GUESTS OF THE AYATOLLAH
The First Battle in America's War with Militant Islam
By Mark Bowden
Atlantic Monthly. 680 pp. $26
In the winter of 2005, Massoumeh Ebtekar stood before the world's political and business elite in Davos, Switzerland, and gave them a tongue-lashing. Before a startled crowd at the annual powwow of global movers and shakers, the senior Iranian official blasted the West for cultural decadence, proclaiming the values of the Islamic Republic of Iran to be superior -- and far more benevolent to women. She dismissed concerns about human rights abuses with a flick of her heavily veiled arm.
In 2005, her listeners could simply walk out on the harangue. In 1979, John W. Limbert Jr. was not so lucky; he was, literally, Ebtekar's captive audience. Limbert, an erudite diplomat and scholar of Persian poetry, was one of the 52 American hostages who suffered through 444 days of captivity in revolutionary Iran, and he remembers Ebtekar with contempt. Back then, she was known as "Screaming Mary," the young spokesperson for the student hostage-takers -- a smug radical who regularly berated the Americans with finger-waving, ill-informed lectures about the evils of their country.
At one point in Mark Bowden's riveting new book, Guests of the Ayatollah , Ebtekar browbeats a CIA agent named William J. Daugherty over "the inhuman, racist decision" to drop atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. After Daugherty shoots back that the Japanese started the war at Pearl Harbor, Ebtekar looks confused. "Pearl Harbor? Where's Pearl Harbor?" she asks. Hawaii, she is told. Her reply, after a moment of confused silence: "The Japanese bombed Hawaii?"
In many ways, Ebtekar is a fine symbol for Iran's amateurish young radicals. Brimming with righteous fire and a sophomoric, conspiratorial view of the world, they performed a dramatic act -- storming the U.S. embassy in Tehran on Nov. 4, 1979 -- that had grown-up ramifications for Iran, the United States and the world. The crisis (arguably) felled a U.S. president and (indisputably) strengthened the clerics' power in Iran's post-revolution power struggle, locking Iran and the United States into a spiral of conflict that whirls on today with the tensions over Iran's nuclear program.
The student radicals were convinced that the embassy was a "den of spies" aimed at restoring the shah -- the country's exiled former autocrat, whom President Carter had decided to let into the United States for cancer treatment -- to power. What they found instead, in Bowden's masterfully told tale, was a CIA mission in tatters, with not a single agent fluent in Farsi -- a bewildered team of operatives who barely understood the events engulfing them. "For years, little intelligence was collected from Iran that did not originate with the shah's own regime," Bowden writes. "Now, with Iran suddenly under new masters and the situation in constant, confusing flux, the agency was . . . pathetically far from being able to influence events, despite the overblown fears of most Iranians, who saw the CIA as omnipotent and omnipresent." In contrast, several of the diplomats on duty were first-rate Farsi speakers and Iran scholars, deeply empathetic to the country's culture and people.
But the student radicals knew little of the world and its ways, let alone the difference between a diplomat and a spy. They saw an operative with James Bond-like powers in every corner. One interrogator questioned State Department security officer Alan Golacinski about his digital watch, convinced that it was a secret radio.
Often, the encounters were not so comic. Some hostages were badly beaten. Others faced terrifying mock executions. A few were thrown in solitary confinement. Bowden skillfully gets inside the minds of the hostages, vividly describing their churning emotions and harrowing experiences.
Fans of the author of Black Hawk Down and Killing Pablo will see plenty of classic Bowden here: meticulous reporting backed by a compelling narrative. But unlike those two books, in which he spent considerable time trying to understand Somali fighters and Colombian drug lords, Guests of the Ayatollah provides only glimpses of the thoughts of the foreign antagonists.