Adam Bennett

Adam is a political reporter for the New Zealand Herald.

Affleck movie dumps on NZ

Film's portrayal of Kiwi diplomats' actions during Tehran crisis opposite to heroic truth

Ben Affleck (right) directs Argo and also plays the part of Tony Mendez. Photo / Supplied
Ben Affleck (right) directs Argo and also plays the part of Tony Mendez. Photo / Supplied

A Ben Affleck film about the Iranian hostage crisis of 1979-80 suggests New Zealand's embassy in Tehran refused to shelter American fugitives.

While Affleck has acknowledged the portrayal is unfair, details have emerged of New Zealand diplomats' heroism in helping the US embassy staff escape Tehran.

Affleck directs and stars in Argo, which opens here next week. It tells the story of six US diplomats who escaped the takeover of their embassy in Tehran in 1979. The film suggests the diplomats were turned away by the British and New Zealand embassies before being taken in by the Canadians. They were eventually whisked out of Iran in early 1980 in an elaborate ruse by the CIA which disguised them as a film crew.

"I struggled with this long and hard because it casts Britain and New Zealand in a way that is not totally fair," Affleck said in an interview with the NZ Herald's TimeOut.

A recent book about Canadian ambassador Ken Taylor's involvement in the affair tells how the fugitives were initially sheltered by the British and then received assistance from New Zealand ambassador Chris Beeby and his second secretary Richard Sewell.

In Our Man In Tehran, author Robert Wright quotes Mr Taylor as saying Mr Beeby was one of only a handful of Western diplomats who knew the fugitives were being sheltered by the Canadians.

Mr Taylor said Mr Beeby and his Danish counterpart went well beyond their official mandates to assist in sheltering them.

"They were caught in a box," said Mr Taylor. "Iran was New Zealand's largest customer for lamb, and it was a big market for the Danes' dairy products. So although both governments were very supportive of Canadian efforts, the two ambassadors had to quietly go beyond any [formal] instructions, quite understandably, because their countries didn't want to jeopardise a very valuable market ...

"Both of the ambassadors were very careful not to jeopardise their countries' position, but at the same time - I can say this 30 years later - they went considerably beyond their mandate ..."

Mr Beeby visited the fugitives as they sheltered in a Canadian diplomat's home, played chess and brought them "little delicacies" to add variety to their food.

He also rented a vacant house not far from his own which the fugitives could have been moved to quickly if they were discovered by the Iranians. Mr Sewell obtained Iranian disembarkation forms which were required to provide the documentation necessary to get the fugitives on a flight out of Tehran.

He also ferried the fugitives to a briefing and boozy dinner party the night before they left, which was also attended by Mr Beeby. The following morning Mr Sewell drove the group to the airport where they boarded a SwissAir jet.

The New Zealanders' role in the escape was not well known outside diplomatic circles. Mr Sewell died in Wellington in the late 1980s, and Mr Beeby died in Geneva in 2000.

Merwyn Norrish, who was Foreign Affairs Secretary at the time, yesterday confirmed he was aware of Mr Beeby's involvement in the affair, "and so in fact was the Prime Minister of the day [Robert Muldoon] although he didn't want to admit that publicly".

Former diplomat Priscilla Williams, who was a close friend of Mr Sewell, said she was aware of his involvement though not the extent. She was not surprised to learn of details given in the book.

"Both Chris and Richard would be the sort of people likely to do such activities.

"Richard was a lovely person and very ... willing to go a bit outside his comfort zone to help people."

- NZ Herald

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