Guests of the Ayatollah: The First Battle in America's War with Militant Islam

Guests of the Ayatollah: The First Battle in America's War with Militant Islam

by Mark Bowden

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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.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780802143037
Publisher: Grove/Atlantic, Inc.
Publication date: 03/28/2007
Edition description: First Trade Paper Edition
Pages: 704
Sales rank: 248,804
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 1.70(d)

About the Author

MARK BOWDEN is the author of seven books, including The Best Game Ever, Bringing the Heat, Killing Pablo, and Guests of the Ayatollah. He reported at The Philadelphia Inquirer for twenty years and now writes for Vanity Fair, The Atlantic, and other magazines. He lives in Oxford, Pennsylvania.

Read an Excerpt



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. As it 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 bunker-like 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 horizonwide Dasht-e Kavir salt desert. Inside the enclosure was a park-like 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, a small but growing 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 noisy and crowded, 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'état 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?



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 sonof 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.

The plan was the brainchild of three young men, Ibrahim Asgharzadeh, an engineering student from Sanati Sharif University, Mohsen Mirdamadi from Amir Kabir University, and Habibullah Bitaraf from Technical University. Asgharzadeh was the first to suggest it. They would storm the hated U.S. embassy, a symbol of Western imperial domination of Iran, occupy it for three days, and from it issue a series of communiqués that would explain Iran's grievances against America, beginning with the overthrow of Mohammed Mossadeq in 1953 and decades of support for the shah, now a wanted man in Iran accused of looting the nation's treasure and torturing and killing thousands. America's imperialist designs had not ended when the shah fled Iran the previous February. The criminal tyrant had recently been allowed to fly to America on the pretense of needing medical treatment and was being sheltered there with his stolen fortune. America was stirring up political opposition to the imam, instigating ethnic uprisings in the various enclaves that made up the border regionsof their country, and had recently begun secretly collaborating with the provisional government to undermine the revolution. A clandestine meeting in Algiers between secular members of the provisional government and White House National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski had been revealed to dramatic effect in Tehran. All of it added up to only one thing in the students' eyes: America was determined to hang on to its colony and restore the shah to his throne. The danger was pressing. The provisional government had sold out; it was nothing more than a group of old men wedded to Western decadence bent on tamping down the ardor of the Islamist uprising. One thing the revolution had taught the students was the folly of waiting for something to happen. They had seen the fruits of bold, direct action. Seizing the embassy would stop the American plot in its tracks and would force the provisional government to show its hand. Any move against the heroic embassy occupiers would expose acting Prime Minister Mehdi Bazargan and his administration as American stooges. The students believed that if they did not act soon to expose him if his government weathered its first year, then the United States would have its hooks back in Iran for good, and their dream of sweeping, truly revolutionary change would die.


Excerpted from "Guests of The Ayatollah"
by .
Copyright © 2006 Mark Bowden.
Excerpted by permission of Grove Atlantic, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Guests of the Ayatollah: The First Battle in America's War with Militant Islam 4.1 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 35 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I was a child when these events transpired, so I'm glad he has introducted it to a new generation. If not for questionable mechanical problems, Delta Force might have been able to pull of a bold raid. At least those who gave their lives are remembered. And it sheds light on the current president of Iran. Perhaps in a couple of years Bowden will have another book to write concerning a U.S.-Iran conflict.
Guest More than 1 year ago
The hostage crisis represented the first true frenzy of the 24-hour news cycle but you will be surprised by what you do not know about this event. Read this book to learn more. Very informative to the US's struggle in Iraq taking place now. All of this with Bowden's usual excellent prose.
coloradoreader on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This is a fantastically interesting book about a difficult time in US history. Bowden does a terrific job of getting to every detail while still making it very readable---a page turner!
AzureMountain on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
The hostage crisis was the first national I felt connected to and that I felt I could express myself politically about. I was nine (and then ten) years old. I wrote songs to sing on the bus so people would not forget about the hostages. I remember my grandmother waking me up to the failed rescue attempt. I remember "campaining" against Jimmy Carter in the 1980 election. An egrossing read that I would recommend. It think it is timely to read this book now. The current protests happening in Iran reflect and in some ways must be a product of, the upheaval and changes in Iran following their revolution.
tjmule on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I plowed through this tome in quick order. This is the second Mark Bowden book I've read (the first being Black Hawk Down). Guests of the Ayatollah follows the Iran hostage crisis back between '79-'81. The crisis took place during the Iranian revolution when the country was thrown from an American backed dictatorship (the shah who was installed in the 50's) to a theocratic, Muslim controlled state. Radical students stormed the U.S. embassy and took 50 some odd diplomats hostage and kept them for over a year. They were finally released on January 20th, 1981. Just hours after Reagan was inaugurated.This is a fascinating look at modern Iran. Bowden writes this in a similar tone as Black Hawk Down. It reads very much like a novel and is packed with back-and-forth testimony both here in the states as negotiations dragged on and for the most part from the vantage point of the hostages in Iran. The book is very even handed towards both the Iranians and Jimmy Carter, who was fighting for his political life back in the states during the crisis.This book leaves me feeling really conflicted about Iran. It's a tricky situation certainly. The book portrays the student captors as poorly informed, ignorant, radically fundamental. These three characteristics form a radical mix that give these men (and surprisingly women) the idea to raid a foreign embassy and hold "the great satan" responsible for years of abuses. After reading this book, I almost wonder if my liberal, patient approach towards foreign policy would've been completely ditched in this case in favor of full force military strike in an effort to bring the hostages home. I felt anger and bewilderment about the captors after reading this book. How could you be so ignorant about how the world works? How could they be so naïve? I then quickly realized that this condition is not unique to Iran. I realized that these same conditions here in America today. People so blinded by their religion and so poorly informed that they blindly follow their leaders where ever they're pointed. Maybe things really aren't that different between our two countries.
LiteraryFeline on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I was six years old when Iranian students raided the U.S. Embassy in Tehran. Sixty-six hostages were taken in all. The planned three day protest turned into a 444 day nightmare. I cast my very first vote (albeit unofficial) for President Jimmy Carter that following year. I vaguely remember he wasn't the popular choice, but even then I had a tendency to want to fight for the underdog. I was completely oblivious to the events that surrounded his final year in office and what would be the last straw in what turned the majority of Americans against him at the polls. The Iran Hostage Crisis became a pivotal moment in world history, especially for the United States. Americans would take to the streets in outrage while Iranians rallied in support of their fellow countrymen for taking on "the Great Satan". Iranians had good cause to be furious with the American government who had blatantly interfered with the leadership in Iran years before, knocking aside the Iranian people's favored leader for one the Americans felt served the U.S. interests better. The American favored shah was an oppressive and cruel leader. The tyrant was eventually overthrown and forced out of the country, leaving Iran in the middle of a revolution, different factions vying for power. When the shah was admitted into the U.S. for medical treatment, it was as if the Americans were flipping the Iranians the bird.One particular group, a group of students calling themselves Muslim Students Following the Iman's Line wanted to make a statement and plotted to take over the U.S. embassy in Tehran. The sixty-six Americans hostages were all accused of being spies. In reality, only three of the hostages were CIA agents and none of them had viable contacts within Iran, and therefore, had not really been doing any spying at all. The turmoil in the country made that next to impossible. None of the evidence uncovered during the search of the embassy and the hostages living quarters supported the students assertions that the Americans wanted to assassinate the Ayatollah or take over their current government, and yet they persisted in their beliefs and acted accordingly.Each of the hostages responded to captivity in their own ways; some were cooperative and tried to make friends with their captors, faith grew stronger for a couple, while others became rebellious and did what they could to torment their captors in their limited capacity. There were escape attempts and attempted suicides. It was a very difficult time for the hostages. Fourteen would be let go before the 444 days were up, leaving 52. Despite denials by the student captors of torture and that the hostages were treated well, that was not always the case. The hostages discovered that many of their captors were uneducated in terms of world events and were zealots to their cause.The American government's decision to allow the shah into the U.S. had been the catalyst that sparked the takeover, but it fed flames that had already been simmering under the surface. The challenges the U.S. government faced in dealing with the situation seemed nearly insurmountable. The demands of Ayatollah Khomeini and the students were not ones the American government wanted to meet, and yet Carter and his administration were willing to make some concessions, even against their better judgment if it meant to return of the hostages. However, the leadership in Iran was unstable and the figureheads the U.S. government were trying to work with on a diplomatic level held no real power. Going in with force would most likely result in the death of the hostages, something the Carter administration wanted to avoid. A rescue attempt was a long shot and a last resort. If anyone could do it, it would be the newly formed Delta Force, a unit of specially trained men, the best of the best. They trained for months, looking at all possibilities. Getting into and out of Iran, and most especially the land locked Tehran, would be one o
mightylibrarian on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Good overview of the Iran Hostage crisis. Bowden uses first-hand and second accounts from the hostages, hostage takers, the Carter Admin, Delta Force and others. He provides background information , the crisis information, daily accounts of individual hostages. The book is a bit long and tedious at times, but it provides a well-researched account of the situation.
NeverReadsEnough More than 1 year ago
Excellent look into the Iran Hostage Crisis. Conducted through interviews of the hostages, in person, or from interviews they did after they were released. It also gives you the perspective of the hostage takers themselves. What and why it started, and the reason on why it played out the way it did. The book is very well research and extremely interesting. I picked this book up out of curiosity. I was no disappointed. I would highly recommend this to anyone interested in this subject or someone who likes to read about historical events.
PainFrame More than 1 year ago
I don’t trust the machine and I don’t trust my map. I ain’t seen the ground in three hours. Wow, this guy is an impressive writer. This is the third Bowden book I have read, following the excellent Killing Pablo and the astoundingly well done Black Hawk Down. It would take me a lifetime of investigation to learn a topic as thoroughly as Bowden can do it in order to write about it so expertly. I know he has assistants and everything, but it is still impressive as hell, he even tells the tale from both sides of the conflict! For those who saw the movie Argo, this is indeed the same hostage crisis but follows the main group of hostages who were stuck in the embassy for 444 days. This seems like an important story to understand, as it has far reaching implications, not only to the America at the time, but even to U.S. foreign policy today. Mark Bowden really thrives on this type of researched story, I can’t imagine a better book ever being written on this subject.
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Uggo More than 1 year ago
The book does a great job of telling the story as it happened and telling both sides of the story. The author does a wonderful job of keeping his opinion to himself (until the index, in which he lets loose with both barrels), and tells a wonderfully complete version of the events as they happened. I was shocked when I felt s human connection to some of the Iranian students and an overwhelming sense of relief when the hostages were loaded onto plains and celebrated once their plane was in the air.
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