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Guests Of The Ayatollah: The First Battle In America's War With Militant Islam (2006)

Guests of the Ayatollah: The First Battle in America's War With Militant Islam (2006)
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4.12 of 5 Votes: 5
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0871139251 (ISBN13: 9780871139252)
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atlantic monthly press
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Guests Of The Ayatollah: The First Ba...
Guests Of The Ayatollah: The First Battle In America's War With Militant Islam (2006)

About book: I'd been meaning to read this for quite some time, and I'm glad I finally did. The specifics of the Iran hostage crisis were always obscure to me, and I've read only fragmentary accounts by various participants, mainly by members of the Delta Force element. The added perspective of the hostages and their centrality to the story is what makes this book such a gem.The Iran hostage crisis is little remembered today, but when it is, it is unfortunately presented in a way that that reeks of partisan politics. It the subject of little public debate, except silly, contrived "liberal vs. conservative" arguments that just distort things like they always do.Flag-waving, catchphrase-spouting, chronic-labelist conservatives use the crisis merely to attack Carter and accuse him of making America weak, impotent, and apologetic. They claim that if Reagan wa sin office, the hostages would have been rescued sooner and Iran would somehow have been too scared of the big bad U.S. of A. to be as aggressive and bellicose as they are today. That is sheer speculation.For one, the decision to abort the rescue operation was not Carter's. Carter approved the operation, and when it went sour (as a result of a tragic accident that was in no way influenced by Carter), the ground commander, Beckwith (not Carter) aborted the mission. Carter was not involved in the decision to abort, and it was probably the right call, anyway. And, as Bowden notes, the mission's chances of success under any circumstances would have been iffy at best.There's also the myth that the Iranians finally released the hostages because they were scared of big, bad Ronald Reagan and his tougher national security policies and promises to make America great and strong. Again, wrong. The Iranians released the hostages after Reagan got elected because they wanted to discredit Carter, not because of anything Reagan said, did, or would have said or done. If the Iranians were so scared of Reagan ,why did their Hezbollah proxies attack Americans in Lebanon? And while Reagan blasted Carter for "doing nothing", neither did Reagan propose what should have been done instead.Speaking of American ignorance, allow me to recall an episode from the book: When a reporter asked an American citizen what should eb done about the crisis, the citizen replied, "Force should be used." When the reporter asked "But what if responding militarily would mean that the hostages would be harmed?", the American, with extensive knowledge and experience of hostage rescues (*rolls eyes*) replied, "No , then we shouldn't use force. I don't want them to be harmed."Now for some liberal myths about the crisis: many of them claim that the revolution was a legitimate response to the CIA-sponsored coup of 1953 that deposed the "democratic" Mossadegh and put the Shah in power. Thus, they claim that the US got itself into this mess by deposing a democracy and installing a dictatorship. There's some flaws in this theory, mainly since Mossadegh was anything but a democratic politician, and was hardly missed when he was deposed.Bowden covers this in detail as he explores the reactions of the US public and media to the crisis. While their protests were justified, none of the American public demonstrated much wisdom or tact in how to handle it better than Carter. Some US protestors shouted "Nagasaki, Hiroshima, why not Iran?" Amazing.The pious second-guessers of the News-Tribune of Tacoma, Washington boldly concluded that, "It may be too early to make a judgment, but first impressions are that the US badly bungled the rescue mission. Further, although Carter certainly deserves the benefit of the doubt at this point, it apperas he failed miserably in judgement and leadership."The Phoenix Gazette accused Carter of undermining the rescue operation by trying to manage it himself from Wahsington instead of leaving it to the professionals in the field.The Baltimore Evening Sun laughably offered the ridiculous opinion that authorizing the operation had been wrong because there was a chance it might not succeed. "any possibility of failure should ahve ruled it out." Hmmm, aren't all operations like that by nature?Some Iranian protesters were similarly naive, as Bowden shows. Some of them thought that World War II had resulted because Hitler was determined to prevent America from seizing the oil supply of Peru. One of the students told an American hostage, the CIA station chief that America had been Iran's enemy for "four hundred years." When the station chief told the apparently well-educated student that America had been around for only some two hundred years, the Iranian simply dismissed it with a wave of his hand.Thankfully, Bowden's book presents a balanced, panoramic study of the crisis. He details the experiences of both the hostages and their captors, of the media's coverage, and the friction between the revolution's radical and moderate elements. For example, Bowden shows that the moderates were sidelined as the ayatollah's backed the students that took over the embassy. While Americans today, with their disdain for intellectualism, their inability to grasp complexity, their obvious lack of nuance, and their unfortunate and eager tendency to lump all Muslim revolutionaries together and label all of them "radicals" or "terrorists", Bowden shows that this was clearly not the case.The ostensible trigger for the crisis was the decision by the US to admit the shah to this country for treatment of the cancer that would eventually kill him. However, that decision was sold to President Carter by his Secretary of State, Cyrus Vance, who in turn was sold on it by Henry Kissinger and David Rockefeller. As the years roll on, it's interesting how many disastrous US foreign policy decisions come back to Kissinger.Further, the CIA was no better then at understanding and predicting events in the Islamic world than they are now. Shortly before the crisis erupted, the agency reported that the religious radicals would soon be relegated to the background there, so the US could deal with an emerging secular state with confidence. In reality, the country degenerated into a hurricane of religious nuttiness that soon swept aside all of the secular leaders. Quite literally, no one at all was really in charge of anything in Iran, and that's the reason the crisis dragged on for over a year.This brings us to the role of President Carter. Nearly everyone felt at the time that he was too weak and vacillating to resolve the crisis. Not so; he tirelessly attempted to find a way to deal with the situation, but every attempt failed when the connection at the Iranian end fell apart. No one could have done much more, which is why presidential candidate Ronald Reagan continually criticized Carter, but never offered a word of explanation about what he would do.The failed rescue attempt was blamed on Carter, too, but as Bowden makes clear, it had little chance of succeeding, mostly because the equipment available at the time was inadequate, and the situation was impossible. Even if Delta Force had made it to Tehran, it's likely that most or all of the hostages and rescuers would have died in the operation. Carter and the troops deserve credit for daring the attempt, even in the face of near-certain failure.Bowden takes us inside the U.S. embassy just as the takeover was about to be launched. In short order, we meet an incredible cast of real-life characters, from street savvy embassy staffers like Michael Metrinko to clueless government officials and over-confident radicals. As the hostage crisis unfolds, we can see how the self-righteous "joy" over the initial takeover quickly degenerated into a sad drama of suspicion, prejudice and incompetence that dragged on for 444 days - much longer than anyone really wanted, including the hostage takers themselves.To make matters even worse, the very same radicals who launched this tragic episode are now largely in control of the Iranian government. Many Americans are still clueless about the events that got us to this place. It's a bad dream that just won't go away...Both Iran and the U.S. get their fair share of criticism in this exhaustively researched book. If you're looking for an "us vs. them, good guys vs. bad guys" treatment, don't look here. Bowden properly points out our massive intelligence failures before, during AND after the initial embassy seizure. Even the aborted rescue mission seems rooted in a fantasy cloud of wishful thinking. For their part, the Islamic radicals come across as typical "true believers" who never let the facts get in the way of the "truth." Like the Taliban, the ultimate legacy of the hostage-takers was to establish a dysfunctional, paranoid regime that poisons the soul of Islam and breeds violence throughout the Middle East. Lord save us all.In this book, Bowden provides the intense, all-inclusive details from start to finish of the 444 day Iranian Hostage Crisis. The reader is taken inside the holding cell of each hostage and witnesses in vivid detail the daily routines, abuse, and emotions each hostage endured during their stay. I quickly became a fan of certain hostages such as diplomat Michael Metrinko, who so adamantly despised his captivity and insulted his captors for which he suffered solitary confinement and severe beatings up to the 444th day. While Bowden shares the heroic stories of the hostages, he doesn't disregard certain hostages who fellow captives felt were cowards and swine.Bowden has become widely acclaimed for his ability to investigate the subject of each book and then transpose his research into dramatic details for readers, and Guests of the Ayatollah is no exception to his method. Where Guests of the Ayatollah differs from other Bowden books is in its significant focus on the Iranian and American political environments during the hostage crisis. Bowden provides an in depth summary of the Carter administrations options and its secretive negotiations with what still existed of the volatile Iranian government. Rather than provide his opinion on the performance of the Carter administration, Bowden does a fine job of avoiding personal bias, and allows the reader to reach an informed conclusion in regard to the politics surrounding the Hostage Crisis.Some reviewers seem to feel that Bowden provides justification for the actions of the hostage takers. I don't believe this is accurate given that Bowden spends very little time examining the Shah's government other then to acknowledge America's continued support for the Pahlavi government up to the revolution. I found that on the controversial issues Bowden provides the facts and allows the reader draw his/her own conclusions. However, Bowden offers one prevailing conclusion that the Iranian Hostage Crisis established the power of the mullahocrasy in Iran, which runs the government to this day. The epilogue goes on to examine whether or not the hostage crisis benefited Iran, and concludes the establishment of the mullahocracy has done more harm to the country.In all, Bowden has written an impressive account of the crisis and adequately explores the reactions of the US media and public to it.

While I preferred David Harris's handling of the political maneuverings in his book The Crisis, Bowden does a much better job here of blending previously published captivity narratives and his interviews to give a sense of what the hostages' experiences were like. While it's successful in being highly readable and in conveying a lot of information, I did have some problems with the tone of the book.Bowden heavily criticizes the pro-hostage-taker rhetoric of some American lefties at the time, in particular clergy members who visited the hostages in Tehran, and I agree that their insensitivity and irresponsibility are shocking. He points at numerous examples throughout of how not only the students but their sympathizers repeatedly attempted to minimize the shittiness of the hostage taking, when any reasonable, ethical person must admit that being held captive for 444 days is an incredibly shitty thing that cannot be justified or excused.Unfortunately, I think Bowden got too sucked into taking sides, and the result is a bias and lack of objectivity that I felt undermined the book. There were many places where he seemed to be trying extra hard to make the Iranians look bad, when objective language would have gotten his points across more effectively. For example, an incident that occurred during the disastrous US rescue attempt is described in language that is, simply put, jacked-up. The elite Delta Force is shocked when they encounter a bus full of Iranian civilians traveling through the nighttime desert where the Americans are staging to refuel their helicopters:[The passengers] were all instructed in Farsi to remain silent, without effect. Most of the passengers were women, all of them wearing chadors and wailing eerily in their distress. Sergeant Eric Haney had trouble silencing one of the few young men among them, who insisted on loudly whispering to the others despite even their apparent desire for him to shut up. Haney put the muzzle of his automatic rifle under the man's nose and repeated, in Farsi, for him to be silent. But soon the offender was whispering again, so Haney roughly put the muzzle of his weapon in his ear and dragged him away from the group. Fearing he was being taken off to be shot, the young man began crying and begging, holding both hands up beseechingly. Haney sat him down on the road a good distance from the others and left him there, whimpering and praying. (p. 443)To me, what is striking about this scene is that it is so much like the encounters between the Iranian students and American diplomats that have been recounted in the book to this point, only the roles and nationalities have been reversed (Their solution is that the bus passengers be forcibly flown out of Iran in a C-130, to be returned home after the mission!). But rather than acknowledging the irony or locating any empathy, Bowden describes the Iranian hostages in condescending and dehumanizing terms: the women are "wailing eerily," the man who believes he will be shot is "crying and begging," "whimpering and praying." In a similar scene, that of the harrowing mock execution of American captives, a hostage does not cry or whimper but shouts "Oh my God!" and "No! No! No!" These seem to me to be pretty much the same reaction to very similar situations, and for me the point was that oh man, it really sucks when you think someone is about to shoot you, whether you come from America or Iran.I don't think showing some empathy for Iranians condones the students' actions at all, and throughout the book I think Bowden's writing gave support for the view of Americans as arrogant and spoiled bearers of a double standard, which could have been avoided and if it had been, his book would have been better. The hostages' experiences speak for themselves. I am a super lefty and I totally get why Iranians might have gotten irate with the US -- we DID organize a coup against their democratically elected prime minister, and we WERE involved in running their country in a sucky way, and our culture DID threaten these students' Islamic beliefs. I strongly believe you can understand other people's perspectives while still clearly seeing their actions as wrong. This is part of what makes me not a fundamentalist, and it's why I can't trust things that remind me at all of propaganda, as this book did at times.Still, it's not a bad book and I feel I have a much better picture now of the hostages' experiences. I do think Bowden was basically trying to be fair -- he does explain the Iranians' grievances and repeatedly notes how little effort was made to do this by the American media at the time -- but I felt he was worried that he needed to make his allegiance to the Americans clear and that his efforts sort of weakened the book. An American audience is naturally going to "side" with the hostages, though I'm not sure taking sides in a historical incident does any of us much good in the end.
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Reviews
Anne (Booklady) Molinarolo
I was a Senior at Spring Hill College and working for the CBS affiliate in Mobile, Alabama when this occurred. I was undergoing a transformation in my politics also at this time. Having met and listened to Ronald Reagan for over 3 hours in September of 1976, I fell in love with both the man and his ideas; I became a Reagan Democrat turned Republican, and never turned toward the left again. I voted for the former President in the 1976 Republican primary rather than Gerald Ford. I proudly cast my vote for Reagan again in 1980, mainly because of this hostage situation and the feckless handling of this situation by the Carter Administration. My schoolmates and station friends were constantly discussing the hostage situation among ourselves. Uncle Walter words were repeated ad nauseam as I recalled. I wasn't surprised than the hostages were freed as Reagan took his Presidential Oath of office. Leaders of nations understood that a new sheriff was in D.C. and were afraid as they should've been. We cheered in the studio as the News Bulletin aired.When I first read this book a couple of years ago, I was horrified by actions of the hostage takers. It is still horrific to read, but this time I was also repulsed by their actions. I was very surprised by how ineffectual Carter was; there is never guarantees that military action will succeed or be doomed to fail. Everything must be on the table and everything must be tried to save American lives - i.e. Benghazi in 2012. Carter was more involved with the decision making than I believe he should of been, but Mark Bowden gives readers much more details of the Washington front than the network news departments did in 1979 - 1980. And I found that fascinating. Bpwden retells stories of bravery, endurance, and resistance from the survivors. There's even a traitor in their midst. Though quite long, Guests of the Ayatollah: The Iran Hostage Crisis: The First Battle in America's War with Militant Islam reads like fiction mostly. Some parts do read like dry toilet papered textbooks, but these parts are few and far between in Bowden's prose.
Elizabeth Humphries
This is a detailed and fascinating exploration of the Iran hostage crisis of 1979 - 1981. The author chooses to write about the situation as if the reader were observing it happen; much of it involves recreated conversations based on extensive interviews. Some people might find it jarring (and too novel-y), but I felt it made the narrative flow more smoothly.By the end of the book, I honestly felt a little sorry for some of the students involved in storming the American embassy and holding the diplomats hostage. (Never so sorry as to forget their torture of the hostages - while the author does explore some other themes, he keeps that fact front and center.) They were the perfect patsies for the mullahs - ill educated, unworldly, and devoutly religious, willing to believe that of COURSE all Americans were evil spies and America was Satan's land, because they came from small isolated villages and didn't know better. (Plus, that is what their mullahs had told them.) They got this grand idea to take the embassy and hurt the Great Satan, but you get the impression that many of them never actually thought beyond that point, and probably had no idea they were setting the stage for an oppressive theocracy that would selectively use their efforts to execute public officials who advocated a more secular government. The stunning hypocrisy of some of the other students also makes you want to shake your head in disbelief. For example, quite a lot of the book deals with Niloufar Ebtekar, also known as "Tehran Mary." Throughout the book, she continually harangues the hostages about how Islam's strict rules about female modesty are uplifting to women, yet never seems to realize her elevated position is due entirely to her Western education - an advantage she adamantly opposes for others.Above all, the book is an excellent primer on Islamic fundamentalism and a reminder that there really is no way to negotiate or reason with fundamentalists. They are so convinced they know the truth that no other potential truths even register. It is a sober warning about fundamentalism in all shapes (including the fundamentalim we see in Western societies).
Fred
An excellent read by the author of "Blackhawk Down." I learned four important things:1. the "Desert One" rescue mission had been aborted by its commander, Col. Charlie Beckwith, BEFORE the one helicopter crashed into a C-130, causing the death of 8 servicemen. It wasn't the case that this crash caused the mission to abort.2. Saddam Hussein's attack on Iran occurred in Sept. 1980 and was a direct result of Iran's weakened and isolated position nearly a year after the crisis began. And this assault thwarted a very good chance that the hostages would be released prior to the US election; in fact, there was one more near-release just before the election.3. There likely was no "October surprise" engineered by candidate Reagan's team to prevent the hostages' release before the US election. There were very near successes, including the one thwarted by Iraq's attack.4. The Iranians (clerics and student leaders alike), totally misread the US political situation and didn't understand the difference between Reagan and Carter. They just hated Carter and didn't want him to get any credit for the hostages' freedom. So, although Carter's team (Warren Christopher especially) worked hard in the last few months of 1980 to broker the final deal that set the hostages free, the Iranians didn't let the hostages go until the day of Reagan's inauguration. During the last half of 1980 in fact, and even after the election, Reagan and his team had nothing to do with the situation. At all.
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