On Nov. 4, 1979, Lee Schatz watched through his binoculars as Iranian protesters scaled the walls of the U.S. embassy compound in Tehran.
A day-and-a-half earlier, the Post Falls native had slipped out of the embassy as one protester group left the area and before another arrived. Shortly thereafter, he met up with five other Americans Joe and Kathy Stafford, Cora and Mark Lijek and Bob Anders who also escaped the compound during the invasion and were hiding out with Canadian government officials.
On Jan. 27, 1980, all six escaped Iran by posing as a Canadian film crew a scheme hatched by CIA operative Tony Mendez, who accompanied them.
More than 30 years later, Ben Affleck has based his movie Argo on the plot to extract Schatz and his cohorts. Actor Rory Cochrane plays Schatz, now 64, who is described during a briefing in the movie as a bit of an oddball from Idaho.
As an employee of the U.S. Department of Agricultures Foreign Agricultural Services, Schatz was in Iran to promote American agriculture exports. He works in Washington, D.C., today with the Foreign Agriculture Service.
What follows are excerpts from a Statesman conversation. Spoiler alert: Parts of this conversation touch on scenes from Argo.
Were you afraid for your life during the takeover of the embassy?
We thought it would, first, be hours. Then it looked like it might be days. And then it eventually became weeks and months.
So you didnt have an expectation of it being a serious, serious problem. It was just another nasty inconvenience. So no one was really, I dont think, scared that day.
How did you end up meeting up with the other five?
I was with, actually, a Swedish officer from their embassy in a private apartment in northern Tehran and I was told I was going to be moved to another site. Turned out it was one of the Canadians.
(The movie) showed all of us staying with the ambassador. Actually, four of us (Schatz, Bob Anders and the Lijeks) stayed with their councilor officer John Sheardown and his wife, Zena, and then two people actually stayed with (Canadian Ambassador) Ken Taylor.
How accurately did the movie capture the mood of the events you went through?
The first time I saw the writer, the thing I told him, I mean, literally the first thing, was how well I thought he had captured the tension that was on the street in general.
What you didnt want to do in Tehran was to be walking down the street and walk around a corner right into someone who was protesting (at a building) owned by a rich expatriate friend of the Shahs or something. So you just had a level of awareness that was different and I think they really captured that well.
Did the movies market scene actually occur?
No. We went twice out of the Sheardowns house because it was owned by an expatriate Iranian who was trying to sell it, and twice they had to show it. And we moved from Johns house to his political officers house for the day.
That was tense, though. It was the only time we actually really worried too much because, we figured, If were in a traffic accident or something, the guy driving has got credentials, but we dont.
When did you first meet Tony Mendez?
We were told in January, literally, the day he was arriving.
He laid out three scenarios. One was the schoolteacher scenario, another one was the businessmen scenario and then the third that he laid out was the movie crew.
The teacher one, the American teachers, seemed like a really dumb idea. Because the school had been closed for six months and, you know, what kind of teachers would be coming to Iran at that point? The businessmen, no one could really put that comfortably on because one of the things Tony said was we really had to be interested and involved in our character. You had to have fun with it. And the movie one seemed like that was the case. It was also better fleshed-out, even at first appearance, so it was one we obviously gravitated toward.
So this wasnt just a unilateral decision on Tony Mendezs part.
No. We were allowed to make a decision. He left the room and the six of us had to universally agree that this was the one we were going to do.
Like they say in the movie, the best bad idea we have.
Right. The key to it was that, from the beginning, (Mendez) was going to be there with us when we went out. It wasnt like handing us our new personas and then pushing us out the door. He was going to be there with the group, so that was another obvious confidence builder.
Can you describe a little bit the scene at the airport?
You had the regular security. You had the Comites, which were kind of the revolutionary thugs that could pretty much do anything they wanted. And then you had the orderliness, or lack of orderliness, typical of a south Asian airport in the 70s. But you went in, no different than any other airport you and I walk into, in terms of a lot of people milling around.
I got ahead of (the others). And the whole deal that morning had been to stay there together with him very close by so that if anything came up, (Mendez) could come in and play the manager card, that type of thing. But I didnt have any problems. Neither did the others as they were getting their seat assignments.
Were there any kind of confrontations whatsoever at the airport?
It was actually the case that when I handed them my passport, they said, Is this your picture?
That morning I had trimmed my mustache up so it was just barely longer than my lip on the side. And I said, Yes, and kind of pulled my mustache down a little bit. And the guy stepped away from his desk into a door off to the side. And that was the desk where they were to match up the arrival and departure cards, if that happened. And I stood there and I looked back down the line behind me and the rest of the group was standing there, and then this guy stepped back out stirring a cup of tea and handed me my passport, and away I went. So we all got through.
How nervous were you?
Aw, man, when he walked into that side room because all of the psyching-up that I had done to myself that, mathematically, they couldnt match these up with the number of people who had been in the country one day, five days, 10 days, 30 days. How would you have, in a manual system, all of those things at your access point? And we were convinced that they didnt. And that they couldnt. When you think about it, the possibilities were pretty remote that anybody could have been doing that without 50 people in the back room.
How do you think the others were handling it? Did you have any clues from watching them?
We didnt get roughed up. The people who were getting bothered were the Iranians who were leaving the country. The Comite, who were wandering around, they wanted to look in their purses because people were leaving with lots of money. I mean, they were doing full-body searches of people.
At the airport, there was no scene where Joe Stafford was talking in Farsi and explaining with movie storyboards?
No, we didnt have to do that. That was amped up (in the movie) to kind of maintain the tension a little longer. We had the storyboards with us. ... Had we needed to explain that, that was in fact something that could have been done.
What was it like to watch the movie for you?
Ive seen it twice now. The first time I didnt enjoy it as a movie as much as I should have because I was going, This is wrong. This is different. No I didnt So I was doing the mental comparison.
The second time, I just sat there and went, Wow, this is really a good movie. I like the way they introduce history for people who dont necessarily know much about history. The tension, for people who dont understand the tension in that part of the world as recently as Benghazi you see how that can erupt.
What do you think about Rory Cochranes depiction of you?
Oh, I think its a hoot.
The casualness, the kind of kicked-backness, thats pretty much me.
One of the assistant producers put me in contact with him and I said, So tell me what kind of glasses they got for you. And he goes, Oh, you know, those great, big, black horn-rimmed glasses everyone wore in the 70s and 80s. And I said, Rory, we did not wear black horn-rimmed glasses. I said, You tell them you want Ray-Ban shooters goggles, photo-gray if you can get them.
What is Ben Affleck like?
He seems like a really sincere person. ... And you go, you know, this is the kind of guy that if he was in your neighborhood, youd hope would be a friend. Because he just seems like hes very well-grounded. Same thing with his wife.
Have you been back to Iran?
I have not.
I saw them tear the flag down off the embassy that day. And if we ever open up an office, I want to pick up a phone and say, Guys, I dont know how you do it, but Id like to be there to see a flag go back up. Because I really think its a country that we need to be engaged with.
Given your experiences in Iran, what was your perspec-tive on the massive protests that took place there following the elections of 2009?
The frustration with the Shahs policies in 1979 was among, in many cases, the young people. The impetus for change was really there.
You now have again the young people feeling disenfranchised, and I find it ironic that the people who created the revolution, the environment that brought about the revolution, are now in control and there may in fact be enough impetus there for close to another one. It seems like theyve got to move forward, that things have turned full circle.
What can we learn about Benghazi as seen through the lens of what you went through in 1979 and 1980?
Theres a lot of pent-up frustration in a lot of countries of the world.
Who is it directed at?
Historically, the West has been demonized, so automatically its aimed outside their own system. But its really their own system thats failing to have policies that create an investment climate where jobs can come in. You look at a lot of the countries that have gone through the Arab Spring, to one degree or another, the biggest problem the replacement government is coming up with is finding jobs for people. ... I dont see any easy answers to how we can improve their economic lot.
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