BookBrowse Reviews Guests of the Ayatollah by Mark Bowden

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Guests of the Ayatollah

The First Battle in America's War with Militant Islam

by Mark Bowden

Guests of the Ayatollah by Mark Bowden X
Guests of the Ayatollah by Mark Bowden
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  • First Published:
    Apr 2006, 704 pages
    Paperback:
    Mar 2007, 704 pages

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A monumental piece of reportage, deserving a wide readership

From the book jacket: 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 ousting 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.

Comment: It's difficult to overstate the impact of the Iran hostage crisis. For more than 14 months the saga captivated the American people and much of the world; it crippled Jimmy Carter's re-election campaign and is even responsible for spawning a new late-night TV program, which became Nightline. Without it it's likely that a more moderate, secular government would have taken charge in Iran, and Jimmy Carter would have won a second term as President of the USA; which would have meant that Ronald Reagan would not have dominated American politics in the '90s, and there would have been no Vice-President Bush to become President and thus, more than likely, no George W. to take over the reigns of power in 2001. The great irony is that the Iranian students didn't intend to take hostages, let alone bring down a government (or two), they simply wanted to stage a protest.

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.

It took Bowden five years to write Guests of The Ayatollah during which time he interviewed dozens of people including Delta Force members, State Department staffers, hostages and hostage-takers. The result is a compelling non-fiction work that reads like a novel. Among a number of interesting facts he highlights is that many ex-hostages believe that Iran's current president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, was one of the hostage-takers (a fact which is disputed by Ahmadinejad, other hostage takers and, apparently, the CIA).

Bowden draws parallels between the embassy takeover, that helped the mullahs overcome secular nationalists within Iran, and the situation today in which the pendulum appears to be swinging back to the hard-line vision of 25 years ago. As Bowden says, "Iran thrives on the disapproval of the rest of the world... when they come into conflict, it's almost reassuring. It re-stokes the fires of the revolution." A fact that the British government no doubt kept in mind during the almost two-week standoff involving 15 members of the British Navy and Marines taken hostage by the Iranians in March.

This review was originally published in June 2006, and has been updated for the March 2007 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.

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