In the early morning of November 4, 1979, a crowd of around 500 Iranian university students gathered around the U.S. Embassy in the capital city of Tehran. They were members of several radical Muslim student groups that supported Iran’s Islamic Revolution and its spiritual leader, the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.
The sight of such a large group outside the embassy compound was no novelty to the U.S. Marine guards or to the 60 or so Americans assigned to America’s diplomatic outpost in the heart of a nation now governed by radical Islamic theocrats such as Khomeini and other ayatollahs. Demonstrations in Tehran were an everyday occurrence, and this one seemed no different than the anti-shah and anti-American protests of the past few days.
They were mistaken. The protestors were members of a group called Muslim Student Followers of the Imam’s Line, and they intended to break into the embassy compound and, according to one of the organizers, “Our aim was to object against the American government by going to their embassy and occupying it for several hours…We intended to detain the diplomats for a few days, maybe one week, but no more.”
The students broke into the compound after a young woman took metal cutters out from under her chador and cut the heavy chains that locked the embassy gates. Other intruders, who had observed the Marine guards’ activities from nearby rooftops for weeks, climbed over the walls surrounding the rest of the compound.
The Islamic students, incensed by President Jimmy Carter’s recent decision to allow the deposed Shah of Iran to enter the U.S. to receive medical treatment for cancer and for past American interventions in Iran’s internal affairs, achieved their initial goals without loss of life. Carrying placards that said “Don’t be afraid. We just want to sit in,” they took most of the American diplomats, intelligence agents, and military personnel prisoner for what they thought would be a week-long demonstration in what they called the “Den of Spies.”
Little did they know, however, that their symbolic takeover of the U.S. Embassy would not end a week later. Instead, it resulted in a 444-day standoff between the Islamic Revolutionary Republic of Iran and the United States of America that would go down in history as the Iranian hostage crisis.
In his 2006 book Guests of the Ayatollah – The Iranian Hostage Crisis: The First Battle in America’s War with Militant Islam, author Mark Bowden gives readers a vivid and chilling account of a watershed event in modern U.S. history.
Bowden, whose non-fiction works include Black Hawk Down: A Story of Modern War (1999) and Killing Pablo: The Hunt for the World’s Greatest Outlaw (2001) is a renowned journalist who is widely respected by the military and intelligence communities. He is the recipient of the Overseas Press Club’s Cornelius Ryan Award (for Killing Pablo). He also wrote the first draft of the screenplay for director Ridley Scott’s film adaptation of Black Hawk Down. Most recently, Bowden wrote The Finish: The Killing of Osama Bin Laden and The Three Battles of Wanat and Other True Stories.
“Scott was placed in a new room with different roommates, which he found a vast improvement, and soon afterwards was summoned to an unusual session with Ayatollah Ali Khameinei, one of the state’s most powerful clerics (and the eventual successor to the Imam as Supreme Leader). In his capacity as military liaison, Scott had met Khamenei almost a year earlier. The ayatollah was in charge of Iran’s military, and the colonel had sought him out to discuss outstanding defense contracts. As the colonel saw it, no matter how hateful its bluster, Iran had an overwhelming interest in opening such discussions because there were still billions of dollars of Iranian money deposited in trusts to pay off military purchases, money that was still earning interest in American banks. It was not unusual for payouts from these accounts to total $750 million per quarter. Evidently ignorant of the trust fund, Khamenei initially told Scott that he was wasting his time; Iran was not interested in doing business with the United States any more under any circumstances, and that any outstanding debts would not be paid.
“’So, let me get this straight,’ Scott had said. ‘If after all the contracts are paid out the fund still has a few hundred million dollars in it, we should just donate it to the U.S. Treasury?’
“At that point the Ayatollah got interested. This was the work Scott that had been doing when taken hostage. It turned out that if Iran wanted to keep its Air Force flying, they had to continue doing business with the United States. In the weeks before the takeover, Scott had arranged for the first official purchase by revolutionary Iran from the U.S. military, a ten million dollar order of tires for their fleet of F-14s and C-5A transports. All that now seemed like it had happened in a different world.
“But in the months since he had last seen Khamenei, Iran’s geopolitical position had grown more precarious. Saddam Hussein had become increasingly belligerent along its western border, and just weeks before had executed a revered Shia leader. Ever since, Iran had been both mourning and girding for war. So it came as no surprise to Scott that Khamenei’s interest in American parts would be stronger than ever. He had come looking for the American colonel who had sold him aircraft tires. Delivery of that order had been frozen, along with the rest of Iran’s considerable assets in the United States, since the takeover of the embassy.”
To write the detailed and engrossing account of the embassy takeover, the complex diplomatic and military efforts to secure the hostages’ release, and the disastrous 1980 rescue attempt that was aborted after several American aircraft crashed at the Desert One site, Bowden did a lot of legwork.
The author traveled to Iran and interviewed many of the hostage takers, including Nilufar Ebtekar, a then-young propagandist who the hostages contemptuously nicknamed “Screaming Mary” for her fiery diatribes and clumsy attempts to “interview” the captive Americans on Iranian state media. In 2006, Ebtekar was vice-president of Iran in President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s administration and had tried, without success, to get her account of the 444-day standoff published in the U.S.
Bowden also interviewed the surviving Americans who were either held at the embassy or Iran’s Foreign Ministry building, as well as members of former President Carter’s administration and military personnel who took part in the aborted April 1980 rescue mission that claimed the lives of eight American servicemen and one Iranian.
With clear and crisp prose, Bowden describes the Iranian hostage crisis from every perspective. Using details culled from interviews, contemporary news accounts, and archival materials from various U.S. government agencies, he crafts a readable narrative that has the immediacy of a documentary and the page-turning suspense of a spy novel.