Argo Research

Rich Stephens
B.S. Biology, minor in History.

This movie has the Dan Carlin problem - how far back do you go to give a proper background. Without going to far back, a brief primer starting in 1953.

Mohammad Mosaddegh is elected as the Prime Minister of Iran in 1951. His administration introduces a range of social programs, land reforms and – most notably to the west – eventual nationalization of the Iranian oil industry.

The UK and United States (Churchill and Eisenhower administrations) fearing the instability of Mosaddegh and possible Communist takeover, decided to intervene and initiated a coup ending in 1953 with Shah (Persian for king) Mohammad Reza Pahlavi ruling firmly as a monarch. [Note: In 2013 the United States CIA formally acknowledges their involvement in the coup.] The Shah’s regime was marked by political oppression, censorship, and the formation of a secret police (SAVAK) to torture and execute opponents.

The history of the Iranian Revolution of 1979 would take pages to detail. Suffice it to say many groups of people were opposed to the Shah’s regime for various reasons. The Shah left Iran in January 1979 for medical treatment and never returned. In February Ayatollah Khomeini returned from exile and began the process of creating a theocracy.

In October 1979, the U.S. allowed the Shah into the country for cancer treatment. This sparked outrage as many groups wanted the Shah returned to Iran to stand trial for the crimes of his regime. Precipitated by this, on November 4th a group of Iranian college students – Muslim Student Followers of the Imam’s Line - stormed and tool control of the American Embassy in Tehran. 52 embassy staff were held hostage for 444 days during the Iran Hostage Crisis. The takeover was popular in Iran and Khomeini seized upon this to further consolidate power.

During the storming of the embassy, six American diplomats escaped, evaded capture, and were harbored by Canadian diplomats. The joint US/Canadian intelligence operation to extract these diplomats is the topic of the film. Based on available source material considering it was a CIA operation, the film does a pretty good job of depicting the operation. Usually we have films depicting a story or specific action taking place during an event; in this case, the movie is the event.

The novel that the screenplay which would become "Argo" is based off of is called "Lord of Light", published in 1967. Producer Barry Geller had purchased the rights, and had concept drawings for the film done by Jack Kirby (of X-Men, and later Crimsons Tide debate, fame.)

In April 1980 U.S. special forces launched Operation: Eagle Claw to assault the embassy and rescue the hostages. This is the first, acknowledged, operation by the 1st Special Forces Operational Detachment - Delta. Commonly referred to as "Delta Force". This operation was aborted when a sandstorm damaged helicopters attempting to land at the improvised airstrip designated Desert 1. A collision between helo. and transport C-130 resulted in an explosion, multiple deaths, and further destabilization of the operation.


Merica, Dan. "Declassified document, CIA acknowledges role in ‘53 Iran coup." 19 August 2013.
Accessed 10 June 2021

Bearman, Joshuah. "How the CIA Used a Fake Sci-Fi Flick to Rescue Americans from Tehran." 4 April 2007. Accessed 11 June 2021

Bowden, Mark. "The Desert One Debacle." May 2006.
Accessed 10June 2021

Dennis Meyers
U.S. Army, 1974-1980, BA & MA Economics,
Economist for 30 for State of California, Community College Adjunct Faculty

In 1941, Reza Shah Pahlavi was forced by the British to abdicate in favor of his son Mohammad Reza Pahlavi (the Shah).

In 1944, Mohammad Mosaddegh was elected to the Persian Parliament, or the Majlis of Iran.

1951, Mosaddegh led a movement in the Majlis to nationalize the British-owned Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (AIOC*). This raised his popularity and power to such an extent that the Majlis overwhelmingly nominated him to be the Premier and the Shah was forced to appoint him. [* In 1954 AIOC was renamed the "British Petroleum Company", now known as BP.]

Mosaddegh was a reformer; he introduced unemployment compensation, made factory owners pay benefits to sick and injured workers, and freed peasants from forced labor on their landlords' estates.

  1. Ongoing competition for control of the Iranian government led the Shah to try to dismiss Mosaddegh. But, Mosaddegh’s supporters took to the streets and forced the Shah to leave the country. Shortly thereafter, Britain and the US (CIA) sponsored a coup that restored the Shah to power, deposed Mosaddegh and imprisoned him for treason.

1953–77. The Shah introduced reforms to westernize and modernize Iran. He introduced a series of economic, social and political reforms to transform Iran into a global power and modernizing the nation by nationalizing certain industries and granting women suffrage. During his 38-year rule, Iran spent billions on industry, education, health, and armed forces.
But, he also established the SAVAK, a domestic security and intelligence service, (with the help of the CIA) that "tortured and murdered thousands of the Shah's opponents.
The Shah, however, lost the support of the Shi'a clergy of Iran and the working class due to alleged corruption related to himself and the royal family. Opposition was also based upon his autocratic rule, corruption in his government, the unequal distribution of oil wealth, forced Westernization, and the activities of SAVAK. The result was that he lost the support of the clergy as well as the more progressive leftists.

This political suppression included exiling Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, a former professor of philosophy in Qom, in 1964.

  1. Popular demonstrations against the Shah began when thousands of religious school students took to the streets. The Shah reacted with both concessions and repression including killing anti-Shah protestors. Government and oil workers also went on strike, effectively closing down the oil industry.

  2. In January the Shah left Iran for exile. Ayatollah Khomeini returned from exile on February 1. On April 1, following a national referendum, Khomeini declared Iran an Islamic republic.


The First Takeover--Before the takeover that took American personnel hostage, there was a brief takeover of the US Embassy in Tehran on February 14, 1979 (the Valentine's Day Open House). The Organization of Iranian People's Fedai Guerrillas stormed the U.S. Embassy in Tehran and took an embassy Marine guard hostage. Ambassador William Sullivan surrendered the embassy to save lives, and within three hours, with the assistance of Iranian Foreign Minister, the embassy was returned to U.S. control. The Marine was injured in the attack, kidnapped by the militants, tortured, tried, and convicted of murder. But President Carter and Ambassador Sullivan secured his release within six days.

On November 4, 1979 demonstrations were initiated by an organization of several Islamic associations of Tehran's main universities, the Muslim Student Followers of the Imam's Line to protest the admittance of the deposed Shah to the US to receive cancer treatment. They demanded that the Shah be returned to Iran for trial and execution. Other demands included that the U.S. government apologize for its interference in the internal affairs of Iran, including the overthrow of Prime Minister Mosaddegh, and that Iran's frozen assets in the United States be released. [After the overthrow of the Shah, the US froze approximately $11 billion (1980 dollars) of its assets.]

At first, the students planned a symbolic occupation, in which they would release statements to the press and leave when government security forces came to restore order as had happened during the first embassy takeover. The plan changed when it became clear that the Marine guards would not use deadly force and that a large, angry crowd had gathered outside the compound to cheer the occupiers and jeer the hostages.

Ayatollah Khomeini supported the hostage taking believing that it would solidify support for a theocratic constitution, which was scheduled for a referendum vote less than a month after the takeover. The crisis was used to stoke anti-American sentiment to suppress moderate political opponents.

Initially, 66 hostages were taken. On November 19 and 20, two women and eight African Americans were released. In July 1980, a white man who was seriously ill with multiple sclerosis was released. The remaining 52 hostages were held until January 1981, up to 444 days of captivity.

The hostages suffered beatings, theft, and fear of bodily harm. Two of them were paraded blindfolded before an angry, chanting crowd outside the embassy. Others had their hands bound "day and night" for days or even weeks, endured long periods of solitary confinement, and months of being forbidden to speak to one another or to stand, walk, or leave their space unless they were going to the bathroom. All of them "were threatened repeatedly with execution. The hostage-takers played Russian roulette with their victims. Four hostages tried to escape and were punished with long stretches of solitary confinement.

After imposing more economic sanctions on Iran and after several unsuccessful attempts to negotiate the release of the hostages, Operation Eagle Claw was ordered by President Jimmy Carter to attempt to rescue the 52 embassy hostages on 24 April 1980. The operation involved Army, Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps units. The mission was plagued by mechanical problems that disabled 2 helicopters and by a sandstorm that caused the loss of a third. While the remaining aircraft and personnel were assembled at the initial rendezvous point inside Iran, Desert One, a bus loaded with passengers and a fuel tanker truck happened upon them. The mission was aborted but, while still at Desert One a collision of aircraft caused an explosion and fire which killed eight servicemen. The failure of the rescue attempt was a political blow to President Carter who was campaigning for reelection against Ronald Reagan. The embassy hostages were subsequently scattered across Iran to preclude any second rescue attempt.

Negotiations continued and culminated with the signing of the Algiers Accords on January 19, 1981. The hostages were released on January 20, only minutes after President Reagan completed his inaugural address. The timing of the release until after Reagan’s inauguration is thought to have been a snub of Carter to deny him the satisfaction of announcing the success of his negotiations.

Among other terms, the Accords required that the US would not intervene politically or militarily in Iranian internal affairs and that the US would remove the freeze on Iranian assets and lift trade sanctions on Iran.

The hostage crisis is thought to be the principal reason that Jimmy Carter was not reelected to a second term in office. Early in the crisis the Iranians voted overwhelmingly in favor of a new Islamic constitution giving Khomeini supreme power.


While most aspects of the rescue as depicted in movie were accurate, there are some instances of poetic license.

Rather than being a solo agent in Iran, Tony Mendez was accompanied by a second CIA agent known as Julio who was not mentioned at all in the movie.

In the real operation, Tony posed as an Irish filmmaker because the Irish are “nonthreatening” and “ubiquitous around the world.”

Canada’s role was significantly downplayed in the movie. Once the plan was decided on, Canadians “scouted the airport, sent people in and out of Iran to establish random patterns and get copies of entry and exit visas, bought three sets of airline tickets,” and “even coached the six in sounding Canadian.”

The Canadian Ambassador’s actual role was much larger than shown in the movie. At the request of Jimmy Carter and with the approval of the Canadian Prime Minister, he spied for the US throughout the hostage crisis.

The Americans in hiding were housed by two Canadians: Ambassador Ken Taylor and a Canadian embassy employee, John Sheardown. (In the film, all of them stay with Taylor and his wife; Sheardown does not appear at all.)

Rather than Mendez finding the movie script in a pile, the make-up artist John Chambers (played by John Goodman) suggested a script he’d read earlier, Lord of Light, right after Mendez told him about his escape plan.

The Hollywood producer played by Alan Arkin is fictional. Chambers actually brought in a fellow make-up artist, Robert Sidell, who worked on E.T. among many other movies.
Contrary to what is depicted in the movie, Tony Mendez was not separated from his wife and family at the time of the mission. In fact, when he left for Tehran, his wife drove him to the airport.

Several aspects portrayed in the final escape scenes were entirely fictional added to make the movie more exciting.

There was not a last-minute cancelation of the plan that prevented the purchase of the tickets. They were purchased in advance by the Canadians.
In reality, at the time, the Iranians at the airport could not match up the white and yellow copies of the entry documents in real time.
The group was not confronted by the Revolutionary Guards in the departure lounge that required verification by a phone call to Hollywood.
The departing aircraft was not chased as it took off.


NPR, Fact Checking 'Argo': A Great Escape That Takes Some Leaps, 2012,
NPR, 'Argo': What Really Happened In Tehran? A CIA Agent Remembers, 2013,
Encyclopaedia Britannica, Mohammad Mosaddegh,
Encyclopaedia Britannica, Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi,
David Haglund, How Accurate Is Argo?, 2012,'s%20central%2C%20nutty%20storyline%E2%80%94in,percent%20true%2C%20and%20pretty%20incredible.
Harrison Smith, Tony Mendez, ‘Argo’ spy who smuggled U.S. hostages out of Iran during crisis, dies at 78, 2019, The Washington Post,
Amanda Taub, The Republican myth of Ronald Reagan and the Iran hostages, debunked, 2016,
Wikipedia articles: Iran hostage crisis, Mohammad Mosaddegh, Iranian Revolution, SAVAK, Operation Eagle Claw, Iranian frozen assets