Iranian Hostage Taking/The Canadian Caper
For many of us, our most lasting image of Iran is the hostage crisis which lasted for 444 days, beginning in November of 1979. The image of students burning the American flag, destroying the American Embassy. The dark shrouded 'Ayatollah Khomeini', looked every inch the evil character out of the popular movie of that time 'Star Wars'. He arrived back from exile in France and declared a Holy War against the United States. In fact, the shared history of the United States goes back nearly forty years before that, to World War II. It was this shared history which would eventually result in the hostage-taking and what would become known as 'The Canadian Caper'.
During World War II, Iran gained strategic importance to the allies, not only because it was an oil-rich country, which the allies didn't want to fall under control of Nazi Germany, but Iran had become an important corridor for the Americans to funnel arms to the Soviet Union. During this same time period, the Iranian people had risen in opposition against Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, the Shah of Iran, and forced him into exile in South Africa.
In 1944, the exiled Shah of Iran died in South Africa. His 22-year-old son returned to Iran with the backing of the occupying allied powers, and once again the reign of the Pahlavi regime resumed. The Shah depended upon the support of the United States to keep him in power, and after the war, American influence in Iran grew. American's military presence increased as the Cold War heated up. Iran was no longer viewed as a corridor to the Soviet Union, but as important bunker against the spread of communism. The regime of the new Shah proved to be no less corrupt than that of his father.
In 1953, growing opposition to the Shah culminated with the opposition leader, Mohammed Mossadegh, who had risen to the position of Prime Minister of Iran in 1951. Mossadegh was openly hostile to the Shah. The United States, fearing the growing power of the Prime Minister, used the CIA to stage mass rallies against Mossadegh and toppled him from office. The involvement of the Americans in Iranian politics was code named 'Operation Ajax'. In 1964, the Iranian legislative assembly granted American soldiers and their families stationed in Iran, the same immunity to prosecution which was normally only enjoyed by diplomats. The Iranian people were outraged that American soldiers were able to break their laws without fear. One of the most outspoken critics of this law was the Shiite Muslim Leader, Ayatollah Rhuollah Khomeini. He accused those of agreeing to this, including the Shah himself, as being traitors to Iran. The Shah could not risk having this powerful religious leader imprisoned. What he could and did risk, was having him deported. Khemeini was exiled to Turkey. On November 4, 1964, Khomeini vowed that he would return one day and even the score with the Shah and the United States. Throughout the 1970's, the Shah, with the backing of the U.S., remained in power. But there was a growing movement which was getting increasingly violent, against both the United States and the hated Shah. During 1978 and '79, there were increasing riots in the cities of Iran against the Shah. The Ayatollah, sensing his time to return was near, was now living in Paris. He issued a proclamation calling for the overthrow of the Shah and the hated Pahlavi regime.
On January 16, 1979, riddled with cancer, the Shah, his wife and family and a small group of supporters, boarded the Royal Iranian Boeing 707 and left Iran. He hoped that he could find refuge in the United States. President Jimmy Carter made it clear that he was not welcome. The Shah was reduced to travelling from country to country. He found temporary homes in Egypt, Morocco, the Bahamas, Panama and Mexico. Ayatollah Khomeini returned and became the leader of Iran. The immediate impact was that the United States lost access to Iranian oil. A $7 billion arms deal that the United States had signed with Iran was cancelled, and on February 14, 1979, the Ayatollah's revolutionary forces overran the American Embassy in Tehran. The United States announced the withdrawal of all American personnel from Iran.
Although the United States had no intention of helping the return of the Shah to power, in October 22, 1979, they did allow the Shah to enter the United States for medical reasons. The Iranians saw this as an indication that the United States still supported their old friend the Shah. On November 4, 1979, 3,000 Iranian students stormed the American Embassy and took the 66 Americans who were inside hostage. Blacks and women hostages were released. The students justified this because they felt that Blacks had suffered from oppression in the United States and that they did not wage war against women.
During the confusion of the hostage taking, six Americans simply walked out the American Embassy. They hid for four days before making their way to the Canadian Embassy and asking for sanctuary. The situation in Tehran was very tense. The Canadian Ambassador, Ken Taylor, knew if the Iranians found that Americans were being hidden in the Canadian Embassy, Canada would be perceived as an enemy, and the Canadian Embassy would be next. He made contact with Ottawa and told them of the situation. Ottawa agreed with Taylor's decision to grant sanctuary and immediately set to work on a plan to get them out. This involved forged Canadian passports and 79 days of waiting, as the Americans pretended to be visitors. Finally, on January 28th, 1980, the six Americans flew out. Canadian staff left shortly after. On January 6, 1981, after 444 days in captivity and one failed rescue attempt, the hostages were set free. It was Jimmy Carter's last day as U.S. President. After their release, the role that Canadians played in rescuing the six Americans, was revealed to the world. The role that Canada played in the hostage taking, changed its perception of being a neutral country, to being an active participant.