The nail-biting suspense in "Argo," the 2013 Academy Award winner for best picture, didn’t spare Brig. Gen. (ret.) Itzhak Segev when he watched it in a packed theater in Tel Aviv recently.
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He too felt the growing exasperation of the six American diplomats who were trapped in hostile Tehran for months while the CIA was weighing plans, each more far-fetched than the next, to bring them home. He too gasped when the operation succeeded and the stranded Americans were smuggled out with fake Canadian passports, masquerading as a film crew doing field work for an exotic sci-fi production, ostensibly unfazed by the Islamic Revolution that was raging all around.
But while the other spectators surely felt relieved they never had to face similar distress, for Segev, Israel's last military attaché in Tehran, it was a reminder of his own much more harrowing experience.
"Why were they so nervous? Carrying Canadian passports was a huge privilege back then, it was totally safe," says the man who with 32 other Israelis found himself at the mercy of Ayatollah Khomeini's radical Islamic regime, shortly after the fall of the shah in early 1979. "We should have been so lucky!"
It's hard to imagine today that Iran, one of Israel's worst enemies, was once its trusted regional ally, with cordial diplomatic relations and trade – civilian as well as military – reaching $250 million annually. When mass protests against Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi – a brutal and autocratic ruler, yet secular and pro-Western – swept the country, it was home to some 1,500 Israelis.
In November 1978, when it became increasingly clear the days of the shah's regime were numbered – as well as those of the 59-year-old lavish monarch, frail with cancer – all but six Israeli diplomats and a handful of businesspeople remained.
The situation quickly deteriorated as the shah was forced into exile in January 1979, and the hopes the Israeli Foreign Ministry entertained of a military coup withered. On February 1, Khomeini returned to Tehran, where he was greeted by the ecstatic masses. Among them were Segev and his colleague, Mossad operative Eliezer (Geize) Tsafrir.
"Geize and I were standing there in Tehran's main square," Segev says. "We looked local so we didn't stand out; we were wearing revolutionary jackets [scruffy donkey jackets] and we spoke Persian. At some point a man approached us with a banner featuring Khomeini's portrait and urged us to hold it up. We did."
Khomeini's arrival portended the fall of the interim government, headed by shah loyalist Shapour Bakhtiar, and the swift disintegration of the military, armed with state-of-the-art weaponry. The generals were begging Washington, heretofore their patron, for logistical assistance in staging a coup.
But a feckless response from Jimmy Carter's White House proved that they had reached the endgame: The road was paved for an Islamic takeover and, by implication, for summary executions of hundreds of government and military officials.
The Israelis, headed by Ambassador Joseph Hermelin, realized they'd better take the first flight out of the country. If they needed any prodding, it came that weekend. An angry mob took over the (thankfully empty) Israeli Embassy, after the troops guarding it had taken to their heels. The building was dedicated as the official Palestinian Embassy. In an act seen by some as poetic justice, Yasser Arafat, who had established an intimate relationship with the Iranian Islamic resistance, was invited to Tehran and given Hermelin's office.
Leave no stone unturned
Segev was entrusted by Hermelin to find an escape route for the 33 Israelis who were by then scattered in three hideouts across the city. In between frantic phone calls to the Israel Defense Forces headquarters and the Foreign Ministry in Israel, he browsed his address book in the hope of exploiting his myriad contacts with the country's most influential people.
"I phoned air force Cmdr. [Amir Hossain] Rabii, a very good friend of mine, and told him: You have 2,000 aircraft. Give me one. But he said the ayatollahs now controlled all the air bases. 'If you find a way out, let me know and I'll join you.' I put the phone down and called Gen. [Manuchehr] Khosrodad, the commander of the Paratroopers Brigade, who had been my guest in Israel a few times. But he told me that the airborne division he commanded had been taken away from him," Segev recounts.
"A few days later he called me and said: I found a helicopter and I plan to flee to Saudi Arabia. I've got an extra seat; you're welcome to come with me. I refused because I couldn't leave the others behind. But while I was on the phone to him, I saw a breaking news report on TV saying that Gen. Khosrodad was about to leave the country and should be brought before the Revolutionary Council. That night I saw his execution live on TV."
Meanwhile, the rescue operation took shape. The IDF General Staff decided to send a transport plane and ordered Segev, who had specialized in reconnaissance operations, to find suitable terrain for landing near Tehran. Then came another message from Defense Minister Ezer Weizman: The Americans had agreed to include the stranded Israelis in the evacuation of U.S. nationals – by two TWA jumbo jets the following weekend.
That was the beginning of one of the longest weeks in Segev's life. Years later, the drama tickled the fancy of playwright and Hollywood filmmaker David Mamet, who has been trying to turn it into a film. Segev and his wife have been guests at Mamet's Hollywood home several times, but the project has yet to materialize.
While waiting in Tehran, Segev was one of the very few people allowed to come out of hiding. He was the Israelis' only contact with the outside world. He would roam the city to feel the pace of the revolution and buy newspapers of the revolutionary movement – Segev still keeps them in his Ramat Gan home. The papers show photos of the mutilated bodies of shah officials – the Israelis' former hosts and friends.
During one fleeting moment of carelessness, Segev nearly blew his cover.
"We ran out of vegetables, and I went to the Grand Bazaar to get some" he says. This was a risky move because the market was the stronghold of the revolutionary movement, with gunmen going up and down the bustling aisles. "I asked for boxes upon boxes of tomatoes, cucumbers, and so on, and then I made a little mistake. My pockets were full of local money, which had been devalued by 100 percent. So when the stall owner told me how much I owed him, I just gave him the money."
That gave him away – an Iranian, true to his heritage, would always haggle, no matter what. Segev just wanted to get the hell out of there.
"He asked me where I was from. I told him I came from a secret country that I would disclose another time, when his commander was present," Segev says. Every corner of the bazaar was under the command of a different militiaman.
"Then his commander stepped out of the door behind him and asked me to tell them where I was from. They weren't suspicious, they were genuinely interested. I mustered my survival instinct and said I was a PLO delegate in Tehran. 'Really?' he said, 'I just returned from a PLO training camp in Syria.' I told him I was from a camp in Lebanon, about which I had just happened to read an intelligence report when I was bored."
The commander went back to the stall owner and told him that as a hero of the revolution, Segev was entitled, as of the next day, to receive as many vegetables as he wanted, for free. "Needless to say," he says, "I never set foot in the bazaar again."
'Get the hell out of this country'
Then came the day of the evacuation, February 17. Segev had serious concerns about passing through the airport with the Israeli passports, but he hoped that the few dozen Israelis could blend in with the hundreds of Americans who were also waiting to leave.
But any hopes that the Israelis wouldn't stand out were frustrated the minute they arrived at the assembly point, the Hilton Hotel, which was already teeming with revolutionary troops. Two Israelis were detained on suspicion of being agents of the shah's dreaded secret police, the Savak, trying to escape justice.
"They checked everybody who looked local," says Haim Hareli, Segev's deputy at the time, who was one of the detainees. "They probably heard me speak fluent Persian with the driver and assumed I was Iranian."
They weren't entirely wrong. "I explained to them that I had been born in Iran, made aliyah to Israel and was now back as a government official," Hareli continues. "I repeated it maybe 10 times, but they didn't understand how I was Iranian but actually wasn't. They were very simple people, probably former political prisoners. But they were also vindictive and carried guns."
Segev decided to come clean. "I went to the top commander and told him: 'My name is Sartip [General] Segev, and I would like to hand in my credentials to the new government.' He looked at me like I was crazy. 'Listen,' he said, 'I personally have no problem with Israel, but I have to report to the Revolutionary Council that you’re here.'"
Two nerve-wracking hours later, none other than Ayatollah Beheshti, Khomeini's deputy, walked in, accompanied by 10 minions who were holding the hem of his gown. "I walked up to him and said in Persian: 'Your Highness, I'm honored that you came all this way to receive my credentials,'" Segev says.
The new regime's second-in-command was not amused. "He looked at me and said: 'Sartip Segev, get the hell out of this country at once!' I said okay, but I'm not leaving without my men. He ordered that they be released, and I demanded that he put it in writing. And he did – that was probably the last time an Iranian official made a formal pledge not to hurt Israelis."
Remarkable success and appalling failure
The ayatollah's gentlemanly attitude did nothing to assuage Segev's scathing critique of the Islamic regime. "As much as the shah's regime was brutal, these people are 10 times worse," he says. "Killing is a joy for them."
According to Segev, "The reason they let us out so easily wasn't because they wanted to be nice to us. It was much simpler: It was a few days after the revolution and they still needed to consolidate their rule. They didn't want to mess with Israel before they were safe in their new place."
A few years after the escape, with his firsthand memories from the upheaval still fresh, he completed a PhD thesis at Columbia University, in which he analyzed the factors that led to the shah's ouster. One of his advisers was Zbigniew Brzezinski, U.S. President Jimmy Carter's national security adviser; Segev says the White House utterly mismanaged the crisis.
The Americans, he says, did not comprehend the extent of the new regime's hostility toward them. "After our embassy was seized, the American military attaché invited me to stay at his house," Segev recalls. "I told him 'you'll be next,' but he wouldn't even consider it."
Nine months later, in November 1979, it happened. An angry mob seized the American Embassy in Tehran and held 52 staff members hostage for 444 days. (Another six escaped, and their story is dramatized in "Argo.")
"During all this time it didn't occur to the Americans that the danger was imminent," he says. "Do you need more proof other than the fact that they only started destroying top-secret files when the protesters climbed over the fences?"
Prof. Uri Bar-Joseph of the University of Haifa, who recently did a study comparing Israeli and American views on the revolution, agrees. "Israeli memorandums show that they predicted and prepared for the shah's downfall years in advance," he says. "American intelligence, on the other hand, failed appallingly."
Little comfort can be found in the story on which "Argo" is based – a small-scale operational success in a sequence of failures. In the process, the events were turned into a tale of sacrifice and heroism – what Hollywood does best.
"I salute the makers of 'Argo,'" says Segev. "They took a small story and turned it into a big movie."