Ambassador Joseph Stafford and his wife Kathleen, came to LASA on Oct. 6 to talk to students about their time in the U.S. Foreign Service and specifically their experience during the Iranian Hostage Crisis. The Staffords were among six American embassy workers who escaped the takeover of the American Embassy by Iranian students and hid out with other diplomats.
“It’s important that students understand that history isn’t just about kings and queens, it’s the people that lived through it,” LASA social studies teacher Kim Pettigrew said.
What is now known as the Iranian Revolution began in 1977 with protests against the reigning Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, who was supported by the United States. The Shah was overthrown by supporters of Ayatollah Khomeini, a religious and political leader who had been in exile for 15 years after opposing the previous Shah, in 1979 and was taken in by the U.S. so he might receive adequate treatment for his cancer, which intensified the already present anti-American sentiment in Iran. The Staffords arrived in Iran in Sept. 1979 on their first post with the U.S. Foreign Service. According to Kathleen, the anti-Westernism in Iran was strong and unlike anywhere else she had been. Kathleen said that the regular demonstrations weren’t huge and she did not hear much of them from her post in the embassy.
“Iran is the only time I ever arrived at the airport, and there were some revolutionary guards and they weren’t trained soldiers, they were vigilante-type of people, but that was the first time and the only time I’ve ever been told to go back where I came from,” Kathleen said.
Both Staffords worked on the visa line, reading applications and approving immigration visas to the US. There was a large backlog of visa applicants because the US, in response to a February takeover of the embassy, had suspended all visas from Iran and only just began to re-offer them when the Staffords arrived.
“I came along really as a temporary employee because there was this huge backlog of visa applicants, and since I had taken exactly the same courses that they did, I did the same thing,” Kathleen said. “I interviewed visa applicants and basically my word went too. Maybe in a tricky case or something I would just go talk to Joe because I thought he was very fair.”
However, the events of Nov. 4, 1979 would be very different from a regular day of protests. Just one year after a number of protesting students were killed by the Shah’s forces on the Tehran University campus, demonstrations were planned to honor the martyrs.
“This was also the day of the martyrs,” Kathleen said. “That’s why the ladies, when I went over and they were in such a bad mood. They were worried because… it was the anniversary of when a number of students, I don’t know how many, had been killed in a protest on the Tehran University grounds. So they were called martyrs. So the lady said ‘this is the day of the martyrs’, they asked me why I came to work at all that day when I went over to do the card business. And so the demonstrations had already been planned for that.”
The demonstrations soon turned violent as students breached the walls of the US Embassy compound, flooding the grounds and brandishing weapons.
“It wasn’t spontaneous, you know, they planned that, to do it the same day,” Kathleen said. “I mean they had bolt cutters and somebody had guns. They didn’t get them, you know they had guns that they did not get by taking over the embassy. They had guns themselves that they used against Al, they were going to shoot him if somebody didn’t open the doors of the embassy.”
The Staffords and their co-workers soon realized this takeover would be different than the more peaceful February occurrence and set about destroying documents and visa plates. Someone placed a call to the police, but there was no answer. When they realized no help was coming, the Staffords, along with others in their building and the Iranians in the visa line, decided they needed to leave the embassy. Their building had street access and led out to a small alley, where Kathleen said there were only two revolutionary guards who did not seem to care about the escaping embassy workers.
“I think it was mainly just a decision in our building, our boss kind of decided what to do,” Kathleen said. “So we could get out and we were the only building on the embassy compound that could get out.”
The Staffords, along with fellow escapees Cora and Mike Lijek and Bob Anders, spent the next six days moving between houses, their own and those of fellow embassy workers, who were now being held hostage inside the compound, before finally ending up with John and Zena Sheardown, members of the Canadian foreign service and friends of Anders.
“We also had Kurdish friends [who] came and offered to help us,” Kathleen said. “Our landlord offered to help us, and we had to turn everybody down because we knew they could be in trouble if they helped us. So it wasn’t just the Canadians.”
For the next three months, the Sheardowns would host four of the six escaped Americans; the Lijeks, Anders and Lee Schatz. The Staffords, however, went to stay with Canadian Ambassador Ken Taylor and his wife, Pat. Life in the Taylor’s home was fairly constant; The Staffords would wake up and eat breakfast at the same time every day, spend their mornings reading books and the news, have lunch and in the evenings sit with the Taylors and listen to the latest news.
“It was pretty regimented,” Kathleen said. “We didn’t decide when we were going to have breakfast, we knew we needed to be downstairs. I mean you already feel like you’re putting these people out, so you’re trying to make as few demands as possible. In the morning we’d sit and read, [Joe would] read the paper. [Joe’s] farsi was very good by the time we left. And I would read all these books including John le Carre’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, all that stuff taught me about being confident and acting like you know what you’re doing.”
While the Staffords stayed hidden with the Taylors, the US government was working to find a way to get the six out of the country before the embassy occupiers noticed the escapees were not among those hostages still in captivity. In late January, CIA disguise and exfiltration expert, Tony Mendez, arrived in Iran, bringing with him Canadian passports and an intricate plan to get the six Americans safely back to U.S. soil. The plan, chronicled by the 2012 award-winning film Argo, involved the six posing as a Canadian film crew on a location-scouting trip. Kathleen posed as the crew’s artist while Joe played the part of producer.
“I was going to be the graphic artist,” Kathleen said. “I had some different drawing tablets and stuff like that. We just had the Canadian clothes. There wasn’t really a whole lot to it. It was just learning our names and our birthdays and a little bit about of Canada, just where something is. We had one day. There was this young Canadian junior officer, has lots of war equipment, he had like Nazi helmets and stuff like that so he put that stuff on and he pretended to interrogate us.”
On the morning of Jan. 27, the six left the Sheardown residence and headed for the Tehran airport, one of the first times they had been out in public since going into hiding. According to Kathleen, they were nervous because they had spent their time in the embassy working on the visa line, where they had seen thousands of hopeful immigrants and now feared being recognized.
“I did remember from my acting days that if you focus on something then other people will focus on it,” Kathleen said. “So I thought to keep myself calm I [watched] a couple, an Iranian couple that had been put to the side and they were giving them a hard time about leaving and so I looked to them. I just watched them. I just watched them and told myself to be calm because that would put attention on them and not on me.”
The six made it safely home to the US after 79 days in hiding, where they laid low and avoided the press to help ensure the safety of the hostages still trapped in Tehran. The escape plot remained secret for the next 18 years and the six escapees all returned to work in the foreign service, with the exception of Kathleen, who instead focused on her art.
“It’s difficult to be a spouse, a trailing spouse, so I’m lucky that I paint… and, as an artist, I can take my profession wherever I go,” Kathleen said. “Probably because of what happened in Iran, I realized life is short and I really loved to paint and so what I wanted to do was my artwork so I just stuck with that.”
For Joe, continuing on in the foreign service was an easy decision. His next post would be in Cairo, and he would continue to serve in calmer nations until being posted in Algiers in 1996.
“This is a one-of-a-kind assignment, circumstances, so you don’t expect this is going to happen again and so go on to more normal assignments,” Joe said. “Still, it’s my view that this is an interesting career, interesting line of work, still there, didn’t change that.”
According to Kathleen, no one really cared much about their story after the information was declassified, that is until Ben Affleck’s film Argo came out, triggering a slew of new interest.
“What’s going to happen is everybody’s going to remember Argo as history,” Kathleen said. “That’s the odd part.”
The critically-acclaimed film dramatizes such events as the rush to the airport, which in reality was calm and relatively uneventful, makes up events like the trip to the bazaar, which in the movie adds even more suspense but did not actually happen and leaves out things entirely, like the role of the Sheardowns in the escape.
“I just wish they’d put a footnote there at the end; it would’ve been easy to do that for the Sheardowns,” Kathleen said. “I understand that you can’t tell all these details and have an interesting story, you have to edit, to keep the focus, so I understand that.”
The film has been criticized for downplaying the role of the Canadians, as well as the other embassies and private individuals who risked their safety to help the escapees. After Argo came out, the Canadians produced their own documentary, titled Our Man in Tehran, which featured Ken Taylor and Zena Sheardown and emphasized the Canadian role in the caper.
“It had been hard on [Zena] all along because [John] never did get much credit,” Kathleen said. “And you know he hid four of the people and it was thanks to him we found them in the first place.”
The Staffords retired in Austin this year. After moving in next to LASA sophomore Eliza Fisher, they agreed to come to LASA to speak about their experience in Iran and the foreign service.
“I think, still think [foreign service is] a very good career, but people who do join should recognize that there may be challenging assignments,” Joe said. “Not as challenging as that one, one hopes, where they have to surreptitiously flee the country where they’re posted or endure the seizure of their embassy. But they will find they have a challenging situation, but it can be interesting work, it can be demanding work but it’s important work so I would encourage anyone with an interest in international relations to consider it.”
story by Sam Zern