The situation was dire. Unbearably tense. Three months after the late-1979 takeover of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran by Iranian revolutionaries, six American diplomats who had secretly escaped the compound were attempting to flee the country.
Through the capital city’s airport.
Disguised as a flashy, oblivious Hollywood film crew.
Led by an undercover Central Intelligence Agency officer.
The building was crawling with Iranian security, both regular Mehrabad International Airport police and militants from the Revolutionary Guard. Foreigners were viewed with intense suspicion. Discovery and capture would have been an international fiasco — at best, the Americans would rejoin the rest of the embassy’s staff who were being held hostage; at worst, they would be killed.
As the group’s airplane idled on the windy tarmac, the CIA officer felt a familiar pit in his stomach: Did I miss something? Have I blown cover?
As he watched a dramatic re-creation of that moment during a recent screening of the new film “Argo,” he felt the uneasiness all over again.
“Oh, absolutely, it brought back the emotions,” said Tony Mendez, a retired disguise specialist in the CIA’s office of technical service. “I went to screenings in [Los Angeles] and Toronto, and it was just like being there again. Both times.
“There’s nothing so final as ‘Wheels up.’ [On missions], we always were waiting for that wheels-up feeling before we broke out the Bloody Marys.”
Unbelievable but true
Based on a top-secret, too-unbelievable-to-be-true story that went largely unrevealed until the CIA declassified some of its role in the caper in the late 1990s, “Argo” recounts how the United States and Canada hid and then sneaked the six diplomats out of Iran during the 444-day hostage crisis.
Much of the planning and execution of the escape fell to Mr. Mendez, who served in the agency for a quarter-century and traveled to Russia, Vietnam and places he can’t reveal while specializing in cover identities and “exfiltration” missions — in other words, getting friendly assets out of hostile environments.
Few environments were as hostile to Americans as revolutionary Iran, where real and perceived enemies of the uprising led by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini were hanged from construction cranes in the streets of Tehran.
With the American diplomats hiding out in a pair of safe houses — specifically, the residences of Canadian Ambassador Ken Taylor and diplomat John Sheardown — the rescue effort faced a ticking clock. The Iranians had been examining embassy records, using teams of carpet weavers to reassemble shredded documents, attempting to identify CIA officers.
They likely would realize eventually that six employees were unaccounted for.