Wednesday 24 January 2018

Obituary: Ken Taylor

The Canadian ambassador behind the plan to spirit US diplomats out of Iran, as featured in Ben Affleck's movie Argo

CRISIS: Ken Taylor in 1980 briefing a reporter in Iran
CRISIS: Ken Taylor in 1980 briefing a reporter in Iran

Ken Taylor, the former Canadian ambassador to Iran, who has died aged 81, played a crucial role in the rescue of American diplomats during the hostage crisis in Tehran in 1980, events which became known as the 'Canadian caper' and which returned to the spotlight in 2012 with the release of the Oscar-winning film Argo, directed by and starring Ben Affleck.

On November 4, 1979, militant Iranian radicals seized the US Embassy in Tehran, taking 52 Americans hostage in retaliation for US support for the recently deposed Shah. The diplomats were held for 444 days, but unbeknown to the Iranians, six Americans had managed to escape. Their orders were to seek help at the British embassy, but they found a huge group of protesters blocking their path. For the next six days they lived on their wits, moving from house to house to avoid being found by the mobs roaming the city.

Eventually they managed to make contact with Canadian diplomats and, at enormous personal risk, Ken Taylor and John Sheardown, an immigration officer at the Canadian consulate, gave them sanctuary. Taylor and his wife, Pat, took two members of the group, while the other four stayed with Sheardown.

The group remained in hiding for 79 days as secret talks began about how they could be smuggled out of the country. These were initiated by Taylor, who arranged for the six to be issued with Canadian passports with forged Iranian visas prepared by the CIA, so that they could be spirited out on an international flight.

The CIA enlisted its disguise and exfiltration expert, Tony Mendez, to provide a cover story. Working closely with the Canadians, Mendez concocted an elaborate plot in which the six Americans would pose as a Hollywood crew looking for locations for a projected sci-fi film.

As the weeks passed, the Americans rehearsed their storylines, while Taylor sent members of his staff on needless flights out of Tehran's Mehrabad Airport to test Iranian security procedures. On January 28, 1980, the US diplomats made their way to the airport, all playing their parts. The group boarded a Swissair flight to Zurich without mishap. Sheardown and Taylor followed soon after.

When the truth came to light, demonstrations of thanks broke out across the US. Canadian flags were flown everywhere. Taylor became a hero and, shortly after his return, was posted to New York as his country's Consul General. He received dozens of awards, including the US Congressional Gold Medal.

Taylor's deeds hit the headlines again with the release of Argo, in which he was played by Victor Garber. While Argo won a Best Film Oscar it provoked outrage among diplomats from other nations involved, including Britain and New Zealand, who had risked plenty to help them, but who were seen as turning them away in the film.

Nowhere was the anger more intense than in Canada, which felt that its diplomats had been made to look like meek observers to the CIA's heroics. The original film postscript said Taylor's awards, but implied that he did not deserve them because the film ends with the CIA deciding to let Canada have the credit. Taylor persuaded Ben Affleck to revise the postscript to give the Canadians some credit.

In 1960 he married Patricia Lee, a microbiologist, who survives him with their son.

Sunday Independent

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