The first shot in the current war between Wahhabis and Westerners, suggests veteran political journalist Harris (Shooting the Moon, 2001, etc.), was fired in Teheran a quarter of a century ago.
Actually, writes Harris, there wasn’t much shooting when a swarm of revolutionary guards and students seized the US embassy in 1979: the attack came as a surprise, and the attackers were so numerous that they were able to swarm over their American adversaries. (The Marine guards also showed restraint, Harris might have added.) The authors of the plot to capture the US embassy had smaller ambitions than came to be played out. Twenty-two-year-old engineering student Ibrahim Asgarzadeh planned instead to seize the compound for two or three days and, rather like the SDS at Columbia, use the experience to secure a forum for their grievances against the US: “The object of their action was not revenge but illumination.” Hotter heads prevailed, and the rest is a history that Harris does a generally good job of capturing. He’s sharply critical of the last Shah of Iran, who spent his country’s money lavishly, yet also shows a few flickers of admiration for a man who seems to have known that he was playing an elaborate role; the shah’s downfall, he suggests, came as much from the rise of Jimmy Carter, who had small patience for Iran’s feared secret police and the shah’s excuses that “it was only communists he hunted,” as it did from homegrown restiveness and the rumblings of the Ayatollah Khomeini. The seizure of the embassy rings strange echoes today; Harris notes that in October 2001 the Bush administration quashed a lawsuit by the surviving hostages against the Islamic Republic of Iran, a part of the supposed axis of evil, while even as the Iranian revolution ate its first generation of young, it continues to inspire anti-Western militants around the world.
A slow read—sometimes those 444 days seem to pass in real time—but full of thought-provoking insights on one of the world’s preeminent trouble zones.