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'And the Best Film Goes to...' Argo Raises Awkward Questions and Consternation for Iran

Commentary, 27 February 2013
Americas, History, Middle East and North Africa
The Iranian regime is none too pleased with Argo winning best film at the Oscars. It feeds into Iranian conspiracy theories about the United States, and highlights the tricky role the current Supreme Leader had during the US Embassy Hostage Crisis of 1979.

The Iranian regime is none too pleased with Argo winning best film at the Oscars. It feeds into Iranian conspiracy theories about the United States, and highlights the tricky role the current Supreme Leader had during the  US Embassy Hostage Crisis of 1979.

Argo Benn Affleck c Warner Brothers

News that the film 'Argo' has won best film at this year's Oscars has not gone down well with the authorities in Tehran. Having already announced that they would produce a film to counter Affleck's interpretation of the Hostage Crisis, the news that 'Argo' garnered the Oscar for Best Film has added to the consternation of the powers that be in Iran.

Unsurprisingly, if somewhat depressingly, the award has been interpreted on one level, as revenge for Iran having 'boycotted' the Oscars this year - it is not clear why Iran would choose to boycott the Oscars, nor what the effect of such a boycott might be. Through a more conspiratorial lens, it has been suggested that the award was part of something altogether more sinister, as evidenced by the fact, that 'highly unusually', the winner was announced by First Lady Michelle Obama via satellite from the White House. It is perhaps worth noting that Fars News, the hard-line news agency that alluded to this somewhat sinister association, was careful to ensure that Michelle's Obama's dress covered the First Lady appropriately through their now well practiced application of 'PhotoShop'.[1]

Taking Liberties with History

Of course the Iranians are not the only critics of the film and Affleck has himself pointed out that while based on a true story - and one that frankly would be stretching credulity if it weren't true - there are elements where dramatic licence was given a somewhat freer rein. The film is based on the audacious attempt by the CIA to 'ex-filtrate' a number of US embassy staff from Iran following the seizure of the US embassy by hard-line students on  4 November 1979.

Six embassy staff were able to avoid capture by the students and hid out in the Canadian ambassador's residence until some means and method could be found to get them out of the country. Tony Mendez, the CIA operative charged with finding a way to get his compatriots out without raising any suspicions, settled on an idea so outlandish that he calculated the Iranians would fail to see the Americans, disguised as it were, in full view. The idea was that Mendez would pretend to be the producer of a fake (Canadian) science fiction film to be based in an exotic desert kingdom and that he and his colleagues were scouting for locations and had for some incomprehensible reason, settled on revolutionary Iran as the ideal location. This conceit depended on Iranian vanity overcoming revolutionary fervour, a point not stressed in the from itself but nonetheless striking; that Iranian officials thought nothing of the fact that a Western film company might want to make a film in their country at this particular time. Nevertheless Mendez gets in, locates the Americans, briefs them as to their new identities, and fully equipped with new passports, they successfully exit the country far more sedately than presented in the film.

Indeed, the film presents this as an extended chase scene, not only through the airport buildings, as Iranian officials suddenly realise the real identities of the film crew, but more ridiculously along the runway as Iranian jeeps play catch up with the Swiss Air Boeing 747 accelerating for take off. It would have been far easier for the authorities to ground all the planes once they knew something was up but this would have been less dramatic.

Other bits of dramatic licence pertain to the other nationalities involved. Both the British and the New Zealanders get short shrift for their lack of assistance, when in reality, certainly the British did provide some assistance. The role of the Canadian ambassador is also diminished to contrast with the Mendez operation which had been classified till the late in the Clinton administration. This attempt at rebalancing the historical credit has raised the ire of the Canadians who regard it as clumsy, arguing with some justification the Mendez's tenacity should not overwrite the bravery of their ambassador. Affleck has shown some sensitivity to this charge and has reportedly sought to address it. He has also taken the opportunity in his Oscar acceptance speeches to thank his 'Iranian friends'.

The Iranian Narrative

Affleck's graciousness is unlikely to assuage tempers in Iranian officialdom where the official narrative stresses how well the hostages were looked after. This is a far more widespread sentiment among Iranians than one might suppose, in part because many Iranians with no affinity to the regime, are so embarrassed by the take over that they comfort themselves with the notion that at least the hostages were comfortable.

The truth, as the film correctly depicts, was considerably less civil, and anyone suspected to have a military or intelligence background could expect very harsh treatment. The Iranian narrative (which is likely to feature heavily in their own film) can be sourced to the crisis itself when a young Hojjat-ol Islam Khamenei (some years before his rise to supreme power) was dispatched to the embassy compound to officially report on the conditions. Unsurprisingly he found them good, but he was taken aback at being engaged in a verbal duel with the fluent John Limbert who deftly offered his own hospitality to Khamenei, apologising for the 'inadequacy' of the amenities and gently pointing out that however generous the 'facilities', this missed the point that they were being held against their will.[2]

Khamenei's surprise at being confronted by the fluent Limbert is revealing and it was perhaps not so much his linguistic as his cultural fluency that disarmed the cleric. Limbert's presence in Iran at all, should alert us that the narrative of US-Iran antagonism that we have inherited and which Argo somewhat clumsily reinforces, is a tidy pastiche of the much more messy transition from friends to foes. The overly simplistic preamble mixes fact with fiction in almost equal measure - most gratuitously in suggesting that that the Empress Farah had to bathe in milk every day - to intimate that flawed American policy was in large part responsible for the seething anti-Americanism which ultimately led to the seizure of the embassy.[3]

This is only partially true and the seizure of the embassy and its prolongation for 444 days, had much more to do with revolutionary politics than it did with anti-Americanism. With the departure of the Shah in January 1979, the United States, along with other Western powers sought in the first instance to manage the transition from monarchy to Islamic Republic. The embassy itself was reduced and country experts were recruited. Limbert, who had a PhD in medieval Iranian history and had researched and worked in Shiraz, was part of this new cadre.

Things were undoubtedly difficult but they weren't disastrous, and Western embassies could take comfort from the fact that attacks and sit-ins at embassies were regularly curtailed and ended by the authorities themselves, not least Ayatollah Khomeini who repeatedly protested that such moves were illegal. The ostensible catalyst for the hostage taking was the decision by the United States to allow the ailing Shah in for medical treatment, and by all accounts, the seizure was meant to be a short term affair intended to raise attention throughout the world. In the event, politics took over and even Khomeini found himself endorsing the take-over, recognising the political value it had in diverting the attention of Iran's fractious revolutionaries. But the cost has proved an extremely heavy, not only for Iran-US relations but arguably for Iran itself.

Throughout 1979, and in stark contradiction to the narrative of mutual animosity, the US had began a series of intelligence briefings for the provisional government of Iran. These briefings were to be substantive and detailed. In late October US intelligence briefings warned the Iranians that Saddam Hussein was preparing for an invasion and that adequate measures needed to be taken to  deter any attack. According to Mark Gasiorowski, the briefing was delivered on 15 October with a follow up on the 18th.[4] Two days later Carter took the decision to allow the Shah in for medical treatment. The rest, we might say, is history.

 

NOTES

[1] Iran Feature: Top Iran Newspaper Protects the Oscars from Michelle Obama's Shoulders

[2] The longer engaging encounter, for those with Persian, can be viewed at: 'Hostages and Hospitality', The Daily Dish, 4.11.2009   (accessed 26 Feb 2013)

[3] For a deft critique of the preamble see: 'What 'Argo' Gets Wrong About Iran', The Daily Beast, (accessed 26 Feb 2013)

[4] For more details on this fascinating part of US-Iran relations see Mark Gasiorowski's excellent article, US Intelligence Assistance to Iran, May-October 1979, Middle East Journal, Fall 2012.

Author

Ali Ansari
Senior Associate Fellow

Ali Ansari is professor of Iranian History and director of the Institute for Iranian Studies at the University of St Andrews; Senior... read more

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