Peter Tarnoff, a seasoned diplomat whose behind-the-scenes work for Presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton included creating a back channel to Fidel Castro and helping arrange the escape of six U.S. embassy officials from Iran, a escape later featured in the 2012 film “Argo,” died Nov. 1 at his home in San Francisco. He was 86 years old.
His wife, Mathea Falco, said the cause of death was complications from Parkinson’s disease.
Tarnoff was among a group of Foreign Service officers who, inspired by the words of President John F. Kennedy, joined the American diplomatic corps in the early 1960s.
Many of them cut their teeth during a posting in South Vietnam, and many – including Tarnoff, Anthony Lake, Frank Wisner II, and Richard Holbrooke – went on to play leading roles in the US foreign policy establishment.
But while larger-than-life figures like Holbrooke, a frequent contender for secretary of state, and Lake, a national security adviser under Bill Clinton, became famous, Tarnoff preferred to wield his influence away from the public eye.
“Peter was really the quintessential diplomat in the sense that he never asked for the spotlight,” Wendy Sherman, who served alongside him in the Clinton administration, said in a telephone interview. “He never needed to be the named person. “I just finished work.”
From the beginning of his career he earned a reputation as an expert confidential assistant, guiding high-profile diplomats through high-profile negotiations.
In South Vietnam he became a close advisor to Henry Cabot Lodge Jr., the U.S. ambassador to Saigon, work that continued in 1969 when Lodge led the U.S. delegation to the Paris peace talks to end the Vietnam War.
Mr. Tarnoff performed similar service nearly a decade later as a special assistant to Cyrus Vance, the secretary of state under Jimmy Carter, and to Edmund Muskie, Mr. Vance’s successor.
In that role he protected his leaders from bureaucratic infighting – Vance and Zbigniew Brzezinski, the national security adviser, were engaged in open warfare for much of the Carter administration – and carried out assignments too sensitive to be handled through conventional channels.
He established a secret relationship with Ricardo Alarcón, a prominent Cuban diplomat based in New York. Sipping cigars at the Plaza Hotel and then at a secret meeting in Havana with Fidel Castro, they made an agreement to end the exodus of thousands of asylum seekers to Florida, known as the Mariel Boatlift.
He played an even more confidential role during the 1979 Iranian hostage crisis, when revolutionaries arrested most of the U.S. embassy staff in Tehran. Six had escaped to the Canadian Embassy, and Mr. Tarnoff was acting as a liaison between the Canadian government and the Central Intelligence Agency, which had a plan to extract them.
Posing as a Canadian film crew scouting locations for a science fiction film called “Argo,” the six staff members, joined by two CIA agents, managed to get through Iranian passport control and onto a flight to Zurich.
Mr. Tarnoff never confirmed his role in what became known as Canadian Caper, nor did he see the Oscar-winning film made about it. But State Department documents show that he played a key role.
He spent much of the 1980s in the private sector, including a stint as president of the Council on Foreign Relations, the American think tank specializing in U.S. foreign policy and international relations founded in 1921. But he returned to the State Department in 1993 as deputy secretary for political affairs, essentially third place.
A few months into his job, he sparked a minor scandal when, speaking anonymously to a group of journalists, he claimed that the United States might have to withdraw its commitments abroad in the face of budget deficits and eventually of the Cold War. .
The New York Times, which didn’t have a reporter in the room, soon exposed Mr. Tarnoff, and for a moment he seemed about to lose his job.
But Mr. Tarnoff was too valuable to lose. He resumed his role as a covert intermediary for the Cuban government and worked with Alarcón again, this time on a deal to end the United States’ open-door policy for Cuban asylum seekers.
“Peter always had this fabulous ability to understand what a principal needed, and how to manage and put together ideas for solutions to problems and manage interference, and to do so with incomplete discretion,” Mr. Wisner, who served as undersecretary of defense for policy under President Clinton, he said in a telephone interview.
Peter Tarnoff was born on April 19, 1937 in Manhattan and grew up in Brooklyn until the age of 12, when his family moved to Montreal. His father, Norman, was an executive at Macy’s, and his mother, Henrietta (Goldfarb) Tarnoff, was a homemaker.
He graduated from Colgate with a degree in philosophy in 1958, which he continued to pursue at the Committee on Social Thought, a doctoral program at the University of Chicago. But his interest in global affairs drew him away from academia and in 1962 he joined the Foreign Office.
Mr. Tarnoff’s first marriage, to Danielle Oudinot, ended in divorce. He married Ms. Falco in 1982. Along with her, he leaves a son from his first marriage, Alexander Tarnoff; a son by his second, Benjamin Tarnoff; his half-brother, John Tarnoff; and three grandchildren. Another son by Mrs. Oudinot, Nicholas Tarnoff, died in 1991.
After an initial assignment in Lagos, Nigeria, he moved to Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City), the capital of South Vietnam. In 1965 he was seriously injured by flying glass when a car bomb exploded next to the American embassy, killing two people inside and 20 on the street.
During the 1970s he held various positions throughout Europe before moving to Washington in 1975.
After Ronald Reagan defeated Carter in the 1980 presidential election, tradition held that the incoming administration would look after Tarnoff, who was both an apolitical Foreign Service official and a confidant of a major cabinet member in the previous administration .
But in a shocking breach, Alexander Haig, the new secretary of state, sidelined Tarnoff, apparently because his work in Cuba had left him politically tainted. He did a one-year fellowship at Stanford’s Hoover Institution, then resigned from the Foreign Service in 1982.
He served as president of the World Affairs Council of Northern California, based in San Francisco, for three years, then took over the leadership of the Council on Foreign Affairs from 1985 to 1993, when he joined the State Department at the behest of his Californian colleague. , Warren Christopher, newly appointed secretary of state.
Tarnoff left the State Department in 1997 and returned to San Francisco. Not long before he left, he received the Distinguished Service Award, the department’s highest honor.