An early confrontation with Islamic militants
by Jonathan B. Frey
For the past year the liberal press has feasted on a Bush aide’s comment to a New York Times reporter declaiming, “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out.” Putting aside the shock and awe at such bold declarations of United States as empire, the unnamed aide accurately portrays U.S. foreign policy of the past century.
Since the 1890s, the United States has staged coups and ousted heads of state numerous times in service of creating the reality U.S. foreign policy demands. And indeed, books such as Guests of the Ayatollah: The First Battle in America’s War with Militant Islam (Atlantic Monthly Press, $26), by former Philadelphia Inquirer reporter Mark Bowden, endeavor to study how things have sorted out as a result.
While some U.S.-sponsored foreign government re-arrangements appear immaterial today, the same cannot be said of Iran. Given that country’s recent nuclear ascendancy, its sponsorship of Hezbollah, and the bellicose remarks of its president, perhaps today there is no other more relevant country the United States has imposed its will upon, other than Iraq and Afghanistan where we have ongoing engagements.
Bowden’s chief purpose is to examine the events that lead to the 1979 taking of U.S. embassy hostages in Iran, the experiences of the hostages during their 444-day ordeal, and the consequences for our present relationship with Iran and the Middle East. En route to this analysis, Bowden summarizes Iran’s recent political history, in particular events from 1953, which loomed large in the minds of Iranians who in 1979 were experiencing the peak of their Islamic Revolution.
For the first half of the 20th century, Iran’s politics were most influenced by Great Britain, which administered and profited disproportionately from Iran’s oil industry. In 1951, however, newly elected Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh attempted to redress oil revenue inequities by nationalizing the industry. After British attempts to foil nationalization led to Mossadegh dismissing their embassy, Great Britain requested assistance from the United States. The result was CIA’s Operation Ajax, which, in collusion with the Shah of Iran, removed Mossadegh from power. That manipulation disrupted an emerging constitutional monarchy, delivering significantly greater power to the Shah and commencing a sycophantic U.S. relationship with an increasingly autocratic leader that would continue until the Islamic Revolution 25 years later.
In February 1979 when the Shah was forced out of Iran, Operation Ajax and U.S. support of the Shah were widely known by Iranians. Hence, a paranoid fear of U.S./CIA intervention in the revolution ran high, culminating 10 months later when the Shah was admitted to the United States for cancer treatment, an event that to many appeared a pretense. The American embassy in Tehran had already become a symbol of U.S. involvement in Iran, and the long lines of Iranians at the embassy to get U.S. visas were an eyesore to the revolutionary government. Bowden paints the consequences as inevitable in hindsight: On Nov. 4, the embassy was overrun by idealistic student activists committed to an Islamic republic, including among their organizers Iran’s current president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
The greatest portion of Guests of the Ayatollah is devoted to the daily lives of the 52 American hostages. Drawing from interviews with, as well as books published by, both hostages and their handlers, Bowden recounts the threats, beatings, petty gains and losses, and ultimately mutual imprisonment of both parties. A stalemate developed as the hostage taking was prolonged, sanctions by the United States and other countries were established, and the April 1980 Delta Force attempt to save the hostages failed. No Iranian politician could overtly work toward a resolution of the deadlock for fear of appearing soft on the “Great Satan,” and the United States had exhausted all diplomatic and military means to resolve the crisis.
Meantime, a year into the predicament, Iraq’s Saddam Hussein, recognizing Iran’s weakness, diplomatic isolation, and ill-maintained military infrastructure (of largely U.S. manufacture), exploited the opportunity by invading Iran’s oil fields. The Iran/Iraq War, facilitated by the hostage taking, was ultimately a prime mover in its resolution.
Guests ’ strength is its synopsis of the hostages’ experiences and attempts by the Carter administration to have them released, accounts heretofore only available in disconnected histories. The broader topic, however, suggested by the charged and eye-catching terms “battle,” “war,” and “militant Islam” in the book’s subtitle, is never fully addressed. That ongoing conflict, in which the hostage crisis is but a mere skirmish, remains unexplained, a persisting mystery.