Former Canadian ambassador Ken Taylor brings intrigue and reality with Our Man in Tehran

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Ken Taylor concedes he found himself a bit thrown by the direction that the CIA wanted to go with a plan to sneak Americans out of Iran. Disguising a group of U.S. nationals as Canadians who were making a science-fiction film for Hollywood—it sounded a bit convoluted.

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“I was sort of bemused,” the former Canadian ambassador to Iran tells the Straight. “But it didn’t really matter to me too much. The mechanics to get them out were all in place. How they went about it was something that was decided and that was fine with me.”

In 1979, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini overthrew a U.S.-backed dictator who had ruled Iran for nearly 40 years. Millions of people filled the streets to celebrate. In that revolutionary atmosphere, students stormed the U.S. embassy in Tehran and took 52 people hostage. Shortly thereafter, six Americans showed up at the house of Canadian diplomat John Sheardown, and Taylor found himself responsible for their safety.

In Our Man in Tehran, a new documentary about the “Canadian Caper” as it came to be known, two of those Americans recount their surprise upon meeting Taylor—“Curly hair and all, a little spiffy sports car, and I think he was wearing jeans,” one says with a laugh.

Taylor recalls that first meeting with equal amusement. “I guess I did look a bit young at that time, to the Americans,” he says. “But I’d been in Guatemala and Detroit and Pakistan…so I felt it was something I was capable of.”

Despite the risks, Taylor maintains he never considered refusing the Americans shelter. “My instincts, I felt, followed the Canadian characteristic, not that we’re superior or better than anybody else, but I just couldn’t see Canada saying, ‘No, you can’t stay with us.’”

Reviews of Our Man in Tehran will no doubt compare the film to Argo, Ben Affleck’s 2012 Academy Award-winning dramatization of the same subject. But Taylor explains that the documentary is not a reaction to Argo, and was in production before Affleck’s Hollywood blockbuster hit theatres.

“We didn’t necessarily know what Argo was going to say but everything pointed to a U.S. production with that slant, where the Canadians would be sort of peripheral,” he says. “So it was not a response to Argo, in that sense, but it ended up being one in such in a way.”

A number of Canadians involved in the scheme appear in the documentary, from Taylor and Sheardown, right up to then-Secretary of State for External Affairs Flora MacDonald and the prime minister of the day, Joe Clark. In Argo, Canadians’ role in getting the Americans out of Iran was virtually expunged from history. But Taylor says that in addition to accuracy, what really sets Our Man in Tehran apart is the film’s emphasis on context.

“It gives some insight, which is complex in itself, about the declining days of the shah,” he says. “I think it gives a sense of what the Iranians were confronting, why some of them wanted a change, and then, as the movie goes on, how they felt let down by Khomeini and what he stood for versus what he actually did.”

Our Man in Tehran plays at the Vancity Theatre beginning Friday (January 24).

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