Blogs > Cliopatria > Reuel Marc Gerecht: Review of Mark Bowden's Guests of the Ayatollah

May 3, 2006 8:54 pm

Reuel Marc Gerecht: Review of Mark Bowden's Guests of the Ayatollah

In 1985, when I first visited the Iran desk in the Directorate of Operations of the Central Intelligence Agency in Langley, Va., my attention was quickly drawn to the Iranian-published volumes of the CIA and State Department cable traffic that had been seized by the Iranian "students" who took over the U.S. Embassy in Tehran in 1979. That was the year, lest we forget, of the shah's overthrow and the victory of the Ayatollah Khomeini.

The Iranians, post-takeover, had painstakingly reassembled most of the embassy's CIA cables and diplomatic telegrams--paper that had been insufficiently burned or shredded by the besieged American diplomats. (The U.S. government developed much better shredders in response.) At Langley six years later, an old woman--a real-life, chain-smoking Le Carré sort who had amazing recall of the CIA's operations--was reviewing the volumes for sensitive material. No one else on the Iran desk seemed to care.

The desk was plastered with posters of Khomeini and various references to nefarious clerical behavior, but the Islamic Revolution's defining moment was mostly forgotten history. And little wonder. Officers who had served in Iran before the revolution--the CIA station had once been fairly large--were usually disconnected from the place, since virtually none of them spoke any Persian and most, in the course of their time in Tehran, had pursued "third country" targets (Soviets, East Europeans, communist Chinese), not Iranians.

In "Guests of the Ayatollah," Mark Bowden revivifies this crucial episode by parachuting us back to 1979 and enveloping us in the thoughts and experiences of the American hostages--the diplomats, security officers, U.S. Marines and spooks seized and abused by the "Students Following the Line of the Imam," as they called themselves. The hostages numbered 66 in all; 14 were released before the end of the crisis, which lasted 444 days. Three were held in the more civilized confines of the Iranian Foreign Ministry. (Mr. Bowden does some of his finest writing recounting the increasingly surreal existence of this second small group, who became "guests"-cum-prisoners.)

Mr. Bowden subtitles his book "The First Battle in America's War With Militant Islam"--and he is certainly right in underscoring the entire saga as a formative moment for contemporary Islamic militancy. Sunni fundamentalism, as an ideology inclined to see terrorism as a legitimate activity, predated the rise of the Shiite Khomeini. But the ayatollah's triumph over the shah and over his primary foreign backer--the U.S.--globally supercharged Islamic radicalism....

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