WAVERLY, Iowa --- A Waverly woman has a unique personal perspective on “Argo,” the acclaimed new film depicting the rescue of six U.S. embassy workers from Iran during the 1979 hostage crisis.
Kathryn Koob, a 1960 Wartburg College graduate, was one of 52 American embassy employees held hostage in Tehran, Iran, by the student-led Revolutionary Guard for 444 days beginning on Nov. 4, 1979.
Ben Affleck directed “Argo” and plays Tony Mendez, the CIA “exfiltration” expert responsible for extricating the Americans who eluded the Iranian guard, then hid in the Canadian embassy and personal residences for two months. Under the guise of producing “Argo,” a fake science-fiction movie, Mendez had the captives play a Canadian film crew scouting locations as a ploy for their escape.
Koob arrived in Tehran only four months prior to the siege as director of the Iran-America Society established by the U.S. government to create community and educational ties between the two countries.
She knew all of the escapees through language and area studies classes they had taken for nine months before leaving for Iran.
“Embassy personnel support each other, and I had seen them at a couple of social events we had before the takeover,” Koob added.
On that day in November 1979, Koob was at work at the Iran-America Society office to relay information to Washington about the takeover. Cora Amburn-Lijek, Mark Lijek, Joseph and Kathleen Stafford and Robert Anders — five of the escapees who had worked in a buwilding on the embassy compound — also showed up. Lee Schatz, the sixth, was an agricultural attaché working in a building across the street from the compound and fled to the Swedish mission.
“I was aware that a group had gotten away,” Koob said. “The Lijeks and the Staffords came to my office and actually spelled me at the phones from midnight to 6 a.m. the first day. I didn’t know where they went from there, but we were working together until they left. I was taken to the embassy later in the day.”
Koob had eluded capture the first day at the Iran-America Society office when the Guard arrived by fleeing to the West German Goethe Institute. Although the Germans offered her refuge in their embassy, Koob — one of nine U.S. employees still at large — rejected it, feeling her place was to continue providing information to the U.S. State Department.
“Hindsight says I should have grabbed it,” Koob said. “I didn’t. I went back to work.”
She returned to the Iran-America Society office and was discovered by a second wave of the Revolutionary Guard.
Koob was taken to the embassy compound and initially held alone, unable to speak with other captured diplomats. She became roommates in March 1980 with Elizabeth “Ann” Swift, the other woman in captivity. They often discussed the fate of the six escapees, which they wouldn’t learn about until their release.
“It was great seeing them when we got back to the U.S.,” Koob said.
The seeds for the embassy takeover had been sown when Iran’s deposed shah was admitted to the United States for medical treatment. Koob said the embassy staff was sure something would happen.
“We certainly didn’t expect that the whole embassy staff would be taken hostage,” she said. “We had advised the U.S. government not to admit the shah, but Washington didn’t listen to us.”
Koob said the staff had known about the Revolutionary Guard and its many factions. The more conservative and militant group would come to power, including current President Mwahmoud Ahmadinejad.
She never truly had a chance to escape her captors, but said she often “fantasized” about it. She knew little about the escapees’ rescue, but plans to see the film to “discuss it intelligently.”
“From what I hear, I wish (the film) gave more credit to our Canadian diplomatic neighbors who housed the group and were very much involved in getting the group home safely,” Koob said. “The Canadians are some of our greatest allies and don’t deserve to be shortchanged.”
After Koob’s release Jan. 20, 1981, she and the other hostages were honored with a New York City parade and meetings with Presidents Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan.
“It was the first time a whole embassy had been held hostage outside of a war situation,” she added. “And we all came home. In essence, we ‘won’ if there was any winning to do. Our coming home was a great ‘feel good’ moment in U.S. history, and was close enough to the Vietnam War, that its positive value was important.”
She returned to the Foreign Service and had assignments in Austria, Germany and Australia. She never returned to Iran. After retiring from the service in 1996, Koob taught oral communication at Wartburg.
Her book, “Guest of the Revolution,” written in 1984, recounts the spiritual journey she experienced during her captivity. The Wartburg Players performed a play adapted from the novel last year with Koob as narrator.
Koob cherishes her family and faith as a result of her ordeal — and cites the lessons learned.
“For me personally, one of the best things that happened was that as a result of our welcome home, people began to realize they had punished the foot soldier for the crimes of the bureaucracy,” Koob said. “It changed the way we deal with our military. For that I give thanks.”