An agricultural connection to the Iran hostage crisis

Since a Canadian flag helped American Lee Schatz escape the Iranian hostage crisis in 1979, he never left home without one

Brian Oleson is head of the department of agricultural economics at the University of Manitoba. He recently watched the Academy award-winning film Argo, based on the 1979 rescue of six U.S. diplomats by the Canadian Embassy in Iran under the direction of Ambassador Kenneth Taylor. Here he relates another Canadian connection.

Watching Argo reminded me of an evening in December 1991. I held a senior position with the Canadian Wheat Board and was part of the Canadian delegation to a meeting of the International Grains Council in London. The IGC was one of the first tenants in One Canada Place, the largest tower of the immense new Canary Wharf development.

Twice a year, grain-importing and -exporting countries met to discuss grain policies, outlook and food aid. Canada and the U.S. were fellow exporters and allies, but sometimes gave each other a difficult time because we had very different policies. At the time the United States and the European Union were at war in grain markets, using high export subsidies to sell wheat and barley.

Lee Schatz was one of the members of the U.S. delegation, and we had a good relationship discussing and debating grain markets and policies.

As was the custom, one evening of the IGC meeting was reserved for a large reception for grain trade officials and other dignitaries. I arrived a bit early to what must have been the first cocktail party ever held at Canary Wharf. At the coat check, they approached the task as if it were one of the great mysteries of all time. While still giving out coat tags, I could see over to the side they were piling the coats in a large pile, so I placed my coat by itself in the corner for ready retrieval later.

At some point in the evening, Lee Schatz and I decided we should go downtown for a beer and went to get our coats. I slipped over to get mine while Lee stood patiently watching the check-in person who in turn was looking at the tag and wondering how to find the coat in the pile — at that time everyone in London seemed to wear the same style and colour trench coat. Frustrated, Lee walked into the check-in area and circled the pile a couple of times. Suddenly, to my amazement, he reached in, looked rather pleased and pulled out his coat.

As we walked down the street, I asked, “Lee, that was one of the most amazing things I have ever seen. How did you possibly find your coat in that mess?”

He laughed and said, “Well, actually, it was not so amazing as you may think. I had some help.”

He touched the Canadian flag pinned to the lapel of his coat and said, “My Canadian lapel pin was peeking out of that quite incredible pile of coats. I grabbed the lapel and had my coat.”

I had noticed Lee was wearing a Canadian pin but did not think anything of it. At international meetings we would often exchange country pins. I said, “You know, I noticed you have been wearing the Canadian pin for the past few days.”

He looked at me with a more serious look and said, “I never go anywhere without my Canadian pin. You see, I was the U.S. agriculture attaché to Iran in 1979 and one of the six embassy hostages that escaped. I was taken in by Canada, hidden by the Canadian Embassy for almost three months and smuggled out of Iran using Canadian passports to safety. As I say, I never go anyplace without my Canada pin. It got me out of Iran.”

He smiled and added, “And, it got me through again tonight.”

When I watched the film “ARGO” and one of the actors playing the role of the agriculture attaché, it somehow had a nice feel to it because of Lee’s words and the warmth he held for Canada. I often have recalled those words.

Lee, at the time of this writing, is still working at the USDA after a long career devoted to improving world trade and food systems in general.

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