Thrilling account of the 1979 Iranian hostage crisis that focuses on the little-known role of Canadian diplomats in protecting Americans.
Wright (History/Trent University/Three Nights in Havana, 2008) notes that the crisis, which transfixed the world for 444 days, was quickly forgotten by the same American public infuriated by it. When the Iranian student radicals “freed the American captives, in January 1981, the crisis faded from public view.” As a result, the role of Canadian ambassador Ken Taylor was relegated to a historical footnote. Wright argues that his actions in sheltering six U.S. diplomats who’d avoided the initial assault on the embassy were selfless and intrepid and set a high standard for diplomatic nobility. One of the narrative’s greatest strengths is the author’s sense of historical context. He sets the stage for the conflagration by looking back to 1953, when the CIA deposed the elected nationalist Mohammed Mosaddegh in favor of Shah Pahlavi, correctly perceived as in line with U.S. Cold War goals. By the ’70s, worldwide revulsion over the shah’s police-state tactics provided an opening for his nemesis, the exiled Ayatollah Khomeini, whose Islamist followers toppled the regime surprisingly fast. President Jimmy Carter’s decision to admit the shah for medical care proved the last straw for Khomeini’s student followers; Khomeini himself quickly endorsed their seizure of the embassy in order to diminish the power of moderates. This violation of diplomacy’s basic principles outraged Taylor, and through a tense series of intrigues, the Canadians wound up sheltering six fugitive American diplomats. Taylor provided much intelligence to the White House and CIA as they planned various responses (including the ill-fated “Eagle Claw” rescue mission), leading to the successful exfiltration of the fugitives, a bright spot in an otherwise disastrous period. Ronald Reagan presented him with the Congressional Gold Medal, in response to which Taylor observed, with typical modesty, “The United States faces the rebuffs of history with patience, determination, and a search for justice.”
A well-constructed history of a remarkable story, the repercussions of which are still felt today.