The Miseducation of Tony Mendez

“Argo” Mastermind Reveals Ignorance of US-Iran History

Arash Norouzi

The Mossadegh Project | March 31, 2013                      

New posthumous introduction (Jan. 23, 2019):

CIA agent Tony Mendez ("Argo") Antonio J. Mendez (1940-2019) — artist, forger, master of disguise, spy extraordinaire — died at 78 on Jan. 19th after a long battle with Parkinson’s disease. He is best known for his daredevil role in rescuing a group of Americans stuck in Iran during the 1979 revolution, in coordination with Hollywood makeup wizards and the Canadian government.

Tony Mendez’s enigmatic, wily personality seemed to have been a major asset in his CIA career. He also excelled at one of the most essential skills in spycraft — the art of deception. Mendez drew upon this in his extremely biased summary of the tragic events of 1953, recycling Cold War propaganda clichés, misrepresenting Dr. Mossadegh and obscuring the undeniable criminality of the U.S. role in crushing freedom in Iran.

Sure, Mendez was a nice guy, family man, and patriot. I met him somewhere around 2005 or so at his rural Maryland home for an art show. He showed me to a small den with the various disguises he had used as a secret agent, affixed to mannequin heads for display. He then offered to let us wander through his lovely country home, bedrooms and all, completely unaccompanied.

People are complicated, and we can laud Tony Mendez’s heroism in Iran while criticizing his McCarthyite whitewashing of history at the same time.

In December 1979, six American would-be hostages in Iran managed to escape from the seized U.S. embassy, finding temporary refuge at the Tehran residences of Canadian ambassador Ken Taylor and embassy immigration chief John Sheardown.

Tasked with rescuing them from this predicament, CIA agent Antonio Mendez devised a wild plan to enter Iran posing as a Hollywood film crew scouting locations for a made-up science fiction film called Argo.

According to Mendez, in 1997 the CIA specifically asked him to begin sharing the story of the triumphant operation (the wish of CIA director George Tenet, he was told) to help celebrate the CIA’s 50th anniversary. Mendez, also honored at an agency ceremony as one of the the top CIA officers in its history, obliged.

Subsequently, Mendez revealed the operation to CBS Evening News’ Dan Rather, and included the story in his 1999 autobiography The Master of Disguise: My Secret Life in the CIA, which led to a 2007 Wired magazine article which was then optioned for the screen by George Clooney. Ben Affleck took the helm as director and star (playing Tony Mendez) in the celebrated 2012 feature film Argo, which won numerous accolades including the Oscar for Best Picture.

"Argo: How the CIA and Hollywood Pulled Off the Most Audacious Rescue in History" The CIA, of course, has a notorious history in Iran, some of which is summarized in Tony Mendez’s new cash-in book Argo: How the CIA and Hollywood Pulled Off the Most Audacious Rescue in History (2012). Mendez tells a highly distorted version of the events of 1953, which rely largely on the account of his predecessor at the CIA, Kermit Roosevelt, in the 1979 tell-all Countercoup: The Struggle for the Control of Iran.

In fact, Mendez is so impressed with Kermit Roosevelt’s account, that he uses the offensive and inaccurate term “countercoup” four times.
Mendez however fails to supply any context, other than briefly mentioning that the Shah’s power was being “slowly stripped away” by Mossadegh, there’s no description of any attempted “coup” to counter. It’s just one of Mendez’s numerous falsehoods.

Dr. Mohammad Mossadegh, whom Mendez reduces to “an Iranian lawyer”, had aroused concern when he — recycling a standard propaganda line — “aligned himself with the Tudeh Party”.

On the contrary, the Tudeh (Communist) party in Iran, whose pro-Soviet ideology clashed with Mossadegh’s nationalist agenda, was far from a dependable source of support; if anything, they created more obstacles for the Premier. No actual evidence has been presented that Mossadegh at any point united with them — in fact Mossadegh publicly rebuked them for selling out their country.

“The final straw for the Eisenhower administration”, Mendez informs us, “came when intelligence discovered that the Soviets were about to give Mosaddeq [sic] twenty million dollars in aid.”
Mendez’s source for this baseless claim? Eisenhower’s 1963 Presidential memoir Mandate For Change. To quote the former President:

“And, one report said, he was looking forward to receiving $20 million from the Soviet Union, which would keep his treasury afloat for the next two or three months.”

This mysterious “report” remains unsubstantiated to this day, even after numerous CIA documents have become declassified. And each person that has ever mentioned this canard, such as the ever-unreliable CIA agent and former Iran hostage William J. Daugherty, depends entirely on this single sentence from Ike’s book. Besides, Iran never received any Soviet aid under Mossadegh, not even the gold owed to her. Yet in 1954, during the U.S.-backed regime of the Shah, a curious TIME magazine article reported that the Soviet Union “promised to return the eleven tons of gold they have owed the National Bank of Iran since World War II.”

Dr. Mohammad Mossadegh in military court Kermit Roosevelt’s handiwork, continues Mendez, which included propaganda and bought street mobs, “forced [Mossadegh] to resign”.

Wrong again. Mossadegh never ‘resigned’, he was violently forced from power in a CIA-MI6 inspired military coup, and maintained his claim to the premiership all the way through his treason trial. I corrected the U.S. Institute of Peace for making this precise claim back in 2010, an error they subsequently retracted in response, so there’s a bit of deja vu here. And like USIP, Mendez softens the coup considerably, writing that “massive public demonstrations” brought down Mossadegh, with no mention of the army which assailed his bullet-ridden residence.

Mendez goes on to frame the “1953 countercoup” in a Cold War context (he terms it “the Great Game”), justifying the operation as a strategic imperative in a “very different world”. He refers to a “popular myth” among Iranians that the CIA singlehandedly deposed Mossadegh, as if anybody truly believed that the coup didn’t involve Iranian agents and co-conspirators. In this way, Mendez employs innuendo to imply that the 1953 coup was not quite the atrocity it’s said to be.

Mendez’s mistakes are not confined to distant history. He recalls that on November 4, 1979, “the militants had chosen to launch their attacks on National Students Day, an event commemorating the death of a group of students killed by the shah’s forces during a demonstration at the University of Tehran the year before.” The Students Day tradition actually dates back to December 7, 1953, during demonstrations against the restoration of relations with England and the upcoming visit by Vice President Richard Nixon.

Tony Mendez and Ben Affleck promote "Argo" Ironically, the opening sequence in the Argo movie recounting the Mossadegh affair is more sympathetic (though similarly error-ridden), and Ben Affleck, who portrays Mendez, has previously touted the pro-Mossadegh narrative.

Actually, Mendez and Hollywood’s depiction of the Argo story apparently short-change Canada’s role. President Jimmy Carter, who signed off on the operation at the time, told CNN that “90% of the contributions to the ideas and the consummation of the plan was Canadian”, and that Canadian Ambassador Ken Taylor was the “main hero” of the story, even though Affleck’s role as Mendez, who was only in Iran for a day and half, is the chief protagonist.

And so it goes. Subjective — if not deliberately deceptive — accounts from the past continue to regurgitate as historical fact. Eisenhower lied repeatedly in his book, pretending Mossadegh’s overthrow was an internal uprising. Kermit Roosevelt’s entire book, right down to the title, was based on a lie, as were his subsequent yarns about the Shah’s demise.

As for Tony Mendez, there’s good reason to doubt aspects of this professional con-man’s self-serving account of the Argo episode. Former Ambassador Ken Taylor and President Carter severely differ with him, and his understanding of U.S.-Iran relations is underwhelming, particularly for a distinguished intelligence officer who’s had over three decades to catch up on history.

Mossadegh & Arbenz & Lumumba & Sukarno & Allende... shirts

Mossadegh & Arbenz & Lumumba & Sukarno & Allende... t-shirts

The 1953 Coup in Iran Was An Act of War | by Arash Norouzi
The 1953 Coup in Iran Was An Act of War | by Arash Norouzi


Related links:

Madeleine Albright’s Mea Culpa (No Apology) For 1953 Iran Coup

The First American Implicated in the 1953 Coup: Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf

Assessment of the Iranian Situation | CIA Report, August 17, 1953

MOSSADEGH t-shirts — “If I sit silently, I have sinned”

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