Summary and book reviews of Guests of the Ayatollah by Mark Bowden

Guests of the Ayatollah

The First Battle in America's War with Militant Islam

By Mark Bowden

Guests of the Ayatollah
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  • Hardcover: Apr 2006,
    704 pages.
    Paperback: Mar 2007,
    704 pages.

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Book Summary

Five years in the works, 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 stormed the U.S.embassy in Tehran. Inspired by the revolutionary Iranian leader Ayatollah Khomeini, they hoped to stage a three-day sit-in protest of the American decision to allow exiled Iranian leader Shah Mohammed Reza to enter the United States for medical treatment. But these modest, peaceful aims were supplanted by something much more severe and dangerous. The students took sixty-six Americans hostage and kept the majority of them for 444 days in a prolonged conflict that riveted the world.

The Iran hostage crisis was a watershed moment in American history. It was America’s first showdown with Islamist fundamentalism, a confrontation that has remained at the forefront of American policy to this day. In Iran, following the ouster of the shah, a provisional government was established, and for a critical moment in the modern age’s first Islamist revolution, a more open and democratic society seemed possible. But the religious hardliners on the Revolutionary Council used the hostage crisis as an opportunity to purge moderates from the leadership ranks. They altered the course of the revolution and set Iran on the extreme path it follows to this day.

The Iran hostage crisis was also a dramatic story that captivated the American people. Communities across the country launched yellow ribbon campaigns. ABC began a new late-night television program—which became Nightline—recapping the latest events in the crisis and counting up the days of captivity. The hostages’ families became celebrities, and the never-ending criticism of the government’s response crippled Jimmy Carter’s reelection campaign.

Guests of the Ayatollah tells this sweeping story through the eyes of the people who lived it, on both sides of the crisis. Mark Bowden takes us inside the hostages’ cells, detailing the Americans’ terror; confusion, boredom, and ingenuity in the face of absurd interrogations, mock executions and a seemingly endless imprisonment. He recreates the exuberance and naïveté of the Iranian hostage takers. He chronicles the diplomatic efforts to secure the hostages’ release and offers a remarkable view of President Jimmy Carter’s Oval Office, where the most powerful man in the world was handcuffed by irrational fanatics halfway around the world. Throughout this all, Bowden weaves the dramatic story of Delta Force, a new Special Forces unit poised for their first mission, Operation Eagle Claw. This was an impossible, courageous, and desperate attempt to snatch the hostages from the embassy in Tehran, which, despite the heroism of Delta Force, exploded into tragic failure in the Iranian desert.

Twenty-six years after the hostage crisis began, Iran, and America’s confrontation with militant Islam, is more relevant than ever before. Guests of the Ayatollah is a remarkably detailed, rigorously researched, brilliantly re-created, suspenseful account of the first battle in this conflict, a crisis that gripped and ultimately changed the world.

Part One
The “Set-in”

(Tehran, November 4, 1979)

1
The 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 ...

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Reviews

BookBrowse

As you would expect from a 700 page book, Guests of the Ayatollah covers the entire crisis in detail, including presidential vacillations (and the behind-the-scenes reasons for the vacillations) the failed rescue attempts, and the politics, but Bowden also gives much space to the hostages themselves, some of whom are fascinating people in their own right. For example, John Limbert, who knew more about Iran's history than most of his captors and spent much of his time translating books from English into Farsi.   (Reviewed by BookBrowse Review Team).

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Media Reviews
New York Times

Mr. Bowden reaffirms his role as tough-guy Cassandra with this hefty replay of the hostage crisis in Iran that began in 1979

Washington Post

Bowden skillfully evokes the era and the ordeal, putting a human face on the yellow ribbons.

San Francisco Chronicle - Steve Weinberg

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.

Time - Richard Lacayo

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.

The Wall Street Journal - Reuel Marc Gerecht

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.

Library Journal

The need for another book is unclear... Robert D. McFadden's No Hiding Place: The New York Times Inside Report on the Hostage Crisis is concise, readable, and far better.

Publishers Weekly

Guests of the Ayatollah is a monumental piece of reportage, deserving a wide readership.

Booklist - Gilbert Taylor

Bowden keeps tension high while tracking the Americans' defiance of or acquiescence to their tormentors.

Kirkus Reviews

Altogether excellent-and its revelations of back-channel diplomatic dealings are newsworthy.

The Economist

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.

Reader Reviews
Warren Husak

Some Inaccuracies in the book
A lot of inconsistencies exist in this book. I gather they were for journalistic entertainment. One of them is the point that he made that some of those involved knew of their mission while training for it and the possibility that their families ...   Read More

Christine

It was a great book - offered fantastic insights into the 1979 hostage crisis. I particularly liked the in-depth focus on some of the hostages' trials and tribulations during the crisis. My only question is, does Mark Bowden realize that in Iran, ...   Read More

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Beyond the Book

Mark Bowden worked as a reporter at The Philadelphia Inquirer for twenty years before becoming a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He published his first book, Doctor Dealer, in 1987, but it was not until 1999 and the publication of Black Hawk Down (a National Book Award Finalist) that he achieved significant fame as a writer. Guests of the Ayatollah has become something of a family affair - while he was busy writing the book, his cousins David and Arcadia Keane made a four-hour companion documentary, with a script written by Bowden's son Aaron, that was first aired in mid-2006.

For his next book he plans to write a ...

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