New 'Argo' movie recalls memories of the value of an Irish passport
Argo, the political thriller now showing in Irish cinemas, tells the story of how CIA operative Tony Mendez, played by Ben Affleck, led the covert rescue of six American embassy officials from Tehran during the 1979-1980 Iran hostage crisis.
They had been hidden by Canadian diplomats after revolutionary students overran the American embassy and took 66 hostages.
Not altogether surprising in a Hollywood version of history, the leading role of the Canadian embassy is played down and the American spy agency, a junior partner in the rescue, is glorified.
Also, the most tense episodes, such as a crisis over airline tickets and an airport chase, are largely invented for dramatic effect.
Among several other inaccuracies, however, one struck a chord with me. In the film, Mendez writes “British” as his false nationality on the Iranian immigration form. His cover identity was Irish.
The American spooks knew that the Irish were regarded as neutrals by revolutionary Iran (Oliver North would use a forged Irish passport a few years later to enter Tehran during the Iran-Contra scandal).
This benefited me when I went to Iran in January 1980 to report for The Irish Times on the hostage crisis. Shortly after I arrived, all American journalists were abruptly expelled, but I was allowed to stay on, and became practically the only guest in the Intercontinental Hotel.
I asked the Revolutionary Guards at the main gates of the embassy complex on Taleghani Avenue if I could go inside and talk to the hostage-takers. After noting my nationality, they took down the number of my hotel room and next day I got a call from inside the embassy. A female voice said: “This is the den of espionage, your appointment is for 9.30 on Friday morning.”
Guards with Kalashnikov rifles took me into a room that had housed the US state department intelligence unit. Two unshaven students in zip-up sweaters and khaki windcheaters walked in and sat at a blanket-covered table. In an hour and a half they did not smile once, as they responded to questions with mind-numbing revolutionary speeches, which a woman interpreter in a white head-scarf wrote in a legal pad and then read back to me word for word.
One of the students, named Rahim, with drooping moustache and deep brown eyes, asked as I took my leave why Europeans were not supporting the overthrow of the Shah’s cruel regime. He added: “If the people of England knew of the crimes committed in their name in Northern Ireland, they would not allow the government to remain in power.”
Rahim presented me with a “revolutionary pack” of copies of secret papers which the CIA had failed to destroy before the siege and which showed the extent of the spy agency’s use of fake passports.
One document specified Belgian cover for an agent with the alias Paul Timmermans. It stated, “According to personal data in your passport, you are single, were born in Antwerp, Belgium 08 July ‘34, have blue eyes, have no distinguishing characteristics and are approximately 1.88 metres tall. Your occupation is that of a commercial business representative. Your Belgian passport was ostensibly issued in Jette [and] to enhance its validity the following back travel has been added, a trip to Madrid, Spain, in April 1977, a trip to Lisbon, Portugal, in August 1977, a trip to Helsinki, Finland, in 1978.”
Other embassy documents given to me contained details of cover for CIA agents as embassy secretaries, and accounts of Americans’ conversations with prominent Iranians, all of whom had since reportedly been banished from public life for their “collaboration”.
Diplomats in other western embassies told me how angry they were at their US counterparts for failing to anticipate the crisis and allowing their sources to be compromised. Their own Iranian contacts now declined to meet them.
British diplomatic ire has been roused again by the story-line in Argo, which has it that the British embassy turned away the six US diplomats as they sought a hiding place in a hostile city.
In fact the Brits at one time hosted the American refugees at great risk to themselves until the location became unsafe. The UK ambassador at the time, Sir John Graham, has expressed outrage and distress “that the film-makers should have got it so wrong”.
As for me, I am happy that Mendez’s cover as an Irish national was not blown at the time, as holders of genuine Irish passports would have become suspect as CIA agents – and I probably would have got the boot along with my colleagues from the American media.