approach towards the west, Lucy said he's heard that message before.

"The real power there lies with the supreme leader and the security forces with the revolutionary guard," he said. "Frankly, I'm skeptical that we'll see real change."

Lucy said he thinks most Iranians support the government's pursuit of a nuclear program, in the same way most Indians supported that country's efforts in the 1970s.

"It's worth remembering during the Iran-Iraq war that Iran suffered from attacks from weapons of mass destruction to which they could not respond," he said.

Lucy is scheduled to give a speech on his diplomatic career on Thursday night at 8 p.m. at the Royal Canadian Military Institute in Toronto.

Rick Westhead is a foreign affairs writer at The Star. He was based in India as the Star’s South Asia bureau chief from 2008 until 2011 and reports on international aid and development. Follow him on Twitter @rwesthead

 

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