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The second revolution

Guests of the Ayatollah The First Battle in America's War With Militant Islam Mark Bowden Atlantic Monthly Press: 680 pp., $26

April 23, 2006|Evan Wright | Evan Wright received a National Magazine Award for his reporting from the Middle East. He is the author of "Generation Kill," a book about Marines in Iraq.

MARK BOWDEN'S "Guests of the Ayatollah" begins on the morning of Nov. 4, 1979, when a small rabble of Iranian students gathered outside the U.S. Embassy in Tehran and prepared to take on the world's mightiest superpower with nothing more than nunchucks, broken boards and something that "looked like a croquet mallet." Within minutes, U.S. Marine guards (who were ordered not to shoot by embassy personnel) had surrendered, and by midafternoon, the Iranians controlled the embassy, capturing 66 people, including American diplomats, military attaches and the CIA station chief.

Although the students were followers of the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, their tactics were modeled after antiwar protests at American universities. The plan was simple: to stage a sit-in at the embassy and "issue a series of communiques that would explain Iran's grievances against America," chief among them President Carter's decision to allow the recently deposed shah to enter the U.S. for medical treatment. But as one student organizer later told Bowden, "We lost control of events very quickly." So began what Americans came to know as the "hostage crisis," a 444-day televised humiliation that led to the meltdown of the Carter presidency, the collapse of traditional Cold War alliances in the Middle East and the rise of Iran as a militant Islamic theocracy.

A national correspondent for the Atlantic Monthly, Bowden has made a career of writing about America's confrontations with Third World villains; his books "Black Hawk Down: A Story of Modern War" and "Killing Pablo: The Hunt for the World's Greatest Outlaw" pop with cinematic intensity. Both focus on members of the U.S. armed forces on missions in failed nation-state badlands. They have the feel of contemporary westerns. The guys in the white hats are invariably the Americans.

Telling the story of the U.S. Embassy personnel taken hostage and the failed military mission to rescue them places Bowden in familiar terrain. But "Guests of the Ayatollah" aspires to something more. Bowden aims to investigate the complexities of what he labels "The First Battle in America's War With Militant Islam." Of the many questions he promises to explore, most pertinent are those he asks in the opening chapter: "Who were the Iranian protesters?" and "What were their motives?"

Yet after an initial teaser, in which we meet an Iranian preparing himself for martyrdom prior to the embassy attack, Bowden switches gears. The focus turns to the American protagonists, and here it stays for the next 600-plus pages. We cheer the urbane, chain-smoking embassy official who unexpectedly resists his captors, standing up to repeated beatings to show that his spirit won't be broken. We witness CIA officers forced to choose between torture and revealing names that will result in the deaths of their contacts. At times, Bowden relieves the tension with grim humor, as when Marines taunt their captors by using the ayatollah's name to describe bodily functions; "I need to take a Khomeini," they say.

As in his earlier books, Bowden has a penchant for the dramatic tableau, although he seldom cites sources for the many scenes he re-creates. Of the mob outside the embassy, he writes: "The enraged masses roared like some mindless, insatiable, million-throated monster, screaming for American blood. It was as though an impregnable fort had been breached and taken. It was a great victory, a cleansing, an exorcism."

The situation at the embassy is intercut with detailed accounts of the Carter administration's efforts to free the hostages, of the failed Delta Force mission to raid the embassy and of the election-year politics that saw the nation swing to the right and elect Ronald Reagan president. Bowden also recounts parallel maneuverings in Iran. Yet while Iranians populate the story, their viewpoints are largely absent. Instead, Bowden renders them as they appeared to the Americans, in a word (employed by Carter in a note to his chief of staff): "crazy."

From the standpoint of the hostages, the Iranians were by turns terrifying, despicable and clownish. Although beatings were rare, hostages were constantly threatened, sometimes bound for days and subjected to at least one mock execution. One hostage taker, dubbed "Gap Tooth," couched his tirades against the "Great Satan" in leftist, anti-imperialist claptrap picked up during his student days at UC Berkeley. Others lectured captives on their own moral superiority while stealing their belongings and even, Bowden reports, cheating at checkers. Toward the end of the ordeal, an Iranian jailer wasn't too proud to ask for a favor: "[D]o you think I could get a visa?" He hoped to go to school in America.

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