In a dungeon in eastern Tehran, a pair of American business executives languish, their business suits disheveled, their skin sallow from lack of sunlight. They lean against the wall of their cell, picking at bits of bread as they listen to the cackles of madmen caged in some unseen part of the prison.
Outside their cell window, another sound is building: the angry cries of protesters approaching. Some of them are carrying rifles. The guards rush down the corridor and exchange gunfire with the angry mob. This is Qasr prison in Tehran. It's 1979 and the country's leader, Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, has fled Iran, leaving behind a country in chaos.
William Gaylord and Paul Chiapparone, the two Americans, are tech executives from Texas, two guys just trying to do a job in a foreign country, who got gobbled up by the Shah's secret police and stuffed into a dungeon. And they don't know if the mob is there to free them … or to kill them.
William Gaylord and Paul Chiapparone in Qasr prison.Task & Purpose illustration by Matt Battaglia
In the street, a small team of retired commandos led by a retired Army Special Forces colonel is offering assistance to the revolutionaries — comrades of whom will, nine months later, storm the U.S. embassy. As a prison sniper aims his rifle at the crowd from one of Qasr's towers, a retired commando takes him out.
Before long, the jailers flee and the armed mob storms the prison, flinging open the cells of political prisoners, madmen and Americans alike. Gaylord and Chiapparone make a dash into the unfamiliar streets of Tehran as a few lingering guards fire on the fleeing prisoners.
As the executives make a run for it, an Iranian agent working for their boss rushes through the streets calling their name. He grabs random escapees by the shoulders, shouting in their faces and demanding answers. But he can't locate them. Two Americans lost in the streets of revolutionary Tehran. They've fled the prison, but the danger is far from over. He calls their names but the words are drowned out by the surrounding chaos…
And roll credits.
Although the scene — from the 1986 TV movie, “On Wings of Eagles” — is based on a true story, it owes a good bit of its heart-pounding suspense to the bluster of a Texas billionaire and the considerable literary chops of one of the best-selling novelists of the era.
Not that the truth wasn't plenty dramatic enough without embellishment. Though it's now a forgotten chapter of America's misadventures in the Middle East, the swashbuckling tale helped define our image of Iran and shape our foreign policy in the region, confirming a widespread view of U.S. President Jimmy Carter as hopelessly weak and Ronald Reagan as his muscular opposite. It also fed the narrative that American business could get things done that government couldn't, feeding the move toward privatization.
The businessman was big-money tech entrepreneur — and later third-party presidential candidate — Ross Perot, and the imprisoned Americans were a pair of senior employees at his company, Electronic Data Systems, whose hard-knuckle dealings with the Iranian regime had drawn the attention of authorities. The story of their rescue, like so many tales that have emerged from the Lone Star state, is largely a myth, one perpetuated by primetime television, a widely read novel, and Perot's constant embellishment.
Back in 1974, Perot's company won a contract to help modernize Iran's bureaucracy by computerizing the government's records. Electronic Data Systems proved itself by designing a document-control system for Tehran's navy, then moved onto the big contract: a $41 million deal to put Iran's social security records on computers. Doing business in the Shah's Iran often required a certain ethical flexibility, and to grease the wheels of commerce in the Middle East, Perot cultivated a relationship with Iranian businessman Abolfath Mahvi. This is a guy the U.S. State Department later called “a bagman for the Shah.”
After it secured the Iranian navy contract, Electronic Data Systems deposited $400,000 into a Panamanian company owned by Mahvi. Later, once it secured the social security contract, it loaned one of Mahvi's companies $200,000. EDS never recovered the loan.
“…But if your government is not willing to protect American citizens, and if you have people in your company imprisoned in a country, you have an obligation to get them out of there.”
This was the 1970s, a time when many Middle Eastern countries were coming into oil wealth. Rich middlemen across the region lined their pockets at the expense of both Western countries and their own homelands. This was just how business was done. But the summer of 1978 was a bad time to be a corrupt official in Iran.
Increasingly, people were in the streets, protesting the Shah's oppressive regime — in particularly, his notoriously brutal secret police, the Savak — and viewing the United States as a co-conspirator in their suffering. They had a point, since the CIA, working with the United Kingdom, had orchestrated the overthrow of the nation's last democratically elected leader, Mohammad Mosaddegh, and installed the Shah back in 1953.
Meanwhile, Electronic Data Systems was stalled in its project to computerize the social security system. The Texas executives didn't speak the language and didn't understand the culture. Tehran complained that the company wasn't meeting its timetable and that the company had dragged its feet when asked to replace American employees with Iranian citizens. As a result, Tehran began withholding its $1.4 million monthly payments for the project. Electronic Data Systems countered by threatening to pull out of the country unless Tehran paid its bills. That's when the Savak turned up at the men's homes, placed them under arrest and interrogated them about the company, corruption and their connection to Mahvi.
Most accounts refer to Gaylord and Chiapparone as “engineers,” which makes them sound far more humble than they were. Gaylord handled the social security contract and Chiapparone was the head of Electronic Data Systems in Iran. Tehran offered to release them on bail, demanded $12.75 million — the sum it had already paid on the contract. Imprisoning a company's employees is one hell of a way to negotiate the settlement of a disputed business contract, and Perot was outraged by the move.
Indeed, it was a surprising tactic, given the Shah's friendly relationship with the United States. But at the time, his hold on power was beginning to weaken, and he was eager to shore up his standing with the Iranian people. The Electronic Data Systems arrest came amid an aggressive anti-corruption campaign, which targeted not only American companies but the Shah's own middlemen. In jail, Savak interrogators asked Gaylord and Chiapparone over and over again about Perot's relationship with Mahvi. Much later, the secret police accused the pair of bribery.
Unwilling to put up the “bail,” Perot went to the State Department for help. “A lot of them didn't care,” he later said. “The State Department wasn't really interested. Protecting American citizens is a role our government should perform. Private companies, private individuals shouldn't be involved in this sort of thing. But if your government is not willing to protect American citizens, and if you have people in your company imprisoned in a country, you have an obligation to get them out of there.”
In retrospect, the government's wariness is not surprising. Unlike the State Department staff taken hostage by student revolutionaries in 1979, the Electronic Data Systems executives were being held on suspicion of a crime under Iranian law, no matter how flimsy the rationale.
Special Forces colonel Arthur SimonsTask & Purpose illustration by Matt Battaglia
But Perot wanted his guys back. A graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, he had served in the navy for four years in the 1950s. He was known for his love of hiring veterans. Quickly assembling a team of former military men, he began to hatch a wild plan — he wanted to straight-up bust Gaylord and Chiapparone out of jail.
Though a highly successful business executive, Perot knew he didn't have the experience to plot and execute a delicate raid on a foreign soil. During his Navy career, Perot had met a Special Forces colonel named Arthur Simons, who had fought during World War II and planned and executed a rescue mission of U.S. POWs during Vietnam. He seemed like the man for the job.
“When you run a military operation, the first thing you have to do is find the best officer you can and then give him everything he asks for,” Perot said. “I knew I wanted Col. Simons, though I hadn't seen him in years. We would not have considered going into the operation without him. He wasn't a machine, he was a very complicated man. His aim was to pull the whole thing off surgically and to bring everybody back safely.”
According to Perot, who signal blasted the tale for years, Simons and his team of volunteers planned the operation for months. They built a fake prison and practiced the rescue over and over again. They drove and redrove the escape route from Tehran to Turkey until it became second nature. Ahead of the raid, Perot hitched a ride on an NBC plane into Iran. Posing as part of the camera crew, he dropped off a piece of equipment on their behalf and wandered into the city. Walking up to prison where they were then being held, Perot waltzed in the front door, signed the visitor's log, and paid Gaylord and Chiapparone a visit.
According to Perot's account, he walked into the prison using his own passport and accidentally ran into an old friend who was there on business, taking advantage of the connection to get a private meeting with his two executives. If true, the story would seem to undermine the idea that the executives were ever in danger or that a commando raid was necessary. After all, the Savak secret police were not known to grant their prisoners such amenities or to let random passerby sashay into the prison.
In any case, Perot got his meeting. His message was simple: Be ready to bug out.
Perot hitched a ride on an NBC plane into Iran, posing as part of the camera crew.Task & Purpose illustration by Matt Battaglia
“It was important for me to look them in the eye and tell them that I was going to get them out,” he said in 1979. “I wouldn't have somebody else do it. I figured that if it had been me in jail, and I'd seen that the top guy can come in here, talk to me, and leave, then things might not be so far gone as they appear to be. It would settle me down.”
Before Simons and his team landed in country, Savak Gaylord and Chiapparone were moved to the infamous Qasr prison. Qasr was a fortress — a place the Shah kept political prisoners and other assorted enemies of the state. Perot's irregulars had trained repeatedly using a mocked up model of the original jail. Qasr was something altogether different. A former Iranian ruler built the imposing edifice in 1790, and in Simons' opinion, it was impenetrable by Perot's small team. They needed a new plan.
And then, they got a break. Just as Perot's forces entered the country, the Shah fled. (He would eventually be admitted to the United States) The situation in the streets grew chaotic. According to Perot's account, his team deployed Iranian Electronic Data Systems employees into the streets, directing them to incite a riot and liberate the prison by force. The plan was to spirit Gaylord and Chiapparone out of the country amid the ensuing chaos.
On his return to the United States, Perot addressed a waiting media scrum. The plan, he announced, had worked: As an Electronic Data Systems employee named Reza Saleh sparked a riot outside of Qasr and led the crowd to storm the prison, his executives scaled a wall and fled two miles on foot under a hail of gunfire. That sounded pretty good, but the escape was a bit less dramatic than that.
“It was important for me to look them in the eye and tell them that I was going to get them out.”
For one thing, Iranian revolutionaries were liberating prisons all over the country that year. The night before the raid on Qasr, Iranians had stormed the prison and opened its doors. Tehran historians and U.S. State Department officials later insisted that Perot had embellished story and that revolutionaries had planned to break into Qasr all along, without any incitement from Perot's agent provocateur.
Gaylord and Chiapparone later admitted they simply walked out of the prison and down the street to a local hotel where Perot's irregulars picked them up and escorted them across the Turkish border. They scaled no walls and dodged no bullets. News reports of the Qasr prison escape paint a less dramatic picture too. Most of the guards, seeing the writing on the wall, laid down their arms and surrendered without a fight.
Meanwhile, after arriving at a local Hyatt hotel, the two executives got in a car and drove across the border into Turkey escorted by Perot's team. Unlike the gripping sequence in the televised version, the trip from Tehran to Turkey was boring and uneventful. Simons himself described it as a “spring outing.”
“We just got in a line of cars like everybody else,” Simons told a reporter with The Chicago Tribune. “We didn't have any real trouble at any of the towns or villages. We told everyone we were just a group of American men going home to visit our wives and children.”
When everyone got home, Perot played up the story. He personally reached out to British thriller author Ken Follet and offered him an undisclosed pile of cash to novelize the events. Follet obliged with the 1983 novel “On Wings of Eagles.” It quickly became a bestseller, and three years later became a five-hour NBC miniseries. Burt Lancaster played Simons. Richard Crenna, best known for playing John Rambo's commanding officer, played Perot.
Gaylord and Chiapparone simply walked out of the prison and down the street to a local hotel.Task & Purpose illustration by Matt Battaglia
During the 1979 Iran hostage crisis, which set the stage for the U.S. presidential election pitting Democrat Jimmy Carter against Republican Ronald Reagan, Perot's swashbuckling tale took on a powerful political resonance in the wake of the the disastrous Operation Eagle Claw, in which an attempt to free the 52 American hostages was aborted when several helicopters became inoperable at the mission's staging area. For many observers, the debacle demonstrated Carter's weakness when contrasted with the more aggressive, get-it-done approach of a colorful Texas businessman.
While Carter lost in a landslide, Perot went on to sue Iran for $20 million in back pay for Electronic Data Systems services and won. Simons died of a heart condition just three months after coming home.
Gaylord and Chiapparone seem to have been lost to history. Mahvi, the Shah's alleged bagman, fled the country ahead of the revolution and settled into exile in Monte Carlo. Saleh, the Iranian who supposedly led the revolutionaries to storm Qasr prison, stuck around in Texas. He couldn't keep his nose clean and the Security and Exchanges Commission accused him of fraud in 2009. He settled out of court and kept out of jail.
Perot flirted with political aspirations of his own throughout the 1980s and 1990s. He ran for president in 1992 and again in 1996, losing both times but making a powerful showing. By then, the American consciousness had largely moved on from Iran, and the billionaire's bluster about his daring-do failed to resonate with voters.
But fed by Hollywood, the myth persists. One hot summer day, during the tumult of revolution, a plucky Texas businessman with more money than sense launched a successful rescue mission in the Middle East, succeeding where so many American presidents have failed. He arrived with a clear mission, accomplished his goal, and left when it was over.