444 days in captivity as the world watched

Iranian students stormed the US embassy and took hostages. A year later, they were still there.

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While it's been 26 years since a newly elected President Ronald Reagan raised a glass of champagne to cheer the homecoming of 52 American hostages held in Iran for 444 days, Mark Bowden's often thrilling reconstruction of the Iranian hostage crisis could hardly be more relevant to events today.

America and Iran are once again at loggerheads, this time over the Islamic republic's drive for enriched uranium. It's a crisis that is certainly less dramatic, but no less potentially explosive. The battle of wills then was played out between an embattled President Carter and zealous adherents to Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khomeini. Today, it's President Bush and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

As part of the late 1970s Iranian student movement, Mr. Ahmadinejad was on the fringes of the embassy siege. He apparently never got involved after his contemporaries opted to storm the American mission. Young Ahmadinejad was eyeing the Russian compound.

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Nonetheless, those were Ahmadinejad's politically formative years, the years in which "Tehran was a cauldron of intrigue, mysterious factions, uprising plots, and clandestine maneuvers," writes Bowden.

That's the backdrop for Guests of the Ayatollah: The First Battle in America's War with Militant Islam, a book only tangentially about the mullahs' and students' revolution. The story really driving this narrative is the compelling human drama of the American hostages, captives who lived in constant fear for some 15 months. They were terrorized, starved, abused, beaten, humiliated, and constantly interrogated. And, all the while, America – and its president – were watching helplessly on TV.

"Guests of the Ayatollah" is an impressive piece of narrative journalism. Bowden (a national correspondent for the Atlantic Monthly, best known for his 1999 book "Black Hawk Down," later made into a film) spent five years interviewing the former hostages, the hostage takers, the intermediaries, the family members of the hostages, and the military men who crafted a disastrous rescue mission to free the Americans. (That mission is detailed in one of the most harrowing parts of the book.)

The drama begins as the wave of Islamic transformation washes over Iran. The ousted American-backed shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, was in the US. In Iran, revolutionary courts were ordering assassinations for supporters of the old regime, and the students were eager to stick it to "the world-devouring America."

The embassy, that "den of spies," was too tempting a target to pass up for young revolutionaries eager to flaunt their pious revolt to the world.

On Nov. 4, 1979, when the students began chanting at the gates of the US embassy, the diplomats inside were at first unfazed. That was common, they remembered. Even when the students began scaling the walls, that too, the diplomats recalled, had happened once before. But the tension escalated quickly. The students wanted to know where the spies were. Who was CIA – or "See-ah" – they demanded. When the hostages resisted telling them, things turned ugly. The CIA station chief at the Tehran Embassy was a man named Tom Ahern. But Ahern, one of three agents held captive, was defiant, at first, and they tortured him, smacking him sharply across the palms with a rubber hose.

Initially, the hostages were convinced the siege wouldn't last long – that the provisional government would intervene. No one imagined it could go on for over a year.

What is perhaps most remarkable about Bowden's latest book is his ability to get inside the heads of the hostages and extract such detail so many years later. One hostage, CIA agent Bill Daughtery, would try to irritate his guards by doing anything to annoy them – coughing on them, even passing gas. To occupy his mind, he "invented an imaginary class in constitution history with eight students. He was the professor."

The year wore on and both the hostages and their captors were growing tired. And like the crisis itself, Bowden's book has an unremarkable ending. America did indeed rejoice in the homecoming of the hostages, but both sides seemed to have eventually relented. Perhaps the most remarkable aspect is that they made it out alive.

Before picking up Bowden's book, I had nearly forgotten about the crisis. It was just the background noise to my childhood in the late 1970s. And while the terror that was inflicted upon America seemed shocking, by today's standards, as Bowden points out, the hostage takers of Iran seem almost cordial.

But in some respects it was the Iranian students of that time, many of whom now run their country, who laid the groundwork for today's much more brutal Islamic militancy.

Michael B. Farrell is the Monitor's Middle East editor.

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