Reviewed by Noah Pollak

Guests of the Ayatollah: The First Battle in America's War with Militant Islam
by Mark Bowden
Atlantic Monthly Press, 2006.


Few Americans recognize the name Massoumeh Ebtekar, formerly the vice president of Iran and until 2005 head of the Ministry of the Environment, and a 2006 recipient of the United Nations’ Champions of the Earth award for her environmentalist advocacy in Iran. But there are several dozen Americans who will never be able to forget her. In 1979 they nicknamed her “Screaming Mary” for her bombastic, paranoid, and sadistic style of interrogation in her role as translator and spokeswoman for the Islamic radicals who stormed the American embassy in Tehran and imprisoned its staff in brutal conditions for fifteen months.
During the hostage crisis, Ebtekar displayed an unquenchable thirst for abusing, threatening, and humiliating her captives; today, she is celebrated by the United Nations, and like more than a half-dozen of the hostage-takers—including, almost indisputably, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad—she holds a prominent position in the Iranian government. A few of her fellow hostage-takers have in recent years become circumspect about their actions, but those who ascended in Iran’s government view the incident as a defining victory, a moment when Allah vindicated the revolutionaries and humiliated the American infidels. The publication of Guests of the Ayatollah, Mark Bowden’s meticulously reconstructed examination of the crisis, comes at a moment when the West once again is confronted by the sinister cast it first met during the hostage crisis-and is facing, quite clearly, an unchanged Islamist ideology.
It had been almost a year since the expulsion of the shah when enraged students took over the American Embassy in Tehran on November 4, 1979. Just days earlier, the Carter administration had handed the simmering revolutionaries a new grievance by granting the shah entry into the United States for medical treatment. The personnel at the embassy had become desensitized to the kind of raucous anti-American protest that regularly filled the nearby streets, and the demonstrations on the morning of the seizure seemed only slightly more menacing than usual. Such revolutionary theater had become a standard feature of Tehran at the time, described by Bowden as a city “in the grip of Islamist fervor, a kind of mass hysteria.” Iran’s leftist nationalists and Islamic radicals, along with a dozen smaller groups, had briefly allied in order to overthrow the pro-Western shah, who had been installed in a CIA-orchestrated coup in 1953 and came to be detested by an array of Iranian factions. He was viewed as an American stooge who had plundered Iran and brutalized its citizens for a quarter-century in order to enrich his Western friends.
With the shah expelled, the revolutionary groups first turned against those they considered collaborators with his regime, and then they turned against each other in a tumultuous death struggle for internal control of Iran. “For a student of politics,” Bowden writes, “being in Tehran just then was like being a geologist camped on the rim of an active volcano.” People were summarily executed, shot in the streets or off rooftops, or hanged from telephone poles. Many of the revolutionaries saw in the Carter administration’s promise of a moral foreign policy the prospect of an American shift away from support for the shah, but Carter had dashed those hopes with an extravagant toast to the dictator at a nationally televised state dinner in Tehran. “It had been a mere formality for the president, a perfunctory salute to a longtime American ally,” says Bowden, “but the words carried tremendous significance in Iran. To the percolating revolutionists, America had once again chosen sides against the people. It marked Carter as a hypocrite and an enemy.”
The students who stormed the embassy originally intended simply to occupy the compound for a few days and to use it as a platform from which to denounce the American infidels and draw international attention to their grievances. When the throngs of protesters started streaming over the compound walls and into the embassy buildings, the embassy staff assumed roughly the same intent, and believed that the Iranian provisional government would quickly chase them off. But after the quick capture of the embassy and its occupants, the hostage drama rapidly became a captive of its own success, and of its utility to the revolutionaries. The embassy compound, the Islamists were certain, was a CIA stronghold, a “den of spies,” full of American devils who were plotting every day to thwart the nascent Islamic revolution and to install another American puppet who would exploit Iran, torture its people, and prevent the realization of the first Islamic utopia in the world—just like the CIA did in 1953. Having accomplished the magnificent and unthinkable feat of capturing the embassy, it became impossible simply to set free the henchmen of the Great Satan. (It must be mentioned that the actual CIA presence in Iran at this time was three officers, none of whom were involved in anti-revolution activity.)
By any traditional foreign-policy calculus, storming the embassy and holding its staff hostage was a foolish and impulsive act that served to diminish Iran’s position in the region at a time when the country could not afford to be seen as weak. The Soviet bear was on the northern border (a fact that was fundamental to America’s support for, and arming of, the shah) and a bellicose Saddam Hussein was mobilizing on its western border. Diplomatic and economic isolation invited catastrophe, but the radicals were not thinking internationally. They were focused on the internal politics of the revolution and the creation of an Islamic utopia, and for them the hostage crisis was a sensational and irreplaceable victory in their struggle for power in Iran. “We rubbed dirt in the nose of the world’s greatest superpower,” one of them proclaimed. Their success was proof that Allah was on their side.

For Ayatollah Khomeini and the imams who were the high priests of the revolution, the eager young radicals and their street demonstrations perfectly served the goal of establishing an Islamic republic. The pious, lathered mobs and factional violence deterred anyone from pointing out that severing all ties with America and its supply of military parts for Iran’s army was dangerous. And in the young fundamentalists—who called their group “Muslim Students Following the Imam’s Line”—the revolutionary leaders had perfectly obedient soldiers. The American captives were astonished by the students’ display of “appalling ignorance combined with absolute conviction.” Articulating the impression of the hostages, Bowden writes that most of the students “were shockingly ill-informed and uneducated…. They were confused kids living in a bizarre society that for reasons of religion or tradition closed off most of the usual avenues of growth and self-improvement. It produced young people who were restless and ignorant, ripe for a demagogue, and in Khomeini they had found their man.”
In scenes the Americans found baffling, they were ordered to remove their jewelry and watches because their captors believed such items contained secret homing devices and radios. One guard warned a hostage against sending messages with her eyes, and Screaming Mary denounced the Iraqis for “dropping fancy table napkins over the city contaminated with a virus that would cause cancer.” The Americans thought the young Iranians were living in a parallel universe, a sinister bizarro-world in which American conspiracies controlled events both inside and outside Iran. The revolutionaries very straightforwardly believed “that the United States government was controlled by a rich Jewish cabal that acted, in Iran, in Vietnam, in the Middle East, strictly out of corrupt self-interest and often for the sheer pleasure of torturing and killing Muslims.... America was responsible for plagues, famine, war, and even natural disasters such as earthquakes and hurricanes, which were manipulated by its evil scientists. Whatever examples of American contributions to the world—the Salk vaccine, the Peace Corps, billions in disaster assistance, etc.—were dismissed as ploys or sinister plots to further subjugate the planet.” In a sense, the radicals really were living in a parallel universe; they were devoted to the explanatory power of their paranoid worldview with a zealotry most of the American captives had never encountered in their lives—and it scared the daylights out of them.
With the embassy compound turned into a prison, among the hostage-takers the American captives lived in a suspended animation of terror and brutality. They were interrogated repeatedly, left in solitary confinement for months on end, beaten at the slightest provocation, denied basic medical care, subjected to mock executions, and the daily protests in the streets outside the embassy formed a backdrop of perpetual intimidation. In the daily anarchy of revolutionary Tehran, what if the embassy were seized by a rival faction and the hostages were dragged into the streets and beaten to death by the intoxicated mob, or simply shot in their cells? In the minds of the hostages, such scenarios dangled overhead like a noose.
During the hostages’ ordeal, life outside the embassy compound walls became increasingly unhinged. Friday prayers in Tehran, which had become mandatory for all public officials during the revolution and were attended by tens of thousands, had been turned into an afternoon-long Orwellian Two Minutes’ Hate, a prolonged, vigorous denunciation of the United States, Israel, and everything detested by the Islamist revolutionaries. There has probably been no other time during which the thesaurus of anti-Americanisms has been so robustly enlarged: America is the Great Satan, full of “‘world-devouring ghouls,’ who ‘skinned alive the meek ones’ and ‘stripped nations of their resources.’” At the end of the day’s carnival of hatred—the tirades were delivered under a massive, scowling portrait of Khomeini—the ayatollah, in one instance, called on everyone in Tehran to take to the rooftops and scream “Allahu akbar!” for fifteen straight minutes.
Halfway around the world, the hostage crisis incensed Americans and proved an intractable problem for the Carter administration, which from the outset insisted on dealing with it diplomatically, partially for fear of provoking the execution of the hostages, and partially, one suspects, because of Carter’s natural earnestness in dealing with hardened fanatics and killers. Bowden humiliatingly recounts the administration’s desperation as it grasped at one quixotic diplomatic straw after another, only to find that negotiation was impossible with the various charlatans who stepped forward claiming to represent Iran’s tempestuous provisional government. It should have been obvious rather quickly that there was nobody with whom to negotiate, but the administration did not give a rescue attempt—the ill-fated Eagle Claw, the Delta Force’s first mission—the go-ahead until the crisis was already six months old.


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