Guests of the Ayatollah – Book Review
Book Review: Guests of the Ayatollah, Mark Bowden.
I was still a young boy in 1979 when the hostage crisis was playing out on our televisions and in our newspapers. I can only vaguely recall the effect it had on our nation, just impressions really. This book was an eye opener – filling in a lot of the blanks I’ve had in the two decades since. Written by Mark Bowden of Black Hawk Down fame, it is easy to read and digest, although the book is quite a bit larger than his former title.
For me, the biggest question it addressed was the "why" behind the embassy takeover. Rather than a deliberate act of a deranged Iranian government, it was actually done by an idealistic and naive sub-set of student protesters who at first only wanted to occupy the embassy for a couple days to make a statement about their disapproval of the United States’ relationship with the previous ruler of Iran, the Shah. The students had taken over the embassy previously to make similar statements and left peacefully. The defacto rulers of the new Iranian government (the Mullahs) had no idea the takeover was going to happen, although they eventually embraced it as a key to weakening the provisional government and strengthening their own position. The original students who conducted the bold attack were quickly pushed into the background by more zealous revolutionaries.
This book spends a lot of time detailing the first hours and days of the attack, tracing the actions of almost every one of the hostages as they were caught or escaped (a few did manage to get out in the initial confusion). Much of the action is loaded in the opening chapters to coincide with this initial burst of activity. Subsequent chapters cover the long period of internment (444 days), what the hostages did when faced with questioning by their captors (who were convinced they were all plotting to kill Ayatollah Khomeni), and how they coped with days and weeks of nearly total isolation. Some readers may find the long pages explaining daily life a tad on the tedious side given the length of the book, but it does convey the weariness suffered by the hostages and their families back home, President Carter, the media, as well as the captors themselves. This is broken up by chapters addressing the planning for the rescue by the newly created Delta Force, negotiations between the US and the Iranians for the hostages release, and how the crisis was handled in the media. The desperate rescue attempt is one of the more interesting chapters, and clarifies a lot of the details I’ve been missing all these years.
This book is important if for no other reason than understanding the mindset and background of the typical Iranian "revolutionary" – who were almost without exception shown to be as ignorant as they were idealistic about the fledgling Islamic Revolution. While endlessly lecturing the hostages on the new utopia that was growing in Iran, mass executions were taking place as the new regime consolidated its power. With a straight face and oblivious to the contradiction, they could claim the new regime provided true freedom – as long as one strictly followed Islamic law. The female hostages had to suffer through long lectures by female captors, who touted the virtues of the Islamic Revolution, even as they covered their faces and voluntarily allowed themselves to become subservient to all males in their society.
Interestingly, many of the hostages walked out of Iran feeling sorry for their former captors – who would probably never know true freedom, and would undoubtedly pay a heavy price for the new revolution, including service in the bloody war with Iraq in the 1980s. When one of the hostages is given the opportunity to use a rope to beat his former jailer (as an act of repentance) the American simply states "we don’t do that" and walks away. It sums up the differences between the cultures perfectly.
If you want to better understand Iran, and how the hostage crisis is still having effects in today’s world, this book is worth reading.