There was a crush in the streets outside the American embassy in Sudan. A mob of 2,000 rioters was shouting, breaking windows, and attempting to scale walls.
It was September 2012 and an anti-Islam film had sparked unrest in twenty countries. Protesters set fire to the German embassy in Sudan and moved on to express their outrage to the British and Americans.
Inside the embassy, Joe Stafford (’71 & ’75, A&S) was on the phone with his wife, Kathleen, describing the events unfolding around him. There was a certain sense of déjà vu.
“I just knew Joe was there,” says Kathleen, “looking out of the window, thinking about Iran days.”
When Kathleen talks about “Iran days,” she doesn’t mean the two months she and Joe lived in Tehran and worked at the American embassy. Rather, she means the eighty days they spent in hiding after the embassy was taken over by student supporters of the Iranian Revolution.
The daring rescue of the Staffords and four of their Foreign Service colleagues during the Iran hostage crisis of 1979 was recently depicted in the film Argo, starring Ben Affleck as CIA exfiltration agent Tony Mendez.
While Argo garnered much critical praise and an Oscar for Best Picture, Kathleen says it didn’t—and couldn’t—tell the whole story. And though Joe doesn’t often talk about the incident, his wife (whom he met while they were both UT students) speaks regularly to other diplomats and groups about what really happened and how a fake Hollywood movie came to be their salvation.
Escape and Refuge
In 1979, Joe and Kathleen received their first Foreign Service assignment, something that Joe had been preparing for since his days as a political science student at UT. Kathleen’s career goals were more artistic. She had graduated with an art degree from the University of Alabama after transferring from UT. However, she was also employed at the embassy on the visa line. Anti-American sentiment was high when Joe and Kathleen arrived in Iran, but most were still surprised when students stormed the embassy on November 4.
After a couple of days the group made it to the British embassy, but was forced to flee after militants raided the compound. Following a couple of tense nights in various homes left empty by some of the sixty-six embassy employees who were now being held prisoner, the Staffords and their colleagues went to the home of Canadian diplomat John Sheardown and his wife, Zena, who didn’t hesitate to help.
At the home of the Sheardowns, the group met Canadian Ambassador Ken Taylor, who decided it was best for the group to split up. Joe and Kathleen went with Taylor to his residence, while the three others stayed with the Sheardowns, and were later joined by another escapee.
“We finally had official protection we could count on,” Kathleen recalls.
Taylor and his wife introduced the Staffords to their staff as houseguests—friends visiting from Canada.
Joe and Kathleen spent their days at the Taylor home reading and listening hourly to the BBC in hopes of hearing that the American hostages had been freed, but the days dragged on, and no one came to rescue them.
“What we learned from sitting on that couch,” Kathleen says, “was how it feels to be completely helpless, to be so indebted to people—previous strangers—whom we could never repay and whose lives our presence endangered.”
One of the scariest moments, according to Kathleen, came on Christmas. The Staffords spent a somber day with the rest of the group at the Sheardown house and were offered a ride back to the Taylor residence. The driver got lost, leading to a nerve-racking experience, passing through sandbagged roadblocks and armed Revolutionary guards.
She and Joe knew that if guards stopped their car, they could be immediately detained or arrested. They had no papers proving who they were, and even if they had papers, those papers would say that they were Americans.
“I vowed to never leave the Taylors’ residence again until it was for good.”
The Hollywood Plan
On January 25, 1980, the entire group gathered at the Sheardown residence to meet Tony Mendez and another CIA agent named Julio. The agents presented the group with the highly improbable and elaborate escape plan, later made famous by the 2012 movie, which involved the houseguests acting as a location scouting crew for a fake science fiction movie called Argo.
The Argo plan had been made more believable with business cards, magazine ads, a real person to answer the phone in Hollywood, airline tickets to match their itinerary, and roles they could pull off. Kathleen, a real-life artist, would be the movie’s graphic designer.
Perhaps most importantly, each person would have a real Canadian passport—the issuing of which had been approved in secret by the parliament, marking the first time an official Canadian passport had been made for a fictional person since World War II.
[callout]“What we learned from sitting on that couch,” Kathleen says, “was how it feels to be completely helpless, to be so indebted to people—previous strangers—whom we could never repay and whose lives our presence endangered.”[/callout]
As is the case in Argo (the 2012 movie), the group was very skeptical. Joe in particular asked a lot of questions.
“He knew we would now be changing our status from diplomats who were hiding to imposters who were traveling on forged documents,” says Kathleen. “If we were caught, it would justify what the students had been insisting on: that our embassy was a den of spies.”
Just forty-eight hours after Mendez and Julio showed up at their door, the group was at the airport praying that they would get through security without being noticed.
The climactic tension at the airport in the 2012 movie never happened. However, Kathleen says, it was great to see Joe portrayed as the hero who saves the mission by conversing in Farsi with guards.
In fact, the only hiccups came when one of their group was stopped because the length of his mustache didn’t match his passport picture and when their Swissair flight was delayed. The group contemplated switching flights but decided switching would look more suspicious than just waiting out the hour-long delay.
Kathleen says she doesn’t remember much about that flight until they heard the announcement that they were out of Iranian airspace.
“When I watched the movie, that same feeling of relief I felt on January 28, 1980, flooded over me again,” she says. Argo got that exactly right.
Years after the mayhem of Iran, Joe remains in the Foreign Service, coming out of a brief retirement to take on the post of chargé d’affaires in Khartoum, Sudan. During his nearly four decades of service he has learned Italian, French, Farsi, and Arabic. He has served in Baghdad, Cairo, Kuwait, Tunis, Algiers, Abidjan, Nouakchott, Lagos, and Banjul, where he was ambassador.
Kathleen is maintaining an art career that is highly influenced by the couple’s travels and experiences. At many of Joe’s postings she has held exhibitions and workshops and collaborated with local artists. After Kathleen was evacuated from Sudan in 2012, she returned to the United States, where her artwork is being sold at the Smithsonian National African Art Museum shop.
However, she hopes to be able to return to Joe in Sudan very soon.
“[Iran] was, to say the least, a stimulating first assignment,” says Joe, “that only whetted our appetites for further overseas postings that would hopefully last a little longer and not require surreptitious escapes.”
Joe believes it’s imperative that the American presence remain out in the world as a force for good. Because of that, Kathleen says, Joe will probably never truly retire.
“If there’s a challenge, he’ll take it.”