Saturday, July 20, 2013

“Guests of the Ayatollah” By Phil Baker

My first reaction to reading this book was to determine where Iran was and then narrow my search to Tehran.

Today terrorism is a way of life and Iran a notorious rogue state. It’s inconceivable now that Iran wasn’t on the radar screen in the seventies. Americans were painfully aware of Vietnam; we’d seen body counts climb and Saigon fall on the evening news. We had gas shortages. We’d just emerged from the darkness of Watergate and lived through a weird nightmare called Jonestown.

It was 4 November, 1979. America received the news that students had stormed the US embassy in Tehran and taken staff-members hostage. Mark Bowden’s book, “Guests of the Ayatollah”, 640 pages first published by The Atlantic Monthly Press, takes us inside the embassy where 52 hostages were held for 444 days. He illuminates the uncoordinated and ineffective response of the US government. A rescue attempt floundered in the desert and left eight men dead. The administration looked inept and impotent to bring our people home. And the Ayatollah Khomeini was an unsolvable enigma.

Bowden’s complete history of the crisis dredges up a great number of failures. The Carter administration has, fairly or not, taken the brunt of the blame. The UN failed to stand against one nation’s mistreatment of another nation’s diplomatic mission. And some unsavory characters selfishly grabbed the spotlight with no regard to the hostages’ well-being.

Bowden’s narrative is a cautionary tale. Words and actions can lead to unintended reactions worldwide. The Iranian students’ hatred for the US was cultivated as several attended liberal institutions like Berkeley and were exposed to anti-America dogma. The administration welcomed the Shah fomenting anger in Iran as months earlier he’d been deposed as a human rights criminal. And politically active clergy and others made visits to the hostages for self-aggrandizing purposes. 

It’s the history of a sad affair that exposed America’s weakness against the tactics and theater of Islamic terrorism. Bowden states optimistically that terrorism represents the death throes of an ancient way of governing based on a sacred text. Will freedom trump the theocracy the Iranian students delivered to us 44 years ago in Tehran?

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