Sunday, December 9, 2012

Antonio Mendez' Argo and Iran today

"Argo F__k Yourself!"

Many will be familiar with Ben Affleck's portrayal of the Canadian Caper in his film Argo (see earlier post, Argo, Art and the need for Camouflage,) but fewer will read Antonio Mendez account in his book Argo: How the CIA and Hollywood Pulled off the most Audacious Rescue in History (Antonio Mendez and Matt Baglio, 2012,   This is a pity as the book contains some significant insights which are highly relevant given the current tensions between Iran and the West.  Mendez was a master of deception who formulated the plan and led 6 Americans out of Iran from the Canadian Ambassador's residence in January of 1980 under the noses of the Iranian Revolutionary guard.  The Americans' fabricated cover story was that they were a Canadian film crew scouting locations for a science fiction film called Argo.  Mendez in attempting to authenticate the back story had even leased Hollywood production facilities and taken out ads in Variety for his bogus film.

Right off the bat, Mendez disabuses us of the notion that intelligence is a science rather than being a black art.  Mendez writes, "As late as August of 1978, a National Intelligence Estimate famously reported that Iran was not in a "revolutionary or even a pre-revolutionary situation."  As to how we at the CIA and the White House could have been so wildly off the mark, there is no easy answer.  The Shah had maintained a iron grip on his country for nearly twenty-five years, and the common wisdom was that despite the unrest he could weather the storm,  After the fact, it was revealed that many in Washington had assumed the Shah would use any force necessary to save his regime, and they were baffled when he failed to do so.  Even the US ambassador to Iran at the time, Bill Sullivan, believed the Shah's government would survive, by the time he changed his tune, on November 9, 1978, there was little that could be done.  Throughout the struggles of 1978, there was no clear strategy for meeting with the opposition groups, partly because of the fear that it might undermine the Shah's regime. In the end, though, perhaps the biggest reason for the intelligence failure was that that the U.S. government had invested too much importance  in the person of the Shah and not enough in the people of Iran." (Commander Kelly's italics).

Prior to the Canadian Caper, Mendez led an exfiltration operation in Teheran that helped RAPTOR, a Colonel and member of the Shah's government, to escape from that country.  His subsequent exfiltration of the six Americans was not nearly as dramatic as portrayed in the film -- there was no visit to the Bazaar, no interrogation at the departure gate and no frantic chase on the tarmac.  Mendez and the Americans had more more prosaic challenges to surmount such as creating appropriate documentation and sweating out a one hour delay of the Swiss airlines jet due to mechanical difficulties.

President Jimmy Carter met with Mendez for about five minutes after his return to Washington DC.  Mendez was promoted to the equivalent of full Colonel rank in the CIA.

In writing his book he has maintained the circumspection and caution you would expect from a professional agent.  He identifies the Hollywood make-up artist who assisted his efforts (played by John Goodman in the film) only by his cover name of Jerome Calloway, though his real name was John Chambers.  Chambers' other great claim to fame was the invention of Spock's Vulcan ears on the television series Star Trek!

In spite of RAPTOR's warnings, Jimmy Carter launched the doomed Eagle Claw mission that killed six American servicemen in the desert and never reached the hostages that were being held in the US Embassy.  "On January 21, 1981 the fifty-two remaining American hostages were finally released.  Jimmy Carter flew to Germany to meet with them personally, but by this time the damage to his political career was irreversible.  His failure to resolve the crisis caused him to be seen as a weak and ineffective leader, and Ronald Reagan had easily defeated him in the 1980 presidential election.  Rubbing salt into the would, the Iranian had chosen the date of Reagan's inauguration as the day they would hand over the hostages."  Mendez is exceedingly generous to his old boss, Carter, and does not seem to acknowledge the possibility that the Iranians genuinely feared what "that cowboy from California" might do as President.

In 1997 Mendez was publicly recognized as the mastermind  behind the Canadian Caper and nominated as one of the fifty top officers in the agency's 50 year history up to that time.

Iran today is embarked on an ambitious program to develop nuclear weapons.  The are led by Ahmadinejad who denies that the Holocaust took place, insists that there are no gays in Iran and routinely threatens Israel with annihilation.  The centrifuges continue to spin in Iran (see earlier post, Iran 3/24/12).

Antonio Mendez American Hero
Mendez comments, "Iran today is considered a hot spot, one where the next international crisis may well be brewing.  The country's insistence on pursuing a nuclear capability has put it near the top of the list of rogue sates and earned it a series of international sanctions by the rest of world.  And Iran's capricious foreign policy relationship with Israel is much like a low grade fever that could spike at any time.

Following the Arab Spring in 2011, which saw turmoil across the region, I was reminded that Iranians are not Arabs.  They are Persians, a difference race with a different history.  On June 12, 2009, supporters of the opposition party candidate Mir-Hossein Mousavi took to the streets of Teheran en masse in what has come to be known as the Green Revolution.  their aim was to protest the re-election of Mahmoud Ahmadineejad.  Turnout was incredibly high and many Iranians suspected that Ahmadinejad had rigged the election.  In a scene eerily reminiscent of the violence that rocked the nation in 1978, protesters clashed with riot police and were met with tear gas.  In the ensuing struggle, nearly forty Iranians were killed.  This was followed up in February 2011 with what is commonly referred to as the Day of Rage, when loyalists of the rival candidate, Mousavi, decided to hold a rally in support of the recent Arab Spring.  But the spark was quickly extinguished by the mullahs and the heavy hand of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard in a bloody crackdown.  Several demonstrators were beaten and arrested and the young activists retreated, perhaps to protest another day.

As an intelligence officer I am not confident that our old rules of engagement will work any longer.  It is difficult to negotiate with an adversary who does not want to come to the table.  And it is impossible to find common ground with another government that does not respect the rules of international diplomacy.  When the rules of governance flow only from the religious tracts of Islam, there is little room for agreement or compromise.  The best that our intelligence community can hope for is to keep a watchful eye on the mullahs and the Iranian government and to try to forestall any serious mischief they may be planning.  A daunting task to say the least."  Argo: How the CIA and Hollywood Pulled off the most Audacious Rescue in History (Antonio Mendez and Matt Baglio, 2012,

Commander Kelly says, "Thanks for your gallant and supremely creative service Antonio Mendez, thanks also to your many un-recognized and unheralded comrades at the CIA. God Bless all those in Iran who long for peace, justice and an escape from the darkness under which they now live."

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