Recalling the real-life Argo

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Barbara Ruben
Trapped in Iran during the hostage crisis in 1979, Robert Anders and five fellow American Embassy workers posed as Canadian movie executives to escape the country. Their story is recounted in the Academy Award-winning movie Argo. After Foreign Service posts around the world, Anders now lives in Silver Spring, Md.
Photo by Barbara Ruben

Nov. 4, 1979 started like any other work day for Robert Anders, a senior consular officer at the American Embassy in Iran. He passed hundreds of demonstrators crowding the gates in the rain chanting “Allahu akbar! Marg bar Amrika!” — “God is great! Death to America!”

But that was nothing new. A few weeks before, the Shah had fled Iran to come to the United States for medical treatment and the anti-American Ayatollah Khomeini took power.

“I thought, ‘So what? It’s just another day at the office,” Anders recalled of a day that would become anything but routine.

By mid-day, some of the more militant demonstrators scaled the walls surrounding the 27-acre compound and stormed the gate. Electric lines were slashed, and Anders finished issuing his last visa by flashlight.

He and five other diplomats slipped out the back door — and into an 80-day odyssey of subterfuge and concealment that is documented in the recent Best Picture Academy Award-winner Argo.

In a plot orchestrated by the CIA, and with the help of Canadian diplomats, Anders and the other Americans eventually escaped Iran by posing as Canadian filmmakers scouting a location for an absurd science fiction adventure film that happened to be called Argo.

Fifty-two other embassy workers weren’t as lucky and were taken hostage by the Iranians. Many were not released for more than a year.

Today, Anders, 88, lives in Silver Spring, Md., after a Foreign Service career hop-scotching from Rangoon to Manila to Oslo. He chatted with the Beacon about the months spent hiding at a Canadian diplomat’s home, his alter ego as film location manager Robert Baker, and just how much the Hollywood version of his escape deviates from actual events.

On the run

Once they fled the American embassy on that terrifying day in 1979, Anders and four other embassy workers zigzagged through the streets of Tehran to Anders’ nearby apartment, where they holed up for the night.

The next day, fearing his apartment was an obvious target and too close to the American embassy, they sought refuge at the British embassy. But they found demonstrators surrounding that compound as well, so they pressed on, wandering through an unfamiliar part of Tehran.

Anders served in some respects as the defacto leader of the little group. He was 20 years older than the others and had previously been posted in Rangoon and Manila as a Foreign Service officer. Iran was the first posting for the others.

“I am a World War II veteran, so I have some experience with people shooting at me,” he said. “Perhaps I had a little less surprise and shock with people who didn’t like Americans, with people who are shouting and yelling all sorts of uncomfortable things.”

Anders also had more high-level Western contacts in Iran. “One of the lucky breaks was that I had brought my little address book with me, and I called my very good Canadian friend John Sheardown,” a high-ranking immigration officer with the Canadian Embassy, Anders recalled.

“I said, ‘This is Bob.’ I didn’t even get to my last name, and I’ll never forget what he said: ‘Where are you? Why didn’t you call sooner?’ I told him I didn’t know where we were. I said I had four other people with me, and he said to bring them all.”

The five Americans were joined by Lee Schatz, who had been hiding at the Swedish Embassy. Unlike in the movie Argo, only two of the diplomats, husband and wife Kathleen and Joe Stafford, were secreted at the Canadian ambassador’s house, while the other four went to Sheardown’s rambling home built into a Tehran hillside.

While the hostage crisis unfolded, Anders and his colleagues lived out their days in relative comfort, playing Monopoly and Scrabble to pass the time. Anders exercised several hours each day in an interior courtyard and was in the “best shape of my life,” he recalled.

He got word out to his wife, who was living with two of their five children in Athens, Greece, that he was doing OK.

“We had to try to have a sense of humor about the whole thing. We said, ‘What’s the State Department going to do when we get back?’ Were they going to charge us annual leave because we were just sitting there enjoying ourselves?”

The Staffords had to be more circumspect at the embassy, hiding in their bedroom when guests arrived.

“At first we thought it will be over in hours or days, and then in a month. So our expectations were gradually stretching out and we were thinking, ‘Is this ever going to end?’” Anders recalled.

Plotting an escape

In January, CIA spy and “exfiltrator” Tony Mendez (played by Ben Affleck in the movie) arrived. He gave the American diplomats three options to disguise their departure from the country: posing as agricultural researchers, teachers or movie executives.

While Anders’ character in the movie, played by Tate Donovan, calls the Argo movie plan, “the theater of the absurd” and says, “We don’t know what the hell movie people do,” Anders recalls liking the movie idea much more in real life, saying it was the only viable alternative.

Anders was assigned the role of movie location manager in the guise of Robert Baker, born in Ottawa and educated at McGill University in Montreal.

Mendez drilled the Americans on their new Canadian identities and provided everything from Canadian passports to credit cards to business cards. Anders still carries that business card of his alter ego, now laminated, in his wallet.

He decided to really play the part. Because they escaped with literally only the shirts on their backs, the Canadians provided clothing. Anders was given a shirt two sizes too small that he could only button partially up his chest, ‘70s style. He added a gold chain and sunglasses, having fun morphing into a Hollywood mogul.

But getting through the airport security and onto a Swiss Air flight was less than fun, although not nearly as filled with anxiety and near-misses as portrayed in the film.

The group left their Canadian friend’s home at 4 a.m. for the airport. “Waiting was nerve wracking. You worked up a little sweat, hoping everything was going to work out OK,” Anders said.

Only Schatz was questioned about his identity because his mustache didn’t match the one on his newly issued Canadian ID. The Americans thought they were almost home free — until there was an announcement that their flight was delayed. Initially told the flight would be three hours late, the delay ended up being only a half hour.

Anders had one more moment of comic relief before leaving Iran. Walking out on the tarmac to the plane, he noticed that the real name of the type of jet they were boarding was Aargau.

“I said to Tony [Mendez], you CIA guys really think of everything, don’t you?” Anders recalled.

“The last, final moment of relief was when we crossed over the border. That was portrayed pretty accurately in the movie. We all looked at each other and had a drink and said, ‘Cheers.’”

Anders went on to Foreign Service posts in Norway (Oslo), Jamaica (Kingston) and Austria (Vienna). He retired, moved to London for 12 years while his son was at Cambridge, and worked part time as a “glorified clerk” in the customs section of the American Embassy.

He returned to the United States to house-sit for his daughter in Silver Spring when her husband, also in the Foreign Service, was posted to Latin America.

Anders now lives in Silver Spring’s Leisure World retirement community with his partner. He has seven grandchildren.

While the escape from Iran happened more than 30 years ago, it’s never been far from his mind. He initially toured the U.S. for several months after returning from Iran, sharing his story. But the public story was that the Canadians planned the escape, as the CIA’s role remained classified until 1997.

“Between 1980 and 1997 interest gradually died out and people, especially younger people, said, ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about,’ and even if they did, they’d say ‘It’s ancient history.’

“But then it got more attention in 1997 [when it was declassified], and a lot more with the Argo film. It’s like when Andy Warhol said everybody gets their 15 minutes of fame. My 15 minutes have sort of stretched out over 30-some years. I get a minute or two every few years.”

Going Hollywood

But these last two years, he’s gotten more than a few minutes. Anders even had a role as an extra in the Hollywood film. You can spy him in the scene near the end when the newly returned Americans visit the State Department. He’s the one in the crowd holding the sign “Welcome back Bob Anders.”

Of course, Anders had a much larger role than that in the making of the film, although when he heard about the plan to make a movie of his adventure about five years ago, he was less than star struck.

“I didn’t really know who Ben Affleck was. I’m not a real movie buff,” he said.

And he certainly didn’t recognize actor Tate Donovan’s name. Donovan called Anders to help get a better sense of the person he was to portray in the movie.

“I did a little Googling and as far as I know, his claim to fame was he was engaged to Jennifer what’s-her-name and some other actress,” he said. (Anders was referring to Jennifer Aniston and Sandra Bullock, whom Donovan dated.)

Before the movie began production, Anders and the other American diplomats were given the script to look over. He also met both Affleck and George Clooney, one of the producers.

Anders remembers thinking, “’They’re leaving out the Canadians, and especially John Sheardown.’ To us that was a key factor. If I didn’t have John Sheardown’s phone number and he wasn’t so open in saying, ‘Come on and stay with me,’ the whole thing wouldn’t have happened.”

Anders wasn’t alone in criticizing the minimizing of the Canadians’ role in the escape, but the script went unchanged. That oversight garnered more criticism as the film racked up awards: Movie of the Year from the American Film Institute, a Golden Globe for Best Picture, and a second-place People’s Choice award at the Toronto Film Festival, where Argo debuted.

In addition to not including Sheardown in the movie, Anders found a number of other errors, large and small. For one, the Americans never scrambled through a trap door to hide when visitors came to the Canadian ambassador’s house. They also never dressed up as their Hollywood characters and walked through Tehran’s open air bazaar.

Another difference is the cascade of close-calls that ended the movie — from the plane tickets being canceled, to being detained by the Iranians at the gate, to the plane being pursued by Iranian police as it took off. None of that happened, Anders said.

Despite these qualms, Anders said, “It’s really a great film, and I like being a part of it and everything. It’s wonderful.”

He says he’s glad his little role in history has been recognized. “We get a lot of hero treatment, but actually we didn’t really do anything. It was the Canadians and the CIA who were the real heroes of the thing — and also the people who were really hostages.

“We were just lucky. We made a couple of good guesses and good decisions and [took] the right fork in the road. It’s nice to have all this attention, though.”