Behind-the-Scenes: The CIA Rescue of Six ‘Argo’ Hostages in Iran

Listen to Cora and Mark Lijek's Story | The Argonauts

CIA master of disguise Tony Mendez and six US diplomats shared a secret signal while trying to escape during Tehran’s deadly revolution.

“If he was smiling, that meant all was well. If he was scratching his cheek, that meant we should turn around and go back to the bus,” said Cora Lijek, who’d moved to Iran in 1979 to work alongside her husband, a US State Department consular official.

The newlyweds were young and looking for adventure. They weren’t worried that a revolution was underway or that four US embassy staff were killed in February 1979. The danger was all part of the adrenalin rush.

“The Department said: ‘If you don’t want to go, you don’t have to go,’” Mark Lijek told SPYSCAPE’s True Spies podcast. The Lijeks went happily, not imagining they’d end up at the heart of one of the boldest espionage extractions in CIA history - a thrilling story told by Ben Affleck in the Oscar-winning movie Argo (2012).


The Argonauts with Ben Affleck
Clea DuVall (far left) as Cora; Ben Affleck as Tony Mendez (center, with beard) in Argo (2012)


Come the revolution

November 4, 1979 was the day revolutionaries stormed the US embassy in Tehran. Mark and Cora were in the consular building when two colleagues came in saying they'd been chased by a crowd on the compound. It was the start of a drama that would see 52 Americans held hostage for 444 days.

Behind-the-Scenes: The CIA Rescue of Six ‘Argo’ Hostages in Iran

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Listen to Cora and Mark Lijek's Story | The Argonauts

CIA master of disguise Tony Mendez and six US diplomats shared a secret signal while trying to escape during Tehran’s deadly revolution.

“If he was smiling, that meant all was well. If he was scratching his cheek, that meant we should turn around and go back to the bus,” said Cora Lijek, who’d moved to Iran in 1979 to work alongside her husband, a US State Department consular official.

The newlyweds were young and looking for adventure. They weren’t worried that a revolution was underway or that four US embassy staff were killed in February 1979. The danger was all part of the adrenalin rush.

“The Department said: ‘If you don’t want to go, you don’t have to go,’” Mark Lijek told SPYSCAPE’s True Spies podcast. The Lijeks went happily, not imagining they’d end up at the heart of one of the boldest espionage extractions in CIA history - a thrilling story told by Ben Affleck in the Oscar-winning movie Argo (2012).


The Argonauts with Ben Affleck
Clea DuVall (far left) as Cora; Ben Affleck as Tony Mendez (center, with beard) in Argo (2012)


Come the revolution

November 4, 1979 was the day revolutionaries stormed the US embassy in Tehran. Mark and Cora were in the consular building when two colleagues came in saying they'd been chased by a crowd on the compound. It was the start of a drama that would see 52 Americans held hostage for 444 days.

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While the Lijeks couldn’t see the chaos from the consular building - one of several offices on the large US compound - the consul-general decided to evacuate through a door that led to the street.

Mark and Cora fled with their boss, Bob Anders, and a second American couple. The group were conspicuous though. Where could they go? Who would give them shelter? Who were their friends?


Attack on the US embassy in Iran
Protestors at the US Embassy gates in Tehran, Nov. 4, 1979


On the run in Tehran 

The Americans hid in an apartment but needed a larger, more secure accommodation. That’s when Mark’s boss, Bob Anders, called his counterpart at the Canadian Embassy who invited everyone around: “Why didn't you call sooner?”

The fugitives began to breathe more easily. Mark, Cora, and Bob stayed at the Canadian diplomat’s home, joined later by US attaché Lee Schatz. The other couple, Joe and Kathy Stafford, split off to live with the Canadian ambassador.

The Argonauts Podcast


The Argo hostages in Iran
Left to right: Mark & Cora Lijek, Lee Schatz, Joe & Kathy Stafford, Bob Anders


Slowly, they settled into a routine. “I read 57 books and we all became really good at Scrabble,” Mark recalled. The Tehran Six were in hiding for more than two months when two men in trenchcoats arrived - enter the CIA.

The fixer

One was an English-Farsi translator. The other was the legendary Tony Mendez, former head of the CIA Disguise Section and an ‘exfiltration expert’. He was the fixer, the man who specialized in getting Americans out of danger.

Tony explained that the CIA had already created a Los Angeles film production company, Studio 6, a nod to the six US ‘houseguests’. They rented premises in Hollywood, printed business cards, and dug up a convoluted sci-fi script for a movie called Argo. The plan was to disguise the six as a movie team scouting film locations in Tehran and fly them home.

Cora was impressed: “You could imagine a Hollywood crew doing that because they can go anywhere.” 


Argo starring Ben Affleck
Christopher Denham (center) as Mark Lijek; Tate Donovan (back, seated) as Bob Anders in Argo


Cora was the ‘screenwriter’. Mark was a ‘transportation coordinator’. They memorized ‘legends’ while Tony interrogated them: Name? Date of birth? Where were they born? Where did they study? Which university? What are they doing in Iran?

Ottawa issued six Canadian passports to distance the Tehran Six from the US embassy siege. Tony had the film team’s resumés in a portfolio - he called it ‘eyewash’ - and the group loaded up on ‘pocket litter’ including Maple Leaf pins and a key chain from Canadian beer company Molson.

The airport van arrived at 4 am on January 27, 1980. “I don’t remember exactly this drive, maybe 20 minutes, and it was dark and I don’t think we talked much,” Mark said.

Ben Affleck in Argo
Ben Affleck plays CIA fixer Tony Mendez in Argos

Departure lounge nerves

Tony slept through his alarm but arrived - crucially - smiling, the signal that the US diplomats should head over to Customs with their newly minted Canadian passports. This wasn’t a moment for stage fright.

“Joe Stafford kept calling me ‘Cora’, which was unnerving since my passport didn't have that name on it,” Cora said. She and Mark moved away from the group to calm down.

And then, relief. Almost 80 days after taking refuge with the Canadians, the Tehran Six boarded a Swissair jet.

We knew we were over Turkey as soon as the booze cart came down the aisle,” Mark said. It was time for Bloody Mary’s all around. Two US State Department officials greeted them in Zurich and Tony collected the Canadian passports. Job done. Almost.

Within hours, a French-Canadian journalist for La Presse broke the news, describing the Canadians “as skittery as barnyard cattle before an earthquake”.

Tony Mendez stayed in the shadows, however. None of the Americans even discussed the operation until 1997 when the CIA celebrated its 50th anniversary. The Agency persuaded Tony Mendez to blow his own cover and bask in the positive publicity.

The Argonauts with Jimmy Carter
Cora and Mark (right, next to President Jimmy Carter) were invited to the White House


Almost 20 years after the ordeal, Mark and Cora were finally free to tell their side of the story also.

The couple had moved on to other international postings but signed on as consultants for Argo, spending a few days with the actors who portrayed them on the Hollywood set - a real set this time.

Mark and Cora Lijek with an Argo T-shirt
Cora and Mark were consultants on Argo

The CIA presented Tony Mendez with an award - the Intelligence Star for Valour in 1980 - which he had to return immediately because the mission was still classified. Mendez was, however, able to attend the Washington, D.C. premiere of Argo, winner of the Academy Award for Best Picture in 2013.

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