'Escape From Iran' -- and a Canadian hero's role
New York — Grateful Americans have sent Ken Taylor 180,000 thank-you notes. "And those were individuals," Mr. Taylor, the new Canadian consul general in New York, says in awe. "That is quite apart from the proclamations, medals, and 16 keys to the city which I have received."
All of this was triggered by the actions of Mr. Taylor when he was Canadian ambassador to Iran. He harbored and then helped to escape six Americans who had fled the US Embassy when it was taken over by students. The whole escapade has been dramatized in "Escape From Iran" (CBS, Sunday, 8-10 p.m., check local listings).
Now consul general here, Mr. Taylor, dressed in natty tweed suit and loafers, greets me with a good-neighborly smile in his posh skyscraper headquarters. His thick, graying, curly hair and easy laughter give him the look and sound of a younger Joseph Heller.
"Many US citizens just look a Canadian telephone number at random and called to express their thanks," he continues. "I've talked to hundreds of groups in this country, and most said they'd always taken Canada somewhat for granted and, although they always knew that Canada was their closest friend, this was the first easily understood manifestation of it."
Why does Mr. Taylor think the response was so resounding?
"It was the time that it happened. There was profound despair in the United States about being able to resolve the hostage situation. The UN had been unable to put forth a forthright sanction; the possibility of a coherent government being formed in Iran was becoming progressively more remote; Ayatollah [Ruhollah Khomeini] seemed to be becoming more vindictive every day. Other than a few statements in the UN there didn't seem to be any outspoken outrage by allies. So when this story broke, it offered some glimmer that the terrorists weren't invincible. It was a simple story with a little intrigue and a good conclusion, and there weren't many of those stories around.
"And then there was the sense that anyone in the same position could identify with my actions. It no longer appeared that you needed the whole apparatus of government to make a humanitarian gesture."
Has there been any criticism of his actions?
He chuckles. "Well, when we left, Foreign Minister Ghotbzadeh said that one day, some way, Canada will pay. But that was for domestic consumption.
"Inevitably there have been people who thought I was just doing my job. I'm the first one to admit that. Another attitude is that now Canada is too closely allied with the US in the eyes of the world. I disagree with that entirely. We were not acting against the sovereignty of Iran. We were acting against a group of cavalier terrorists in the compound. It was incumbent upon the Iranian government to offer proper documents for the diplomats to leave. If they abdicated their responsibility, it was the responsibility of other diplomatic missions to offer proper documents. It happened to be us. Tass, I think, did have a negative column about it, but other than that there have been only the usual crank letters."
Aside from the glory, have there been any measurable positive results? Has tourism increased?
"We've received any number of letters saying that people have decided to take their holidays this year in Canada because they realize what a good friend Canada is."
Is it possible that this show may revive animosity toward Iran?
"Conceivably, but I don't think so. I think it will underline again the professionalism which Bruce Laingen, in particular, displayed. I think it will underline again the fact that terrorists don't always have the upper hand, that governments with some legitimate reason, without resorting to violence, are able to contribute to a resolution of a problem.
"I find that the general mood in the US is a good feeling about the way the hostage situation was concluded. I don't think that the US was humiliated, although some people here seem to feel that way. I feel that, despite the chaotic situation, those people have all come back.
"President Carter might have approached the whole thing in a different manner , to be sure, but the fact remains that he did get them home, there was not a war, and the US is not now facing any further loss of face because of the Iran incident.
"The next time it happens -- I'm pessimistic because I see it happening again -- I think there will be some corners we can round off to be better prepared. I don't think people realize the difficulty in dealing with a chaotic situation. I think that was the problem with the UN: No matter how many telexes I sent, I failed to convey to certain people the degree of anarchy which prevailed in Iran. It was a lawless society. How can you give an ultimatum to a country like that?"
Does Mr. Taylor believe the rescue effort was a mistake?
"No.I think it was absolutely essential to make it clear that there were many options open. That will strengthen your hand while you negotiate."
Is there anything the former ambassador would have done differently?
"I believe that sanctions are effective. The prime reasons for the settlement were the sanctions. Some people argue that the sanctions could be circumvented -- but the fact is that they were effective.I hope that the next time such a thing happens, there are universal sanctions -- automatically, through the mechanism of the UN -- if the host country consented, tolerated, or encouraged a breach of diplomatic immunity."
Does the consul general approve of the CBS docudrama?
"I've seen the script and given them some suggestions. Not a great deal of dramatic license has been taken, although inevitably you've got to reconstruct conversations which are not precisely what was said."
Is one of the positive results of his actions in Iran a strengthening of US-Canadian ties?
"The link was already there. After all, 70 percent of our exports go to the US and 70 percent of our imports come from the US. You own a good portion of our industry and natural resources. There are bonds of friendship, education, business. What the Iranian episode has done is merely enhance those bonds."
Some people have criticized the extensive TV coverage of the hostage affair. How does Mr. Taylor feel it affected the situation?
"Certainly TV was manipulated by the Iranians in the compound. But this is the 20th century and TV is an important news medium. TV had to respond to the compound. Therefore, since most of the action was there, they couldn't tell the story of what was happening in Iran in its entirety, and that was unfortunate. But I do not believe the coverage prolonged or aggravated the situation. It is a convenient rationale to blame TV. But TV only reflected what was going on there."
So the Canadian hostage caper finally makes its way to dramatized TV. A documentary has already been shown, only in Canada, and there is also a book about it, published in Canada and soon to be published in the US. Is this the end of the story?
Mr. Taylor shrugs his shoulders and smiles. "It is a good story, isn't it -- with a reminder that there can be a good conclusion to a despairing situation.
"I think the TV dramatization may help in an upswing. People are responsive to some sort of humanitarian code. And that transcends national self-interest.
"I was not only an individual who happened to be there -- these were diplomats, colleagues. I was offended by the way diplomats were being treated. Something had to be done and we did it."