Ken Taylor, known for his lead role in the “Canadian caper” that involved sheltering six American diplomats during the 1979 hostage crisis in Iran and spiriting them out to safety, is the subject of Our Man in Tehran, a Toronto International Film Festival documentary detailing the famous plot.
The former Canadian ambassador to Tehran gives his take on the film, looking back at his time in Iran for insight into what’s going on in the region now.
What will Our Man in Tehran reveal that its much-buzzed Hollywood counterpart, Argo, didn’t?
Argo was primarily entertainment. Argo conveyed that what we provided was a safe house – period. What really happened is that [the rescue operation] was a Canadian initiative. There was a partnership with Washington, but the CIA was a junior partner. In Argo, we were passive. The documentary is a documentary: a true reflection of what went on.
Three decades ago in Iran, you witnessed the transition from a reliably tyrannical dictator to a chaotic revolution. In countries such as Libya, Egypt and Yemen, we’ve seen a similar shift. Are the troubles we’re now seeing there growing pains? Could the West intervene in any sort of helpful way?
I think we’re going to have to exercise patience, maybe even for a generation. I’m not so sure there’s much the U.S. or the European community could do. It’s going to have to really work itself out.
In Our Man in Tehran, former prime minister Joe Clark says the temporary closing of Canada’s embassy in Iran in 1980 meant Ottawa was “not quite as influential” as it had been. Last year, the Harper government suspended diplomatic relations with Tehran. Do you think the move diminished Canada’s influence there?
We have to differentiate between what happened back then and the Harper government’s decision. [After the rescue], we didn’t break diplomatic relations. The Iranians maintained a presence in Canada. I think it’s important to have an embassy where you have an adversarial relationship. It has nothing to do with whether or not you value the relationship or agree in principal. To me, you keep the doors open and become a player. People might say, ‘It’s so difficult to operate there.’ But you want a presence. There are many ways to practice diplomacy, other than very traditional and conventional ones.
What about Canada’s decision – at least so far – not to join its key allies in recognizing the Syrian National Coalition as the official opposition in Syria? What does that mean for Ottawa’s voice in the conflict?
I’m puzzled. To me, Canada works very well collectively. You could say, ‘Canada works independently and we don’t necessarily need to go along with what the other countries are doing.’ But given the size of our country and our influence, unless we strongly differ with the initiatives of our allies, why wouldn’t we give them some support?
What’s your take on recently elected Iranian president, Hassan Rowhani, an internationally educated moderate?
I don’t mean to sound naive, but I’m very taken by his approach. I certainly think [his election] is a signal. There are some shrewd people in Washington, and I hope [his rise to power] is taken into account. In fact, there was some loosening of some minor sanctions the other day. The combination of President Rowhani and a somewhat more flexible Supreme Leader could lead to some sort of resolution – some lessening of tension, some way to handle Iran’s ambitions to have their own bomb. However, the wild card at the moment is Syria.
How are we to interpret what Iran might do if the U.S. strikes Syria? We hear, on the one hand, of the election of a moderate president and of the Foreign Minister tweeting Rosh Hashanah greetings, but we also hear of an influential politician saying a strike would fan the “flames of outrage” toward Israel …
I don’t think we should have any fixed ideas of how Iran is going to respond. I think there’d be a lot of rhetoric, but the last thing the Iranians want is to become involved in border warfare. It could trigger any number of things in the region. The Iranians are trying to put their economy together and they’d hope for a bit of stability, for a bit of lifting of the sanctions, for some international liberty in the financial sense. I think there is a transition – not a fundamental one – and I think we should look for new openings in Iran.
This interview has been edited and condensed.