I was a freshman in college, just weeks from my eighteenth birthday, when the American Embassy in Tehran was overrun by students and the occupants made hostage. My interest then in world events was less keen than it would become, but I don’t recall great consternation over the event at the private, liberal arts school, at least not among my friends and associates. It was too far away and the underlying reasons were too complex.
At some point in the next few months there would be a campus talent contest, and the members of one fraternity would elicit a standing ovation for singing a parody song, “Bomb Iran,” to the tune of the Beach Boys “Barbara Ann.” Occasionally I would watch some of the ABC TV news show “Nightline,” which was originally called “America Held Hostage,” in which Ted Koppel provided a running count of the days the hostages had been held. Sad to say, I don’t even remember hearing about the failure of the military operation mounted to rescue the hostages at the cost of eight servicemembers’ lives.
To make up for my earlier indifference, I was greatly interested in reading Mark Bowden’s Guests of the Ayatollah: The Iran Hostage Crisis when I discovered it several years ago. I enjoy Bowden’s writing quite a bit, but for various reasons this book kept getting pushed back in my ever-lengthening to-read queue. I’m glad I was finally able to read this excellent and informative book, which details the embassy takeover and subsequent 444 days of captivity for the hostages, as well as information about what happened to key players on both sides after the crisis.
Mr. Bowden makes extensive use of his own interviews with the hostages and hostage-takers, as well as interviews conducted by Tim Wells for his book 444 Days: The Hostages Remember, to create a narrative rich in detail. The reader feels the fear and loneliness of the hostages, as well as the frequent boredom and tedium. For the other side, while the motivations and justifications given by the students for taking hostages don’t exactly resonate, the author does allow their voices to be heard.
I was particularly interested to learn how the hardline members of the Iranian revolution, many of them religious figures, used the embassy takeover to consolidate power over more moderate members of the uneasy coalition that overthrew the Shah. At that point in time any contact with the U.S. could lead to a firing squad, and seized documents from the embassy resulted in just that for some. Of course, it was irrelevant that diplomats and CIA officers at the embassy were often simply trying to figure out who was who in the chaotic post-revolution political landscape — having your name on a piece of paper found in the U.S. embassy could have serious consequences.
Although his handling of the hostage crisis was a contributing factor in his failure to win reelection, as outlined in Bowden’s book President Jimmy Carter had few options available to resolve it. Saddled with living down the decisions of previous administrations, Carter tried to negotiate in good faith with hostage takers who themselves seemed to realize their demands were unrealistic. Deals were agreed to, only to be scuttled at the last moment by whim or surprise events like Iraq attacking Iran in 1980. With the end of the Vietnam War lingering in recent memory, and Soviet Russia in close proximity, there was little appetite for punitive military action.
When Carter did finally agree to mount a military rescue mission based on a plan that can be charitably called overly-complex, the operation failed because of incomplete planning and mechanical breakdowns. Unexpected environmental conditions were found in a patch of desert that was expected to be empty but in fact had buses and gas tankers roaring through it. The men on the ground knew things would go wrong, something always goes wrong, but in hindsight it is hard to believe they thought the plan could succeed. Readers accustomed to today’s precision operations, complete with video footage from drones, satellites and green-tinted night vision devices, would do well to remember the current state of our special forces owes a huge debt to the heroism and experiences of the men who failed to rescue the hostages in 1980.
In summary, Guests of the Ayatollah is an engrossing book, filled with details that bring the event and participants to life. For those seeking to better understand current events, there is much to learn from looking back at the embassy takeover. 5 stars.