Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Canadian caper

I hope you’ve gotten a chance to see the movie Argo which won the Academy Award for Best Picture on Sunday night. It portrays the hostage crisis in the U.S. Embassy in Iran in 1979 and how a small group escaped aided by the Canadian Embassy. Frequently referred to as the 'Canadian caper' the escape of the six U.S. diplomats almost three months into the hostage crisis wouldn't have been possible without the support of the Canadian diplomatic corps. Not mentioned in the movie is Mexico’s role in the Shah's exile.

Deposed Iranian Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi spent the first five months of his exile in Egypt, Morocco, and the Bahamas. In June 1979 he arrived in Mexico, benefiting from Mexico's long-standing policy of a welcoming those in need of political asylum. The Shah, his family, and staff took over the Hacienda de Cortés Hotel in Jiutepec, Morelos. Two months later they moved into a large home on Privada del Rio street in southern Cuernavaca. I was eager to meet him.

After much pressure from national and foreign press, the shah's spokesman Robert Armao scheduled a press conference.  I registered for it.  When I arrived a heated discussion was going on in the middle of the cobblestone street.  Reporters were told the press conference was cancelled and replaced with a photo opportunity -- no chance for questions and answers. 

I asked Armao how he addressed the Shah.  "Your Majesty or Excellency," was his reply. Once tripods and cameras were in place on one end of a swimming pool, the Shah and Empress Farah took their places at the other end. The only sounds were the clicking of camera shutters and whir of motorized film advancers.  I broke the silence and bellowed in English "Excellency, would you mind answering a few questions?"

The startled Shah replied, "It depends." With that what was to be his last press conference began.  Other reporters started shouting their questions in Spanish before the last syllable of "depends" was out of the Shah's mouth. I stepped in as the Spanish-English interpreter.  

Pointed questions were fired away about events similar to those shown in the grainy black and white video with which Argo begins. The Shah skillfully answered all questions, punctuating each with a smile at the end.  After a reasonable amount of time he brought the press conference to a close with both the empress and emperor waving goodbye as they walked into the house.  

The following day I went to Privada del Rio to see what else was going on and encountered the Shah walking from his house to a neighboring house.  As we shook hands he graciously told me he was going to an interview and invited me to listen in.  He entered first and his security people next.  Just as I was about to enter Armao shut the door in my face!

I knew of the Shah's love of speed, be it skiing down a mountain, driving a fast car, or piloting a plane.  I’ve read that when he skied in Switzerland he had five Shah-look-alikes skiing at the same time. The last time I saw him was on the expressway from Cuernavaca to Mexico City. It’s a road I enjoy driving fast -- 'straightening out' its curves while keeping track of other cars going at my same pace.  I wave them on when I see I won't be able to keep up with them. If we get to the tollhouse together I consider it a draw.   It was fun seeing that the driver of the car that overtook me one day was the Shah.  His chauffeur was in the passenger seat. 

I was surprised when a month later the man with the firm handshake, driver of the fast car and tennis player recently seen playing at the Cuernavaca Racquet Club was making plans to travel to New York for urgent cancer treatment.  

The movie Argo makes no mention of the Shah’s four-month stay in Mexico before traveling to New York. His arrival in the U.S. sparked anger that led to hostages being seized on November 4, 1979, in Tehran's U.S. Embassy. The hostage-takers demanded that the United States exchange the Shah for the 52 hostages.  

When the hostages were seized the U.S. government asked the Shah to leave.  He went to Panama's Contadora Island for three months. He departed from there just hours before the Iranian ambassador arrived bearing a 450-page extradition request.

Mohammad Reza Pahlavi's death at the age of sixty was announced in Cairo on July 27, 1980.  In Muslim tradition his whole body was wrapped in a shroud.  At the moment of burial his son turned the body onto its right side so that it faced Mecca.  Only the Shah's immediate family, closest friends, and his physicians saw the deceased Shah.

The Shah's death did away with the hostage-takers' main demand, however it took another six months to negotiate the hostages' release. Was it an even more audacious process than the Canadian caper -- a story befitting another movie? 


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