Diplomacy Under Fire

Ken Taylor, Canada’s former ambassador to Iran, on the U.S. embassy demonstrations.
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September 18, 2012

Ken Taylor was Canada’s ambassador to Iran in November 1979, when the U.S. embassy in Tehran was seized and more than 50 American diplomats were taken hostage. Six other Americans managed to avoid capture and were sheltered by Taylor, who helped them get out of Iran. Today, Taylor reflects on the killing of the U.S. ambassador to Libya and the dangerous demonstrations outside other U.S. embassies in the region.

What went through your mind this past week while you were hearing about the U.S. embassy sieges all over the Middle East and North Africa?

Diplomacy has always been a delicate and risky business. The stereotype of diplomacy suggests a sort of social game: polite conversations, even-handed negotiations, cocktail parties at night. That reflects one side of diplomacy, because you need to meet, and give and take, and get to know somebody.

But the other reality that’s particularly true today is that, given the revolutionary character in many countries, a diplomat’s life could be in jeopardy at any time of the day. I think this particularly applies to U.S. diplomats abroad, and to diplomats from other countries that have top-tier status in terms of population and influence.

At the moment, it’s the U.S. embassy that some people feel stands for something they don’t adhere to, and the diplomats take the brunt of their distaste for the United States.

What was it like for you to be inside a western country’s embassy in Tehran in 1979 with similar acts of violence taking place?

There was no law and order, there was no judicial system, and there was no coherent police presence. It was everybody for himself, and various revolutionary groups were seeking to attain positions of power. So, you were pretty much on our own – you could not rely on the host country for security.

Of course, you can have your own security guards inside, but they can’t shoot to kill. If a demonstrator or revolutionary were shot by one of the security guards in the embassy, it would inflame the mob. If someone is shot by one of the host country’s security guards, it’s a different story.

Back in 1979, what was going on inside the embassy when the protests started?

On the Friday night before the U.S. embassy in Tehran was taken over, I played tennis with Bruce Laingen, who was the U.S. embassy’s chargé d’affaires. On Saturday night, the United States invited people from other embassies and had a quiet party. They were attempting to re-establish their presence in Tehran with the advent of the new government.

The next day, they were taken over.

It was a rather stunning setback for a new phase in the life of the U.S. embassy. It had been taken over back in February, and we thought it would be cleared up after a few days like it had been then. That was not the case, of course.

Do you see parallels between the Arab Spring and the 1979 Iranian revolution?

Certainly. I think the first thing that became clear to observers was that in Iran, the West is vulnerable.

Iran – Persia – was a close ally of the West for something like 2,500-3,000 years, up until the revolution. I don’t think anybody anticipated that somebody with a religious commitment would be able to overthrow such a powerful force as the Shah’s monarchy.

When that monarchy eroded, we were faced with an entirely new situation. When Ruhollah Khomeini arrived, his was only one of four groups seeking influence and power, so it was a difficult situation to read, even upon his arrival.

Is the Arab Spring a continuation of that uncertainty?

No longer can you rest on the status quo. Younger generations are looking for some degree of liberation and expression, and that’s compounded by a latent and very strong religious commitment, and by the fact that the West and the East have different views and interpretations of society, and of whatever religious paths they follow.

Do you think anything could have been done to protect U.S. ambassador Chris Stevens in Libya?

No. It comes back to the situation U.S. diplomats face in a region where the expectations of a revolutionary group are sometimes beyond what can realistically be attained.

You can have your own security guards, but there’s only so much they can do. The other element of that essentially amounts to architecture: Do you have a high wall, and another retaining wall?

But if you make your embassy a fortress, how can a diplomat relate to the population he is accredited to?

That’s what the ambassador in Benghazi was known for: He was prepared to go outside the traditional embassy walls. Before diplomatic relations were even formal, he was going about trying to articulate the benefits of a free Libyan society and what the U.S. could contribute to that end. So, he was always outside the compound.

If you’re behind a medieval fortress, as some diplomats find themselves today, it’s very difficult to have a give and take with the people you want to talk to, and to read the mood of the people.

On the one hand, you have a diplomatic role, but on the other hand, you have to be concerned about the safety of the diplomats.

Exactly. I think you have to take that risk in order to maintain some sort of presence in the country, and I think that risk is an acceptable one.

You can’t connect, or develop relationships, by sitting back in Washington, Ottawa, Berlin, Tokyo, or other capitals pontificating. You have to be on the ground to make some sort of connection, however difficult that may be.

That’s the decision governments are going to have to make, and I think it’s one that today’s diplomats are prepared to respond to.

Would it be wise to shut down U.S. missions in the region?

No, I don’t think the U.S. can afford to do that. I think the U.S. – along with a diverse group of other countries – has a role to play in the region.

The stakes, economically and politically, are of course higher for some countries – say, NATO or the European Union or countries of influence in the region, like Brazil – but it’s workable, and it’s important.

I think we need to look at countries like Canada, Spain, Italy, Australia, Sweden, and South Korea, which have political and economic interests of their own, but also have a collective interest, through the UN or otherwise, to help a country that’s just gone through the throes of a revolution reach its ultimate goals. It’s difficult, costly, and risky – but it’s worth the effort.

This interview was originally published at The Mark. It has been edited for length and clarity.

Photo courtesy of Reuters.