For Lee Schatz, the offer to join the American embassy in Tehran as agricultural attache in September of 1979 was a "great career move." As a GS-13, he'd earn about $30,000 annually, and the job was promotion -- he was leaving an assistant attache's position in India to accept the Agriculture Department's top embassy slot in Iran.
Two months later, of course, the great career move became a nightmare with the takeover of the American embassy. But Schatz was luckier than most; his office was about two blocks from the embassy, and he watched the takeover from his office window. That night he found sanctuary in the Swedish embassy located on an upper floor of his office building.
Now that the Iranian crisis has ended for America, Schatz can reveal some details about his escape from Tehran. And in a recent interview, he also discussed his bitter disillusionment at the Carter administration's handling of the Iranian crisis, feelings some of his former colleagues in Tehran may have thus far only discussed in private.
For two weeks following the embassy takeover in Tehran, Schatz lived with a Swedish embassy officer before moving -- along with two other Americans -- into the home of John and Zena Sheardown, a Canadian diplomatic family who lived in a northern suburb of Tehran. Three months after the embassy takeover, Schatz, his two American housemates who had managed to avoid capture (and who had been living in hiding with another Canadian family) were spirited out of Iran with the help of Canadian diplomats.
Using a false Canadian passport, Schatz passed scrutiny at Tehran airport. He had memorized his fake name, birthdate and even knew a few details about his phony place of birth, Edmonton. In his suitcase were carefully selected toiletries made in Canada as well as a Molson Ale T-shirt.
"We overtipped the porters like good foreigners were supposed to," recalls Schatz, "and then just smiled and bumbled our way through."
The six returning Americans enjoyed an emotional welcome from the press, public and State Department. Canada became America's favorite ally. And while some of the hostages have begun writing books about their experiences in Iran, it is the freeing of Schatz and his colleagues that has inspired the first dramatization of the Tehran takeover of the American embassy.
CBS plans to air on May 17 "Escape From Iran," a made-for-TV movie based on a Canadian television documentary shown north of the border several months ago.
But for Lee Schatz, talking now about the Hollywood treatment his escape from Iran is about to receive, life is not as simple as he fears the two-hour drama might make it appear. For despite the parades and White House ceremonies, Schatz fears his government acted ineptly during the Iranian crisis.
A 6-foot-3-inch 33-year-old bachelor with a quiet manner, Schatz earned his master's degree in agricultural economics at the University of Idaho. As a specialist in rice and grain analysis at the Department of Agriculture, Schatz is concerned with global crop production. But since his return from Iran, he has refused offers to work at American embassies in Peking and Rome. His decision is partly personal -- he intends to marry this June and while the hostages were still in Iran, Schatz says he didn't feel like accepting a plum assignment. But he had other reasons too.
"I still have some questions I don't think the United States will answer," he says. "I think they wrote us off. They can talk all they want, but the cable traffic was there: If the shah was allowed in the U.S., there might be the taking of hostages. I have a real feeling of how expendable we really are, and it's a little too expendable for me.
"I knew we didn't negotiate with terrorists, but we did. And I'm damn glad we did -- and we all got home. But I had some real problems with why we had to honor what we did after all the hostages were home. It's pretty hard to talk tough once you've already caved."
Schatz is despairing about the botched rescue attempt, and he is bitter about what he perceives as his government's business-as-usual treatment of Canada.
"It was pretty neat what the Canadians did," he says. "They took a position. I don't know in my own gut if my own government would do the same thing in the same situation, and that really bothers me. [Canadian Ambassador] Ken Taylor did it for the reason that it was right . . . I was disappointed in other countries, that there was no international uproar. I think that showed there were overriding considerations. Everyone's knees banged together at the prospect of Iran cutting of its oil.
"Well, the Iraq-Iran war has resulted in that, and we've got an oil Glut . . . I don't think we ever took a position that forced Iran to consider what they did was wrong or what consequences their action would entail."
As for the CBS movie, the producer sent Schatz (whose real name is used in the dramatization) an early version of the script; he was startled to see he'd somehow become romantically involved with the female Swedish embassy officer who sheltered him for two weeks. Pure fiction, says Schatz, who also says he is shown skulking around Iran in the rain to avoid detection. In fact, he rode openly in a Volvo and a Mercedes. His worst hardship: reading and playing Scrabble in a study to avoid detection by the Iranian gardener who worked for the Canadian family hiding him.
"I hope what comes across is what our next-door neighbor did for us," says Schatz. "And now we're griping about whether they're fishing in our water or whether we're paying too much for natural gas. It's that ethnocentricism we have . . . My guess is that I'll smile through the movie because it'll be someone else's story of how they think it happened."