Guests of the Ayatollah

guests-of-the-ayatollahThe subtitle of this book by Mark Bowden is “The First Battle in America’s War with Militant Islam,” and I think a better subtitle would have been “The Iranian Hostage Crisis.” This book was recommended to me by a Great Nephew who is studying to be a high school history teacher, and it is a very worthwhile book. I was worried when I saw it is well over 600 pages and decided I could probably skim some of it. I asked myself something to the effect, “After all, how could the lengthy hostage situation have interesting information for several hundred pages?” I was wrong. I found myself reading the details each time I thought of skimming. There is very little information in the book that isn’t interesting, and I learned why someone beginning a career as a history teacher would recommend it to person who has given himself the title of “amateur historian.”

The book begins with a description of Iranian students who had become more interested in the revolutionary politics of opposing the United States than in university studies. They began planning a siege of the American embassy in Tehran, and many of them expected to die. Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the hated Shah of Iran, had been a staunch ally to the U.S. against Soviet expansionism. He had been put in power by a CIA-funded coup that had been masterminded by Kermit Roosevelt, Theodore’s grandson that overthrew the elected government in 1953. The shah had to flee to the United States when the Ayatollah Khomeini and his followers landed at the Tehran airport, revolution swept the country, and the United States became the “Great Satan.” “The prosperous middle and upper classes of Iran prayed that they weren’t going to be abandoned to the bearded clerics, but they were in the minority. To the great stirred mass of Iranians, afire with the dream of a perfect Islamic society, the U.S. embassy was a threat…What plots were being hatched by the devils coming and going from its gates. Why was no one stopping them?”

A dozen young Islamist activists who named themselves, “Muslim Students Following the Imam’s Line” to differentiate themselves from those they thought were not completely loyal to the Imam Ruhollah Khomeini, planned to take advantage of a large planned demonstration against the embassy. The students knew Khomeini had a stake in preserving the provisional government, and they feared he might order them to not carry out the assault. That was probably the most brilliant part of their plan.  The activists planning the assault decided they would not harm the Americans. They expected to have some attackers killed, and decided they would pass the bodies of any martyrs killed by the Marines out to the crowd.

The most remarkable descriptions of the taking of the embassy are of how the assaulters were ill-prepared for the success of their plan. They announced to embassy personnel, “We only want to set-in.” They weren’t certain what to do when they were able to take control of the embassy without a shot being fired. People in the embassy were only aggressive at attempting to destroy documents, and they weren’t able to destroy everything.

There were some initial moments when it appeared the provisional government, Revolutionary Council, and the imam had agreed that the hostages would be released and the embassy returned. The book reports that Khomeini’s first response to hearing what had happened was to direct, “Go and kick them out.” The order was ignored because people around him knew he was “…a maddeningly vacillating man. In political matters he tended to side with whomever last had his ear, because he often regarded affairs of state as trivial to his spiritual concerns, he was usually reluctant to make unpopular decisions.” Jubilant images of celebrations around the embassy clearly demonstrated that the taking to the embassy was wildly popular. The imam made a radio announcement in which “…Khomeini warmly supported the move and praised the students.” The provisional government knew they no longer had any control over what would happen next.

All political moves to end to hostage crisis were failing, and President Carter was nearing a decision to send in a military rescue operation by “Delta Force” led by Colonel Charlie Beckwith. The hostage crisis lasted until Carter was no longer President.

There are wonderful descriptions of Iran’s political history. “As tyrants go, Mohammed Reza Pahlavi was fairly tame. He was a timid, vain, vacillating man with good intentions…But it wasn’t Allah who had placed him on the throne; it was Kermit Roosevelt, the CIA’s man in Tehran…” The coup displaced Mohammed Massadeq “…a dour, frail, but principled descendant of the family that ruled Iran for almost two hundred years…” Time magazine had named him “Man of the Year” after he nationalized the oil industry much to the consternation of the British.

The book enters a phase of describing the situation in the embassy with the hostage takers trying to decide what to do next after learning they had become “national heroes,” and the hostages dealing with their uncertain situation.

Carter’s decision to allow Khomeini’s plane from France to land in Tehran was a terrible decision, and “…all hell had broken out. Revolutionary forces rose up everywhere to tear down the remnants of the shah’s power.” “Anger, revenge, religious fervor, and revolutionary zeal combined to unleash a nationwide spasm of bloodletting, a season of murder. Many associated with the former regime were hunted down and killed, policemen, bureaucrats, local and national leaders, civilian and military. In some cities the entire police force was executed.

There are descriptions of the treatment of hostages that are disturbing. It became commonly believed that the Carter administration had blundered by not closing the embassy before admitting the shah. The futility of Carter’s decision to not let the shah take out Khomeini’s plane when he and his followers flew from Paris to Tehran “…because it would be a human rights violation” continued to be emphasized as the numbers of people being summarily executed increased. There were dozens of people accused of being “coup plotters” or “spies” executed with a frightening degree of frequency. “Ayatollah Khalkali held multiple public executions on the streets of Tehran, and boasted that he had personally dispatched to Allah in just three months a thousand ‘counterrevolutionaries’ and four hundred common criminals for drug violations. Victims were put to death for homosexuality, adultery, and drug dealing as well as political crimes (based on any allegations).

Khomeini declared that it wasn’t important that millions might die to defend the edicts of Allah, since it would be a path to salvation. Khomeini declared that “…everything we are doing is for Islam. What matter if we die? We shall go to Paradise.” He apparently didn’t feel too strongly about his statement, because the hostages were released the day Reagan was sworn in as President. Iranian officials apparently were afraid of actions Reagan might have taken if they didn’t release the hostages.

This is a great book, and worth reading by anyone interested in Iran!

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