Keeping the lid on: the British role in the Canadian Caper

05 January 2017

History

Published this week, Foreign Office Files for the Middle East, 1971-1981 covers an extraordinary number of topics and events, addressing the policies, economies, political relationships and significant events of major Middle East powers. One event that has captured the world’s imagination for almost four decades is also extensively analysed – the Iranian hostage crisis. The resource provides an incredibly rich repository of primary sources with which to explore the diplomatic and political manoeuvrings taking place during the hostages’ period of captivity, as well as providing an insight into the events that led up to this politically cataclysmic event. 

Of the many narratives from this period was the Canadian Caper. When protesters stormed the American embassy, six diplomats escaped the melee. They spent several days on the move, before reaching out to the Canadian diplomats who gave them sanctuary for the next 79 days, and helped arrange their infamous escape disguised as a film crew. This episode was widely publicised not only at the time, but also recently with Ben Affleck’s Argo. The film was widely criticised for diminishing the role of other nationalities, however. In particular, the film accused the British of turning the group away during their search for a safe haven, sending them out into a highly hostile Tehran. 

The truth of the matter is naturally quite different; the group stayed for one night in the British residential compound, before officials there helped them move to a more secure hiding place. You can forgive Affleck for casting the Brits as the villain though – because we really didn’t want anyone to know what we did:

 

“I am not sure how long the role of our Embassy in this episode can hope to remain undisclosed or how damaging it would be if it were to emerge. For the moment I have been as vigilant as I know how for signs of the truth coming out… But the potential holes in the dyke may before too long prove beyond the resources of the available fingers. I should be grateful for some guidance on how far you would wish me to go in continuing my attempts to keep the lid on… We will of course continue to remind our official contacts, but I cannot be entirely confident that the continuing presence of our Embassy in Tehran and the risk to which it might be exposed will, outside the State Department, outweigh the temptations to let more of the story come out once the Americans themselves are safely home.”
Adrian Fortescue, British diplomat in Washington, to David Miers in the Middle East Department, London. From Political relations between Iran and the USA: the Iran hostage crisis (folder 3), FCO 8/3583. To see this document in the collection click the images in the blog. © The National Archives, Kew

 

This document is a great example of the tightrope of diplomacy now walked by British officials in Iran. Before the revolution, the Shah’s government had been pro-Western, and the government enjoyed good relations with the United States. In the aftermath of a revolution centred around the Iranian people’s hatred of the Shah, America’s decision to allow the Shah guest room in the United States provoked the severe backlash that led to the hostage crisis, and strong anti-American feeling in Iran. 

So, whilst one night of sanctuary may not seem like a grand gesture, it was a significant risk taken by the British (highlighting how extraordinarily brave the Canadian officials were to hide the Americans for 79 days). Helping Americans escape Tehran put everyone in danger; how would the furious protesters react? Would they attack the British embassy in Tehran too, and how much danger would diplomats be in? Would those holding the current hostages take their fury out on the Americans? How would such information impact relations with the new revolutionary government? As Fortescue himself states, they simply didn’t know how damaging this episode would be. With potential “holes in the dyke” spread across three continents and multiple agendas, this must have been a tremendously tense time for Brits in Iran, the United States and back at the Foreign Office in London. One can understand Miers' advice to John Graham, still stationed in Tehran, to keep to the party line:From Political relations between Iran and the USA: the Iran hostage crisis (folder 3), FCO 8/3583. To see this document in the collection click the images in the blog. © The National Archives, Kew

In sum: keep the lid firmly on.

All three modules of the Archives Direct resource Foreign Office Files for the Middle East, 1971-1981 are available now. Full access to this resource is restricted to authenticated institutions who have purchased a licence.

For more information about Foreign Office Files for the Middle East, 1971-1981, including trial access and price enquiries, please send an email to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

About the Author

Rachael Gardner - Stephens

Rachael Gardner - Stephens

Joining Adam Matthew in January 2015 has given me the chance to work with exciting and diverse material, from photographs and dispatches for Migration to New Worlds, to British diplomatic papers for our forthcoming project on the Middle East - perfect fodder for a history geek!

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