Guests of the Ayatollah: The First Battle in America's War with Militant Islamby Mark Bowden
From the best-selling author of Black Hawk Down comes a riveting, definitive chronicle of the Iran hostage crisis, America’s first battle with militant Islam. On November 4, 1979, a group of radical Islamist students, inspired by the revolutionary Iranian leader Ayatollah Khomeini, stormed the U.S. embassy in Tehran. They took fifty-two Americans hostage, and
From the best-selling author of Black Hawk Down comes a riveting, definitive chronicle of the Iran hostage crisis, America’s first battle with militant Islam. On November 4, 1979, a group of radical Islamist students, inspired by the revolutionary Iranian leader Ayatollah Khomeini, stormed the U.S. embassy in Tehran. They took fifty-two Americans hostage, and kept nearly all of them hostage for 444 days. In Guests of the Ayatollah, Mark Bowden tells this sweeping story through the eyes of the hostages, the soldiers in a new special forces unit sent to free them, their radical, naïve captors, and the diplomats working to end the crisis. Bowden takes us inside the hostages’ cells and inside the Oval Office for meetings with President Carter and his exhausted team. We travel to international capitals where shadowy figures held clandestine negotiations, and to the deserts of Iran, where a courageous, desperate attempt to rescue the hostages exploded into tragic failure. Bowden dedicated five years to this research, including numerous trips to Iran and countless interviews with those involved on both sides. Guests of the Ayatollah is a detailed, brilliantly re-created, and suspenseful account of a crisis that gripped and ultimately changed the world.
The Washington Post
The New York Times
“A riveting account of the 444-day Iran hostage crisis of 1979. . . . Bowden’s latest will tempt readers to keep turning the pages. Altogether excellent -- and its revelations of back-channel diplomatic dealings are newsworthy.” -- Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
“Suspenseful, inspiring, mordant and, perhaps most of all, affectionate toward those who had to endure such trying circumstances. He shows unfailing respect for the hostages, many of whom gave him extensive, intimate and at times embarrassing access to their memories. Mr. Bowden lets you feel, above all else, the fear and anger of the Americans during their long imprisonment. . . . Bowden performs a great service by pulling us back in time, to the dawn of an awful age when America was low and radical Island triumphant.” Reuel Marc Gerecht, The Wall Street Journal
“Bowden does a good job of describing the divergent orbits of Iran and the West. Iran's revolutionary regime seems to know it cannot survive in any kind of normal atmosphere, and America seems too vengeful to accept that Iran may have legitimate grievances over American actions in the Middle East. The hostage crisis epitomised that divide.” The Economist
“More than 26 years later, the siege of the embassy might seem like irrelevant history to those who know little or nothing about it. As talented journalist Mark Bowden shows, the standoff involving 52 American hostages is anything but irrelevant.” Steve Weinberg, San Francisco Chronicle
“Bowden’s mammoth feat of reportage on the Iranian hostage crisis of 1979-81 is essential reading . . . Bowden shows unparalleled skill in constructing an omniscient and engrossing narrative based on an almost daily account of the plight of the hostages, behind-the-scenes political machinations, and the planning of a rescue mission. A.” Gilbert Cruz, Entertainment Weekly
“[A] riveting . . . masterfully told tale . . . Bowden skillfully gets inside the minds of the hostages, vividly describing their churning emotions and harrowing experiences. Fans of the author of Black Hawk Down and Killing Pablo will see plenty of classic Bowden here: meticulous reporting backed by a compelling narrative . . . Bowden skillfully evokes the era and the ordeal.” Afshin Molavi, The Washington Post
“Bleakly compelling . . . [Bowden] writes about events in a way that gives a clear picture of both high-level decision making and the price paid by people on the ground. . . . And 26 years after the [hostage crisis] the passions of the moment still reverberate. In Bowden’s book, you can feel them on every page.” Richard Lacayo, Time
“Mark Bowden is a master storyteller, exceptionally skilled at placing military and political events in a meaningful context. Thus, Guests of the Ayatollah may be his most timely and valuable work to date. . . . A must read.” Edward A. Turzanski, The Philadelphia Inquirer
“Heart-stopping, and heart-breaking.” James Traub, New York Times Book Review
“A refreshingly lively account . . .Bowden won praise a few years back for Black Hawk Down, a gritty and up-close account of U.S. combat in Somalia in October 1993. Much of [Guests of the Ayatollah] is similarly gritty and up close. . . . But this time, Bowden pulls his account back from time to time to give the larger picture . . . Bowden’s skill turns bad news into good reading.” Harry Levins, St. Louis Post-Dispatch
“Bowden reaffirms his role as tough-guy Cassandra with this heft replay of the hostage crisis in Iran that began in 1979. . . . [Guests of the Ayatollah is] made essential by continuing American-Iranian tensions.” Janet Maslin, The New York Times
“Bowden’s account excels at describing the unfolding drama of the individual hostages. . . . This s a powerful and probably definitive history that deserves a large audience.” Christopher Willcox, The New York Sun
“Gripping a genuine pleasure to read Bowden’s look back at Jimmy Carter’s Iran policy gives the book its particular political relevance. Certain similarities with the dilemmas of America’s current Iran policy are impossible to overlook.” Matthias Kuntzel, Policy Review
“Bowden is a courageous and methodical journalist and gifted storyteller .He weaves a maddeningly complicated heap of recollections, emotions and facts into a coherent, credible and engaging account .It is a timely addition to our collective knowledge about America and Iran’s shared, though painful, history.” Brian Palmer, Newsday
“Just as he did with his account of the desperate battle that waged between American forces and Islamic fighters in Somalia in Black Hawk Down, Mark Bowden takes his readers inside the actionand inactioninside the hostage crisis in Guests of the Ayatollah.” Tom Walker, Denver Post
“A thriller.” Richard Willing, USA Today
“Mark Bowden is a master of calamity, and he will have readers chewing their nails like teenagers as they read Guests of the Ayatollah. . . . Yet Bowden does more than spin a good yarn . . . He nails the moment at which radical Islamists first learned they could use terror and anti-Americanism to immobilize the West and claim victory over domestic rivals.” Elizabeth Cobbs Hoffman, San Diego Union Tribune
“An impressive piece of narrative journalism.” Michael B. Farrell, Christian Science Monitor
“Readers may wonder why they should read a blow-by-blow account of an event so widely reported so long ago. But as the story unfolds, illuminated by journalist Mark Bowden’s meticulous reporting and measured prose, what seems familiar is suddenly fresh. The significance crystallizes. Uncannily, the events prefigure those of the post-Sept. 11 era: the initial ‘why do they hate us?’ shock; the impotent outrage; the sense that we suddenly faced a baffling and unexpected threat, and that harsheven recklessmeasures were needed to confront it. It was, in retrospect, a defining moment for the United States.” Douglas Birch, The Baltimore Sun
“A very good book . . . A complex story full of cruelty, heroism, foolishness and tragic misunderstandings.” Len Barcousky, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
“One of Bowden’s accomplishments is conveying simultaneously the often boring daily-ness of the hostages’ lives, while building melodrama about whether they will undergo torture, die or survive to return to loved ones across the United States .Bowden draws conclusions from is extensive research, conslusions that might become controversial but that surely provide lots of grist for thought.” Steve Weinberg, The Seattle Times
“Guests of the Ayatollah may be the most revealing book ever written about desperate hostages on the brink.” Ike Seamans, The Miami Herald
“Americans are told over and over that 9/11 changed everything and, in important ways, it did. But as Mark Bowden points out in this monumental piece of research, writing and reasoning, they might give 11/4 some consideration, too. On that date, Nov. 4, 1979, a ragtag band of Iranian militants, most of them students, invaded the sprawling United States embassy in downtown Tehran and seized everyone inside as hostages. . . . Bowden does a prodigious job, telling an important story , and barring the unlikely, nobody will ever tell it better.” Bill Bell, New York Daily News
“Bowden offers lessons applicable to global politics today.” Vikas Turakhia, Cleveland Plain Dealer
“A superbly readable and surprisingly suspenseful account .A master storyteller.” David Forsmark, Front Page Magazne
“A magisterial work of historical journalism. It should instantly become the definitive account of an event that ruined the Carter presidency, confirming the Iranian theocracy, emboldened a generation of Islamic radicals, spurred Saudi Arabia’s aggressive promotion of Sunni Wahhabism and presaged the central challenge to post-Cold War U.S. foreign policy. It is also a crackling bit of storytelling Bowden has an almost Tom Wolfeian flair for detail and a knack for shaking every last recollection, however awkward or discomforting, out of his subjects .the prose is gripping He humanizes the U.S. captives in a manner that is both poignant and baldly frank.” Duncan Currie, The National Review
“Riveting drama and telling detail It is a masterful account that includes its share of revelations, but never veers far from the intensely personal stories that took place behind the scenes .Seems destined for lofty residence on the summer’s best-seller lists, further cementing Bowden’s reputation as one of America’s finest print journalists.” John Marshall, The Seattle Post-Intelligencer
“A prodigious achievement in reporting .Compelling.” Craig McLaughlin, Arkansas Democrat-Gazette
“This remarkably well-done book represents a new pinnacle in Bowden’s career as the finest narrative journalist working today. All the skills on display in his previous books are showcased in this one, but Bowden has created a substantially more sweeping and sophisticated work than his earlier projects .He is meticulous and detail-oriented without dwelling on the irrelevant or boring, and thorough in his exploration of people and events without sacrificing the pace of the story. Bowden is a virtuoso storyteller.” Noah Pollak, Azure
“A good and important book.” Ed Graziano, Richmond Times Dispatch
“Written like a novel and shot through with page-turning suspense . The amount of research and reporting that must have gone into it are awe-inspiring.”Michelle Goldberg, New York Observer
"Daring and masterful . Bowden, a veteran journalist has accomplished a monumental task .'Guests of the Ayatollah' is much more than simply a historical retrospective. It also serves as a cautionary tale about the furies of militant Islam that have swept over the Middle East during the past half-century. In the process, Bowden's masterpiece hammers home a crucial point: the War on Terror did not begin on 9/11. Rather, the battle had been joined more than two decades earlier, with the establishment of the Islamic Republic of Iran." Ilan Berman, The New York Post
“Bowden has a penchant for the dramatic tableau A page-turner.” Evan Wright, Los Angeles Times
“Penetrating chronicle An indispensable account.” Lester Pimentel, Newhouse News Service
“Bowden's analysis of militant Islam is clear, current and dead-on. The government of Iran, now as then, is a theocracy with a secular face, combining, he writes, ‘ignorance with absolute conviction.’ Anyone who thinks a nuclear-armed Iran could be dealt with through Cold War-style containment should read this book.... All in all, Guests of the Ayatollah is a monumental piece of reportage, deserving a wide readership.” Philip Caputo, Publishers Weekly (starred review)
“Bowden mixed his newspaperman’s skills with his gift for novel-like narrative. The resulting story is not only suspenseful but revelatory as well.” Marcela Valdes, Publishers Weekly
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GUESTS OF THE AYATOLLAHTHE FIRST BATTLE IN AMERICA'S WAR WITH MILITANT ISLAM
By MARK BOWDEN
Atlantic Monthly PressCopyright © 2006 Mark Bowden
All right reserved.
Chapter OneTHE DESERT ANGEL
Before dawn Mohammad Hashemi prepared himself to die. He washed according to ritual, then knelt in his dormitory room facing southwest toward Mecca, bent his head to the floor, and prayed the prayer for martyrdom. After that the stout, bushy-haired young man with the thick beard tucked a handgun in his belt, pulled on a heavy sweater, and set out through the half darkness for the secret meeting.
It was, in Iran, the thirteenth day of Aban in the year 1358. The old Zoroastrian calendar had been resurrected a half century earlier by the first self-appointed shah in the Pahlavi line, Reza Khan, in an effort to graft his royal pretensions to the nation's ancient traditions. That flirtation with Persia's gods and bearded prophets had backfired, sprung up like an uncorked genie in the previous ten months to unseat his son and the whole presumptuous dynasty. Aban is Persia's old water spirit, a bringer of rebirth and renewal to desert lands, and the mist wetting the windows of high-rises and squeaking on the windshields of early traffic in this city of more than five million was a kept promise, an ancient visitation, the punctual return of a familiar and welcome angel. Asit crept downhill through the sprawling capital and across the gray campus of Amir Kabir University, where Hashemi hurried to his meeting, Iran was in tumult, in mid-revolution, caught in a struggle between present and past. Towering cranes posed like skeletal birds at irregular intervals over the city's low roofline, stiff sentinels at construction sites stranded in the violent shift of political climate. The fine rain gently blackened concrete and spotted dust in the canals called jubes on both sides of every street, fanning out like veins. Moisture haloed the glow from streetlamps.
Hashemi was supposed to be a third-year physics major, but for him, as for so many of Tehran's students, the politics of the street had supplanted study. He hadn't been to a class since the uprising had begun more than a year ago. It was a heady time to be young in Iran, on the front lines of change. They felt as though they were shaping not only their own futures but the future of their country and the world. They had overthrown a tyrant. Destiny or, as Hashemi saw it, the will of Allah was guiding them. The word on campus was, "We dealt with the shah and the United States is next!"
Few of the hundred or so converging from campuses all over the city on Amir Kabir's School of Mechanics that morning knew why they were gathering. Something big was planned, but just what was known only to activist leaders like Hashemi. Shortly after six, standing before an eager crowded room, he spread out on a long table sketches of the U.S. embassy, crude renderings of the mission's compound just a few blocks west. He and others had been scouting the target for more than a week, watching from the rooftops of tall buildings across the side streets, riding past on the upper floor of two-decker buses that rolled along Takht-e-Jamshid Avenue in front, and waiting in the long lines outside the embassy's newly opened consulate. The drawings showed the various gates, guard posts, and buildings, the largest being the chancery, the embassy's primary office building; the bunkerlike consulate; and the airy two-story white mansion that served as home for the American ambassador. There was a murmur of satisfaction and excitement in the crowd as Hashemi announced they were going to lay siege to the place.
In retrospect, it was all too predictable. An operating American embassy in the heart of revolutionary Iran's capital was too much for Tehran's aroused citizenry to bear. It had to go. It was a symbol of everything the nascent upheaval hated and feared. Washington's underestimation of the danger was just part of a larger failure; it had not foreseen the gathering threat to its longtime Cold War ally Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the now reviled, self-exiled shah. A CIA analysis in August 1978, just six months before Pahlavi fled Iran for good, had concluded that the country "is not in a revolutionary or even a prerevolutionary situation." A year and a revolution later America was still underestimating the power and vision of the mullahs behind it. Like most of the great turning points in history, it was obvious and yet no one saw it coming.
The capture of the U.S. embassy in Tehran was a glimpse of something new and bewildering. It was the first battle in America's war against militant Islam, a conflict that would eventually engage much of the world. Iran's revolution wasn't just a localized power struggle; it had tapped a subterranean ocean of Islamist outrage. For half a century the tradition-bound peoples of the Middle and Near East, owning most of the world's oil resources, had been regarded as little more than valuable pawns in a worldwide competition between capitalist democracy and communist dictatorship. In the Arab states, the United States had thrown its weight behind conservative Sunni regimes, and in Iran behind Pahlavi, who stood as a bulwark against Soviet expansionism in the region. As the two great powers saw it, the Cold War would determine the shape of the world; all other perspectives, those from the so-called Third World, were irrelevant, or important only insofar as they influenced the primary struggle. An ignored but growing vision in the Middle East, nurtured in mosque and madrasah but considered quaint or backward by the Western world and even by many wealthy, well-educated Arabs and Persians, saw little difference between the great powers. Both were infidels, godless exploiters, uprooting centuries of tradition and trampling sacred ground in heedless pursuit of wealth and power. They were twin devils of modernity. The Islamist alternative they foresaw was an old twist on a familiar twentieth-century theme: totalitarianism rooted in divine revelation. It would take many years for the movement to be clearly seen, but the takeover of the embassy in Tehran offered an early glimpse. It was the first time America would hear itself called the "Great Satan."
How and why did it happen? Who were the Iranian protesters who swarmed over the embassy walls that day, and what were they trying to accomplish? Who were the powers behind them, so heedless of age-old privileges of international diplomacy? What were their motives? Why was the United States so surprised by the event and so embarrassingly powerless to counter it? How justified were the Iranian fears that motivated it? How did one of the triumphs of Western freedom and technology; a truly global news media, become a tool to further an Islamo-fascist agenda, narrowly focusing the attention of the world on fifty-two helpless, captive diplomats, hijacking the policy agenda of America for more than a year, helping to bring down the presidency of Jimmy Carter, and leveraging a radical fundamentalist regime in Iran into lasting power?
The U.S. embassy in Tehran stood behind high brick walls midway down the city's muscular slope, where the land flattened into miles of low brown slums and, beyond them, the horizon-wide Dasht-e Kavir salt desert. Inside the enclosure was a parklike campus, a twenty-seven-acre oasis of green in a smoggy world of concrete and brick. Its primary structure, the chancery, bathed now in the swirling mist of the water angel, stood fifty or so feet behind the front gate, a blocks-long structure two tall stories high built in the dignified art deco style typical of American public buildings at midcentury. It looked like a big American high school, which is why years ago it had been dubbed "Henderson High," after Loy W. Henderson, the first U.S. ambassador to use it, in the early fifties. Scattered beneath a grove of pine trees behind the chancery were the new concrete consulate buildings; the white Ambassador's Residence, a two-story structure with a wraparound second-story balcony; a smaller residence for the deputy chief of mission; a warehouse; a large commissary; a small office building and motor pool; and a row of four small yellow staff cottages. There were tennis courts, a swimming pool, and a satellite reception center.
When the embassy opened more than four decades previously, Tehran had been a different place, more a village than a city. The United States was then just one among many foreign powers with diplomatic missions in Iran. Before the chancery stood a low, decorative wooden fence that allowed an unobstructed view of the beautiful gardens from Takht-e-Jamshid, which was then just a quiet side street, paved with cobblestones. In those days, the new embassy's openness and its distance from the row of major missions on busy Ferdowsi Avenue contributed to America's image as a different kind of Western power, one that had no imperial designs.
In the years since, Tehran itself had grown into a noisy, crowded city, a bland, featureless, unplanned jumble of urgent humanity that flowed daily in great rivers of cars through uninteresting miles of low, pale brown and gray two- and three-story boxlike buildings. Takht-e-Jamshid's quaint cobblestones had long since been paved and the avenue widened. In daylight it was clogged with cars, motorbikes, and buses. The embassy's main entrance, Roosevelt Gate, was named after Franklin D. Roosevelt, whose distant cousin CIA officer Kermit Roosevelt, Theodore's grandson, had helped engineer the 1953 coup d'etat that toppled an elected Iranian government and replaced it with the shah. At the time, the coup had powerful Iranian backers and was welcomed by many in the country, but today it was seen simply as a tawdry American stunt, another example of cynical CIA meddling in the Third World.
By the fall of 1979, in the receding tide of the revolution, the old embassy had become a provocation. It was moored like an enemy battleship just a stone's throw from the street, a fact demonstrated repeatedly. For a country in a fit of Islamist, nationalist, and increasingly anti-American fervor, such a grand and central presence in the capital city was a daily thumb in the eye. Lately most of the harassment had been relatively minor. The walls that now surrounded Henderson High and its campus were covered with insults and revolutionary slogans and were topped by three feet of curved and pointed steel bars. A few days earlier a band of young men had sneaked into the compound and were caught shinnying up the big pole in front of the chancery to take down the American flag. The marines had since greased the pole. As a defense against rocks and an occasional gunshot from passing motorists, all of the windows facing front had been layered with bulletproof plastic panels and sandbags. The chancery looked like a fort.
While the Americans inside saw these changes as purely defensive, the picture they presented strongly encouraged suspicion. The embassy was an enemy foothold behind the lines of the revolution. Washington had been the muscle behind the shah's rule, and a big part of throwing off the monarchy had been the desire to break Iran's decades-long fealty to Uncle Sam. Yet here the embassy still stood. Those Iranians who supported the United States-and there were many still among the prosperous middle and upper classes-prayed that its obdurate presence meant the game wasn't over, that the free world was not really going to abandon them to the bearded clerics. But these were an embattled, endangered minority. To the great stirred mass of Iranians, afire with the dream of a perfect Islamist society, the embassy was a threat. Surely the architects of evil behind those walls were plotting day and night. What was going on inside? What plots were being hatched by the devils coming and going from its gates?
Why was no one stopping them?
Chapter TwoWOULD THE MARINES SHOOT?
A big demonstration was already in the works that morning, which had been proclaimed National Students Day, in honor of collegiate protesters who had been gunned down by the shah's police the year before. The numbers of those massacred had been wildly inflated, from a few score to "thousands," which played to Shia Islam's obsession with martyrdom. In addition to honoring the slain students, this rainy Sunday had also been declared an official day of mourning for more than forty pasdoran, Revolutionary Guards, who had been killed in a clash with Kurdish separatists the week before. There would be thousands of people in the streets. Hashemi and the others planned to launch their surprise from inside this larger crowd.
Standing before a crowded room he explained that the assaulters would be divided into five groups, one for each of the embassy's larger buildings. The initial thrust would be through Roosevelt Gate. Local police would not interfere-their support had been quietly enlisted-but there was no telling what the Americans would do. If they opened fire, then the bodies of those martyred in the vanguard would be passed out to the crowd and carried aloft through the streets, sure to incite rage. When the planning session ended, the students drifted across town to the rallying point, the corner of Takht-e-Jamshid and Bahar Street, several blocks west of the embassy. Thousands had already begun to assemble in groups of twos and threes, in cars and on foot.
The plan had been hatched by a dozen young Islamist activists, representatives from each of Tehran's major universities, who had formed just weeks before a group that called itself Muslim Students Following the Imam's Line, to differentiate itself from factions with agendas that varied from the teachings of Imam Ruhollah Khomeini. Hashemi was the son of an Isfahan cleric and had been raised in the devout traditions of Shia Islam. Unlike the city's other large universities, Amir Kabir was strictly Islamist. Classes were conducted as though teachers and students were together in a mosque, and prayer was a big part of every day and night. Robed women students did not speak to men other than family members unless the situation required it, such as working together in a lab. While Marxist and other leftist groups tended to dominate on the bigger, more secular campuses such as Tehran University, where the religious students were often still an unpopular minority, Amir Kabir was known as a center for Islamist radicals, young people strictly allied with Khomeini and the new mullah establishment.
All men in the Islamic organizations called each other "brother," but Hashemi was part of a smaller, militant inner circle called the Brethren-"brothers who were more brothers than others," was how one would later explain it. Most of those recruited for the takeover effort were simply students, but the Brethren were something more. They would eventually form the nucleus of the new Iran's intelligence ministry. They were armed at all times and had connections with the powerful clergy and with high-ranking officials in the police and the provisional government who had sympathy for their political agenda. Hashemi had not been one of the instigators of the plot to seize the American embassy that day, but when those plans were formed he was naturally one of the first approached for help.
Excerpted from GUESTS OF THE AYATOLLAH by MARK BOWDEN Copyright © 2006 by Mark Bowden. Excerpted by permission.
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