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Former Canadian ambassador to recall Iran hostage role at Pitt-Greensburg commencement

| Wednesday, April 24, 2013, 12:01 a.m.
Kenneth D. Taylor

Canada's former ambassador — whose pivotal role in the 1979 Iran hostage crisis was glossed over in the 2013 Oscar-winning film “Argo” — will take center stage on Saturday at the University of Pittsburgh at Greensburg's commencement ceremonies.

Kenneth D. Taylor, the ambassador to Iran during the Iranian Revolution and subsequent invasion of the U.S. Embassy by Islamic militants, will deliver the address to 191 graduates. The ceremony will begin at 11 a.m. on Ridilla Athletic Field.

“I always think that graduation from college is a milestone. It's an important step; it comes with a lot of satisfaction,” Taylor said. “And particularly I enjoy the opportunity to meet young men and women of that age and that stage of departure in their career.”

College graduates in North America, he said, are fortunate to have opportunities beyond those available to students in many parts of the world, particularly the Middle East.

“Those young men and women are looking for a chance, they're looking for some sense of dignity, some sort of country where there is some justice. Whereas here, in Canada and the United States particularly, that is almost a given,” Taylor said. “Certainly in that sense, young men and women in North America to a large extent are very fortunate when compared to some of their counterparts elsewhere.”

Taylor's graduation message will pull from his experience as a diplomat and world traveler.

“What I propose is that what they do is their choice, but a lot of what they do is going to be governed from outside the U.S. borders,” he said. “It is, to use the trite word, a ‘globalized' world. That's the nature of today. Everybody is interconnected. That has implications not only for them individually, but also what sort of pursuit they will decide to take.”

Taylor served the Canadian Foreign Service on assignments in Guatemala, Pakistan, London, Ottawa, Tehran and New York, with his time in Tehran at the height of the Iranian Revolution.

He gave sanctuary to six Americans who escaped the Nov. 4, 1979, invasion of the American embassy and then worked with Canadian and U.S. intelligence agencies to get them out of Iran in what became known as the “Canadian Caper.”

The militants held 52 diplomats — including Jerry Miele of Mt. Pleasant — in the embassy for 444 days, until Jan. 20, 1981.

“Argo” — which won the Academy Award best picture — focuses on the CIA's role in getting the freed hostages out of Iran by posing as a Canadian film crew scouting locations for a bogus science-fiction movie.

“We responded to six people whose lives were in jeopardy,” Taylor said. “It seemed to be — certainly to us and the embassy and to Prime Minister Joe Clark — the right thing to do. We didn't sit back and weigh the risks and say: ‘Well, maybe we should and maybe we shouldn't. What are the implications?' We said: ‘This is what we're going to do. We're going to offer the U.S. diplomats sanctuary.'”

That decision to defy Iran's new leadership spelled the end of Taylor's ambassadorship in Tehran.

“I thought it was going to end up, whenever there was resolution to getting the six home, that my term there was probably finished,” Taylor said with a laugh.

Taylor served as Canada's consulate general of New York after the hostage crisis. He then made the transition into the private sector with Nabisco Brands and other companies, but he still extols the virtues of international diplomacy.

“Of course, you have to have some elements of (military power) to put some force into diplomacy, but I think if a lesson has been learned, it's that it's time for more diplomacy, coupled with the military,” he said. “An entirely military solution, if history teaches us anything, is not a solution.”

Greg Reinbold is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-459-6100, ext. 2913 or greinbold@tribweb.com.

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