Rescue operation: Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck)

Argo review: How to distract the masses

Jim Moody reviews: Ben Affleck (director) 'Argo', 2012, general release

Argo is a fiction within a fiction, which is based on a true story, as a statement at the start of this film tells us. But, as with all fictions, the truth that it tells grinds a particular axe. In this case, it is the (vain)glorious, long-kept secret of how six US embassy staff were smuggled out of Iran under the noses of ayatollah Khomeini’s Revolutionary Guards in 1979, just a few months after his forces had gained control of the country following the toppling of the shah.

Director Ben Affleck flaunts his credentials as a Middle East studies student at the start of the film, with a brief on-screen mention of British and US imperialist attacks on Iran’s democratic Mosaddegh government. The joint CIA and Secret Intelligence Service (MI6) Operation Ajax coup in 19531 ousted Mosaddegh and cemented their creature, Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, on the peacock throne. It is little wonder that Iranian popular hatred of the ‘great Satan’ (USA) and the ‘little Satan’ (UK) continues to this day. But we need to place the film more in the context of its times.


Immediately after the February 1979 Iranian revolution, with the shah having fled into exile and then allowed into the USA with a life-threatening illness, the National Front government became alarmed at the radicalisation that was growing apace, especially in the workers’ movement. Mehdi Bazargan2, Khomeini’s first prime minister, looked with dismay at this development, fearing it was getting beyond his government’s control; he recalled later: “We wanted rain, but we got floods.” Driven by fear of the masses, liberal factions within the regime capitulated to the political takeover by the clergy. And once this particular genie was out of the bottle, the growth of clerical authority devalued the National Front’s secular politicians to the point of exclusion.3

In the summer of 1979, Khomeini had declared a fatwa against the Kurds in Iran, accusing them of waging war against Islam, and set about taming Kurdistan. By autumn, nine months after the revolution defeated the shah’s forces, class struggle was continuing to grow: crucially for the economy, for example, oil workers had embarked on a series of new strikes. As well as in Kurdistan, national minorities were also rebelling in Turkman Sahra and oil-rich Khuzestan (home to many of Iran’s Arabs and one of its wealthiest provinces); and women were militantly resisting attempts to enforce wearing of the veil in government offices and public places.

Against this background, strategists within the religious state decided to stage an ‘anti-western’ spectacle, although it was opposed by the Bazargan government from the start. This turned out to be the ‘spontaneous’ occupation of the US embassy in Tehran, purportedly by students and other Islamist militants, which began on November 4 1979.4 The stated aim of the protest was the demand that the shah should be returned to Iran to stand trial instead of receiving medical treatment in the USA. Manifestly, however, it was an action that proved decisive for the Islamists in diverting attention from the growing popular struggles and provided a means of achieving the consolidation of the Islamic Republic.5 Immediately after the embassy was occupied, the government declared a state of emergency - on the basis that the USA might launch a military attack in retaliation - and this became the ideal pretext for crushing all rebellions and protests.

Sadly, if not sickeningly, much of the left in Iran and beyond was found wanting at this point. Tudeh, the ‘official communist’ party, and the Fedayeen Majority6 - both in effect Soviet client parties - declared the embassy occupation and hostage-taking ‘an anti-imperialist act’, as did the People’s Mujahedin of Iran.7 Indeed, this was the position of ‘official communist’ parties around the world. But infamously it was a lead that was also followed by most Trotskyist groups both inside and outside Iran, including some that called for unconditional support for the ‘imam’s line’. These organisations inanely judged the Iranian regime to be progressive for its anti-US stance, failing to comprehend that such a reactionary anti-imperialism could even exist.8 So it was that opposition to the regime inside Iran was left to the Fedayeen Minority9, Komala10, Peykar11, a few Maoist groups, and to some extent Rahe Kargar.12 It was these groups that concretised opposition to the takeover of the US embassy.


And so back to Argo and its reading of the beginning of this whole sorry process. Of course, by now we are used to seeing an idiosyncratic or even rogue CIA operative pop up in Hollywood movies and US television production. It is therefore almost to be expected that the almost unkempt Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck) would kick over the traces at some point. That he does so at the instant when his superiors want to abort the rescue operation, which he has worked his nuts off to set up, is well placed to instil the audience’s admiration of his courage and humane individuality.

Clearly by that point in the film we are intended to want him to succeed in saving the six men and women. They have, after all, been cleared for the purpose of our consciences as wholly non-clandestine (ie, not spooks, not complicit in torture, etc), but merely clerical and administrative visa workers. Therefore, their lives being in danger, we must hope that the brave if quirky CIA man will do his level best to protect them, must we not? Indeed, flawed though the state’s agencies may be, are they not our guardians against evil and the evildoers? After all, in the end, from among their ranks emerge the dependable good guys ... and so on.

Production values are undoubtedly high and Argo does have its moments. In particular, the by-play between makeup artist John Chambers (John Goodman) and producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin) encapsulates Hollywood dry wit and cynicism. But these moments are few and far between.

Factually, there are questions about the film’s depiction of the situation in Iran as the embassy occupation started. For example, we see the six disguised embassy staff met with antagonism as they walk with Mendez in the bazaar. But those who were in Tehran in 1979 have recalled that foreigners, including Brits and Americans (the late anthropologist and revolutionary Frank Girling13 amongst them), could walk the streets and even mingle freely among those demonstrating daily outside the US embassy without being berated or threatened. This was, after all, a time when the Islamic regime was keen to win friends and influence people through its ‘anti-imperialism’.

Several others have commented that it was untrue, as is stated in Argo, that the British embassy in Tehran refused to give the six shelter. But even if true, as a physical representation of the ‘little Satan’, the UK’s embassy there would hardly have been a safe haven: paranoia toward Britain has always been high within Iran.14 And anyway the accents of the six were nowhere near Received Pronunciation, which was why the Canadian embassy was a better fit.

More important, though, were inaccuracies in the finale. As journalist Robert Fisk recalls,15 having also been in Iran at the time, it was most unlikely that the Revolutionary Guards at Tehran airport had computers. In fact, Fisk also declares that the identity of the fleeing six was never discovered by the Iranian regime - something that the film suggests was painstakingly achieved - and thus the consequent final pursuit down the runway is complete fiction: nothing like it ever happened. As the closing escape sequence is probably the most engaging and thrilling part of Argo, this is something of a difficulty for the film’s overall impact and especially for its veracity, which is so clearly and definitely claimed at the start.

Whether, as some claim, the Canadian authorities actually did much more to aid the six escapees leave Iran than the CIA ever did is moot. What is indisputable is the decades-long involvement of foreign covert agencies in Iran. The CIA taught the shah’s Savak secret police how to torture, after all. And let us not forget that it was Jimmy Carter who made the CIA more secretive by presidential decree: “One of his first actions was to tighten severely access to information about CIA covert operations and plug up potential leaks.”16 That is why it is only now, a full 33 years after the Tehran embassy occupation, that the release of details of this episode has been permitted - in a controllable manner, using quasi-fictional means. Information management using white, grey and black propaganda is how such state agencies express an important part of their remit.

Argo joins a long list of fictionalisations that, despite their more or less complex modes of realisation, serve bourgeois state propaganda needs. Crying ‘Leave no-one behind’ has been explicit in characterisation of heroes such as Mendez in US mainstream movies dealing with conflict from before World War II, through Vietnam, to the conflicts in Afghanistan, Iraq and Somalia. So the fact that the theme is continued in Argo is unsurprising, especially when is serves to restore lost sheen to the CIA, thanks to a seemingly leftfield individual. At the end of Argo, prodigal son Mendez is welcomed back to Langley with open arms, transgressions forgiven.

Back in Iran, though, the situation for the working class and all those being crushed by the regime was to become worse. Marking the defeat of the revolutionary movement, the Islamist regime launched a bloodbath in 1981: an all-out attack on the Mujahedin, which had been a supporter of the embassy occupation, and other opposition groups. Even at this point Tudeh, the Fedayeen Majority, and sections of the Trotskyist Fourth International still continued to support and defend the Islamist government at home and internationally. So it was beyond irony when the regime’s attacks were broadened out in 1983: it then became the turn of members of Tudeh, the Fedayeen Majority, and the pro-state Trotskyist groups who were themselves arrested by the very forces they had hitherto supported.

While the Iran embassy hostage crisis was to drag on very publicly into 1981, it was nonetheless to fulfil a secret purpose for the USA. The hostages had become pawns in political shenanigans between Iran on one side and Israel and the USA on the other. By covert agreement with US Republicans, who visited Iran in 1980 specifically for the purpose of negotiating it, the Iranian regime agreed to delay the release of the hostages until after the US presidential elections in November of that year, in order to boost the chances of Ronald Reagan. Reagan was thus able to puff himself up as the strongman who would make Iran let them go. It worked: the hostages were actually released on his inauguration day (January 20 1981)!

Later, as we know now, the subsequent holding in the Lebanon of western hostages by the Iran-backed Hezbollah was ended as part of an elaborate deal whose negotiating roots were in those earlier hidden contacts between the US and Iran’s Islamist regime. In 1986 the Lebanese newspaper, Al-Shiraa, exposed the whole sordid Iran-Contra arms-for-hostages affair: under this deal, hostages in the Lebanon were exchanged for Israeli weapons to help Iran fight its ‘anti-western’ war against Iraq. Iran paid for these weapons by depositing funds into Swiss accounts belonging to the vile Nicaraguan Contras as well as shipping oil to Israel. So much, then, for Israel as the bugbear par excellence for the Iranian regime!

And so much for the Iranian regime’s hatred for the ‘great Satan’, to whose tune it has been perfectly prepared to dance - as long as it was not a performance seen or heard by the mass of Iranians.


1. Remembered as the 28 Mordad 1332 coup, using the Iranian calendar.

2. First Iranian head of the National Iranian Oil Co under the Mossadegh government.

3. The National Front remains the semi-legal opposition inside Iran, calling for liberalisation of the Islamic regime. But its offices are periodically raided and its presidential and parliamentary election candidates are invariably disqualified for failing the religious criteria set by the Council of Guardians.

4. Fifty-two US citizens were held hostage for 444 days, until January 20 1981.

5. Following a national referendum, Iran became an Islamic Republic on April 1 1979; Khomeini was named supreme leader in December 1979, a few weeks after the occupation of the US embassy.

6. Organisation of Iranian People’s Fedayeen (Majority).

7. Originally an Islamo-Marxist group, it is currently the main element of the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI).

8. When war with Iraq broke out in September 1980, these groups called on workers to stop their strikes and for all opposition forces to rally behind the ‘anti-imperialist’ government.

9. Fedayeen Organisation (Minority) publishes Kar outside Iran: http://aghalyat.no-ip.org.

10. Komala is the Kurdish branch of the Communist Party of Iran, which publishes Workers’ Voice (www.cpiran.org/English/English_index.html).

11. Also called the Marxist Mujahedin, it was a secular splinter from the People’s Mujahedin of Iran. It is no longer active.

12. Organisation of Revolutionary Workers of Iran, which publishes the journal Rahe Kargar. It split in 2009.

13. Private conversations between Frank Girling and Yassamine Mather.

14. An idea lampooned in Iraj Pezeshkzad’s popular 1973 novel Dâ’i jân Nâpol’on (My uncle Napoleon).

15. www.independent.co.uk/voices/comment/ben-affleck-argo-and-a-chilling-portrait-of-suspicion-and-vengeance-in-postrevolutionary-tehran-8459100.html.

16. ‘Turner’s “born again” CIA’ Covert Action Information Bulletin, reproduced in P Agee and L Wolf Dirty work: The CIA in western Europe Zed Press, London 1978.