Hostage crisis: Sudden shock, lasting legacy

Review America and Iran


Guests of the Ayatollah: The First Battle in America's War With Militant Islam

Mark Bowden

Atlantic Monthly Press / 704 pages / $26

If the global struggle between tradition and modernity, tribalism and globalism, religious radicals and the world's sole superpower might be traced to a particular moment, it would be a baleful Sunday 27 years ago.

On Nov. 4, 1979, hundreds of Iranian students, followers of the Shiite cleric Ayatollah Khomeini, overran and occupied the United States Embassy in Tehran, seizing 66 American diplomats and staff. A group of women and African-Americans would be released in a matter of weeks, in a naked bid to score propaganda points. But 53 Americans would remain hostages for 444 days.

For the first few pages, Guests of the Ayatollah feels like browsing through yellowed scraps of newsprint. Readers may wonder why they should read a blow-by-blow account of an event so widely reported so long ago.

But as the story unfolds, illuminated by journalist Mark Bowden's meticulous reporting and measured prose, what seems familiar is suddenly fresh. The significance crystallizes. Uncannily, the events prefigure those of the post-Sept. 11 era: the initial "why do they hate us?" shock; the impotent outrage; the sense that we suddenly faced a baffling and unexpected threat, and that harsh - even reckless - measures were needed to confront it.

It was, in retrospect, a defining moment for the United States, one that, after the trauma of Vietnam, helped usher in an era of conservative politics and a freshly assertive foreign policy.

In the East, the embassy takeover invigorated a civilization, Islam, that felt humiliated by Western dominance and frustrated by the failure of imported Western reforms. It helped focus anger among the world's 1.3 billion Muslims on a single target, which Khomeini called the Great Satan and "world-devouring plunderer." In other words, us.

Now, history has come full circle. In the dispute over Tehran's nuclear ambitions and the struggle over the future of Iraq, the United States and Iran are once again at odds.

Bowden, the author of Black Hawk Down, is a journalist, not a historian. He is interested in how ordinary people act in extraordinary circumstances. So the history and politics remain part of the scenery. The hostages and their tribulations are the center of the 642-page book.

The hostages were paraded, blindfolded, in front of jeering mobs. They were employed as props in student press conferences, and coerced into denouncing the United States. In private, they were held for weeks in solitary confinement and subjected to marathon interrogations. Some were beaten and endured mock executions.

They reacted in various ways. Some withdrew emotionally; others turned to religion; a few bonded with their captors. Most, though, remained defiant. They waited for their release, rescue or execution with varying degrees of equanimity and grace.

The hostage-takers, the Students Following the Line of the Imam, were convinced, on faith, that the embassy was not a diplomatic mission but a "nest of spies" where Americans plotted to assassinate their beloved ayatollah.

Their suspicions were not irrational. The CIA's Kermit Roosevelt engineered the 1953 coup that overthrew Iran's elected government, which planned to nationalize the oil industry, and installed the hated Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi in power.

But by 1979, Bowden writes; American influence in Iran had evaporated. The shah was ill and in exile; his followers were being hunted down and hanged. There were only four CIA agents in the country, all of them under flimsy diplomatic cover in the Tehran embassy.

Bowden deftly recounts the catastrophic rescue mission, led by Lt. Col. Charlie Beckwith, founder and commander of Delta Force, the Army's elite counterterrorist unit.

When one of the mission's six helicopters suffered a hydraulic failure at a staging area in the Iranian desert, Beckwith scrubbed the mission on the spot. A helicopter on take-off collided with one of the giant C-130 cargo planes, and both caught fire. Eight American soldiers died.

The book's strength is its drama. Its flaw, perhaps, is its reflection of America's cultural bias against learning anything about the outside world. Bowden should have tried harder to understand the ambitions, fears and motives of the students. As long as Americans refuse to take foreign countries seriously, events abroad will continue to shock and baffle us.

But this is an American tragedy, after all. The book's most poignant figure is probably Jimmy Carter. The former president was slow to freeze assets, impose sanctions and expel the Iranian diplomats. As his re-election bid sank, he approved the suicidal rescue mission. In the course of the crisis, he slid from irrelevance into invisibility.

"Carter's defeat was tangible proof that the hostage takers had changed history, they had brought down the leader of the free world," Bowden wrote. By doing so, the students helped create precisely the America they claimed to loathe and fear.

Douglas Birch is a Sun reporter and former foreign correspondent for the newspaper.

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