4 Apr 2013

Diary reveals NZ role in Tehran hostage crisis

10:29 pm on 4 April 2013

A diary by a diplomat at the New Zealand embassy during the 1979 hostage crisis in Iran reveals the lengths officials went to to help save six American hostages.

The entries contradict this year's Oscar-winning film Argo's version of events in which New Zealand diplomats refused to help the hostages escape from Tehran.

The diary, written by Richard Sewell who died in 1989, has been donated to the Alexander Turnbull Library in Wellington by former partner and food writer Grant Allen after he became aware of controversy surrounding the film.

It says the night before the New Zealanders helped the hostages escape to Switzerland, the diplomats and hostages all had a celebratory meal together and got drunk.

But as Mr Allen reads the next excerpt, it is clear that the diplomats knew they were putting their lives at risk.

"2am, the alarm beside my bed is ringing. I lift my head off the pillow and pull it down again quickly. Last evening's farewell was taking its toll. It had been an excellent dinner, quite emotional and we'd all enjoyed it.

"Now came the hard part - the escape. Would we make it? Were were we all making a big mistake?"

Mr Sewell explains how he and ambassador Chris Beeby helped the six Americans escape after their embassy was stormed by Iranian revolutionaries.

Grant Allen says they took the hostage played in the American movie by Ben Affleck to the airport, referring to the operation as 'Argo'.

He says Mr Sewell and other New Zealanders were fearless and would have felt compelled to help - whether or not it was sanctioned by the Government.

The Alexander Turnbull Library's chief librarian, Chris Szekely, says the diary contradicts the film's rendition of events and it is a precious part of history.

"What Grant's donated to us today very clearly shows that indeed Kiwis were right in there and played a major role in helping those Americans escape."

Mr Allen says he wants the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to release documents confirming Richard Sewell's account, but so far it has been reluctant to do so.