The years leading up to the autumn of 1979 in Iran proved to be turbulent, resulting in a radical transformation of the nation. The U.S had backed the semi-absolutist monarchy of Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, even when the increasing popularity of Islamic fundamentalism, Iranian Nationalism, and opposition to western influence exploded, culminating in protests against the Shah in 1977. The Shah used increasingly brutal tactics to suppress rebellion; his actions only further inflamed the revolutionary fervor of the populace.
Organized armed resistance began in 1977. The Shah fled the country on January 16, 1979, leaving a provisional government in power. Meanwhile, the fundamentalist leader Ruhollah Khomeini, who had lead opposition movements before his exile, returned and resumed leadership over the revolution. Khomeini rallied his forces and disposed of both residual royalist troops and the provisional government that ruled in the Shah’s name, thus formally establishing himself as Supreme Leader of the new Islamic Republic. Rival factions were subverted, and Revolutionary Guards roamed the country to ensure the preservation of the new order.
After the Shah left Iran, he became ill with cancer and was granted medical asylum in the United States in the October of 1979 with the reluctant approval of President Jimmy Carter. Many Iranians viewed the Shah as a war criminal and demanded that the U.S hand him over for trial. When the U.S government refused, a group of revolutionary student protestors rallied outside the U.S embassy in Tehran to demand justice.
On November 4, 1979, students scaled the walls of the embassy and broke into the compound. Fifty two U.S diplomatic personal were captured and held hostage for what would become 444 days. The Khomeini regime welcomed the new-found leverage against the U.S. and Khomeini deployed the Revolutionary Guards to round up any American personnel that may have escaped into the city.
Kathleen Stafford served as a visa clerk in the U.S consulate center within the U.S embassy in Tehran during the revolution. She, along with her husband Joseph Stafford, Robert Anders, Cora Amburn-Lijek, Mark Lijek and Lee Schatz, escaped the initial breech of the embassy. The escapees divided into two groups to avoid attention.
Stafford and her group evaded capture by moving from vacant house to vacant house before finding a more lasting refuge at the homes of Canadian Ambassador Ken Taylor and Consul General John Sheardown, who welcomed them despite great personal risk. The group would remain guests of the Canadian diplomats for almost three months until a CIA extraction operation lead by Tony Mendez, made famous by the movie Argo, allowed them to escape Iran on January 28, 1980 by posing as a film production team. The movie was criticized by Ambassador Taylor, who died in October 2015, and others as discounting the role the Canadians played. Kathleen Stafford was interviewed by Marilyn Greene in 2012.