Commentary Magazine


Guests of the Ayatollah by Mark Bowden

Guests of the Ayatollah: The First Battle in America’s War with Militant Islam
By Mark Bowden
Atlantic Monthly Press. 704 pp. $26.00

What goes around, comes around. In the case of Iran, however, this has so far not been the case. The outrage committed against the American diplomats who in 1979 were kidnapped and held hostage lasted 444 days, and the Khomeinist perpetrators never paid any sort of price. Now that Iran is working assiduously to acquire nuclear weapons, is the time ripe to settle this longstanding open account? From Mark Bowden’s Guests of the Ayatollah, the moment would appear overdue.

A former reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer and now a national correspondent for the Atlantic, Bowden is the author of the highly regarded Black Hawk Down, which traced the American debacle in Mogadishu in the summer of 1993. In Guests of the Ayatollah he turns his close-up lens on Year One of Iran’s Islamic revolution. Drawing upon numerous interviews and meticulous documentary research, with his own quietly effective running commentary interspersed throughout, Bowden reconstructs all the different facets of the hostage crisis, creating a series of disjunctive images that resolve into a coherent and riveting whole.

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Bowden begins by narrating the story of the Iranian revolutionaries’ takeover of the American embassy in Tehran on November 4, 1979. This act, ostensibly provoked by President Jimmy Carter’s decision to admit the ailing Shah to the United States for medical treatment, was actually the first manifestation of an irrepressible large-scale phenomenon. Like the revolution itself, the hostage drama was a sudden parting of the clouds that revealed a “subterranean ocean of Islamic outrage.”

From these explosive beginnings, Bowden proceeds to trace the individual and collective fates of the Americans in captivity, recounting in painful detail the terror of their initial capture, the endless days of torture, uncertainty, and fear, the ill-fated rescue mission, Operation Eagle Claw, launched by Carter on April 24, 1980, through to the exhilaration of their release in January 1981 coincident with the inauguration of Ronald Reagan as President.

Few books succeed as well as this one at conveying such experiences vicariously. But the more significant value of Guests of the Ayatollah lies elsewhere. For one thing, Bowden has done a remarkable job of portraying the Iranian university students who planned and executed the storming of the embassy. One shadowy figure among them is Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, then a fanatical member of an Islamic student group and today the even more fanatical president of the Islamic Republic of Iran. Another, no less interesting though destined never to rise so high in the theocracy, is Hussein Sheikh al-Islam, “a radical filled with the absolute certainty of divine purpose” who turns out to have been educated at the University of California at Berkeley. There, al-Islam had

digested the fervent rhetoric of those activist years [the 1970's], the rants against the “tyrannical,” “racist,” “imperialist” American establishment, and now, back in Iran, where there had been a real tyrant to oppose, he had taken part in something the old fire-breathers at Berkeley only dreamed about—an actual revolution. And here, at his mercy, were the very agents of American imperialism denounced in that old homegrown rhetoric. He would make the most of it.

Not all the Iranian captors spouted New Left slogans; indeed, as Bowden tells it, al-Islam was an exception. Others were infected by older European ideas. Most of the students holding the Americans “believed, simply, that the United States government was controlled by a rich Jewish cabal that acted, in Iran, in Vietnam, in the Middle East, strictly out of corrupt self-interest and often for the sheer pleasure of torturing and killing Muslims and other ‘inferior’ races.”

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If the Iranian actors in Guests of the Ayatollah inhabited a lethally delusional world, so too did many of the Americans, both the hostages themselves and those in and out of government seeking to secure their release. These delusions, however, were lethal mainly to the Americans themselves and their own interests. Only bitter experience—and in some cases not even that—would suffice to puncture their fixed ideas of reality.

Bruce Laingen, the chargé d’affaires in the embassy, spent his fourteen months in captivity locked inside the Iranian foreign ministry. A diplomat with a foreign-service worldview bred into his bones, Laingen believed passionately “in the power of polite dialogue between nations.” The first entry in the diary he kept during his confinement struck a note of perplexed exasperation:

Why? To what end? What purpose is served? We have tried by every available means over the past months to demonstrate, by word and deed, that we accept the Iranian revolution, indeed, that we wish it well—that a society strongly motivated by religion is a society we, as a religious nation, can identify with.

Bowden’s comment on this outburst is a blend of pity and acid: “Laingen’s sympathetic spin on the revolution was of no use now. . . . [T]he hardest part of his predicament was being rendered irrelevant.”

No less blind were the American visitors who streamed into the compound where the hostages were being brutalized. The first to arrive, to celebrate Christmas in 1979, were three American clergymen—all chosen, in the words of a spokesman for Iran’s Revolutionary Council, for “their militant history against imperialism.” Among them was the Reverend William Sloan Coffin of New York’s Riverside Church, who back in the United States had been defending the hostage-takers. Following the three came a procession of similar spirits, including a Native-American activist who led an Iranian crowd in chants of “Death to Carter” and urged the students to put the hostages on trial for espionage.

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At the summit of American power were delusions of another sort. President Carter comes out of Bowden’s story looking somewhat more human but even more bungling than was suggested by newspaper stories at the time. Even before the hostage drama began, Carter had helped set the stage for the ensuing calamity through inconsistent policies ineffectually advanced. On the one hand, there was his new emphasis on human rights, which stirred the hopes of millions living under tyranny around the world. On the other hand, there was the mindless and destabilizing selectivity in the way the policy was carried out.

At a state dinner in Tehran in 1977, Carter had toasted the Shah of Iran for his “wisdom,” “judgment,” “sensitivity,” and “insight.” The Iranian leader, said the U.S President, was “an island of stability” in the Middle East. But in short order, and thanks in part to expectations of sweeping change raised by Carter’s own emphasis on human rights, the island of stability disappeared. The President was forced to shift abruptly into reverse gear.

Carter’s first reaction to the Islamists’ seizure of American diplomats was to send two emissaries bearing an olive branch. The more famous of the two was Ramsey Clark, a former attorney general of the United States but by 1979 already well along the path to left-wing lunacy. In the first of a long series of embarrassing misfires, news of the secret mission leaked out to the media even before Clark, stuck on the tarmac in a Turkish airport, had won permission to enter Iran. Permission never came.

Seeking new ways to conciliate the Iranians, Carter eventually acquiesced in a demand that he refrain from making “hostile statements” about either the hostage takers or the Ayatollah Khomeini’s regime. “I am amazed at the naiveté of the American authorities,” remarked the Iranian president, Bani Sadr, in the wake of another of Carter’s futile concessions. In the end, after abject abasement had led nowhere, the President once again reversed gears and set in motion Operation Eagle Claw.

For the embattled White House, a rescue attempt had become, in an election year, a temptation impossible to resist. The “prospect of a precise, relatively bloodless liberation from this dilemma was a joy to contemplate,” writes Bowden. “Success would demonstrate remarkable daring, capability, and resolve, and would in one deft stroke deprive Iran of its trump card.” But Eagle Claw—Bowden provides a full account—was one of the most improbable military operations ever conceived and, given its inordinate complexity, almost bound for failure. In a spectacular blaze in the Iranian desert, the United States lost seven helicopters, one C-130 transport plane, and eight soldiers, along with any hope of a future rescue attempt as the hostages were rapidly dispersed across Iran.

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The denouement would come only many months later, with the election and then the inauguration of a tough new American President. As Bowden makes plain, the Iranian captors were initially in the dark about Ronald Reagan, although during the campaign they were quickly brought up to speed on what his ascension to power might mean:

In Teheran, the guards . . . took a straw poll one evening to see who the hostages would elect for President. . . . Most . . . wanted Reagan, as did the guards [themselves], who considered the hated Carter’s electoral woes a great victory for Iran, and preened with satisfaction that their actions were shaping big events in the United States. They were convinced that anyone other than Carter would understand their reasons for seizing the embassy and would admit the great wrongs America had committed in Iran.

Lieutenant Colonel Dave Roeder asked one of them, “Do you know who Ronald Reagan is?”

“He was a movie star,” the guard said.

“Do you know what will happen to Iran if Reagan wins the election?” Roeder asked. The white-haired prisoner with the deep-set eyes and heavily-lined face leaned forward dramatically, made a sudden expanding gesture with his hands, and said:

“Boom!”

On January 20, 1981, Reagan was sworn into office and within minutes all of the hostages were released.

After so many months and so much groveling, what led to the Iranians’ sudden reversal? In the answer to that question lies a significant moral. Bowden ends his book without explicitly spelling out what the moral is, but his entire narrative is one long case study in the perils of appeasing violent fanatics. For our current efforts to effectuate another and even greater reversal in Iran, few things are more vital than learning what his book has to teach.

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About the Author

Gabriel Schoenfeld is senior editor of COMMENTARY.