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GUESTS OF THE AYATOLLAH by Mark Bowden Kirkus Star


The First Battle in America’s War with Militant Islam

by Mark Bowden

Pub Date: May 10th, 2006
ISBN: 0-87113-925-1
Publisher: Atlantic Monthly

A riveting account of the 444-day Iran hostage crisis of 1979–81.

Bowden’s (Road Work, 2004, etc.) contention that the capture of the U.S. embassy in Tehran was “the first battle in America’s war against militant Islam” needs qualification, for America had been battling by proxy for years. Still, it was the first direct assault on Americans in strength. Those who undertook it viewed the Cold War superpowers as equally evil—surprisingly, the so-called “Muslim Students Following the Imam’s Line” had first planned to take over the Soviet embassy in Tehran—and wanted to guide their nation, freshly rid of the much-hated Shah and now governed by a conservative Islamic theocracy, away from Western modernism and toward some recapitulation of the medieval golden age. Led by an inner circle called The Brethren, the militants who stormed the embassy on Nov. 4, 1979, initially planned to stay for three days and broadcast their grievances; once it became apparent that the Ayatollah Khomeini’s government was not going to eject them—and the attack, it seems, took most of the mullahs by surprise, too—they stayed on. Using the same you-are-there point of view as he did in Black Hawk Down (1999), Bowden introduces figures on both sides of the struggle: American staffers who revered Persian culture and spoke the language fluently; humorless bureaucrats; gung-ho Marine guards and hardcore Delta Force types; Islamic ideologues convinced—and not without cause—that all Americans in Iran worked for the CIA; real-life students who, after a year of hostage-keeping, came to regard the enterprise as a mistake and drifted away; and, least likable of all, the Tokyo Rose–like Iranian interpreter who to this day insists on the justice of her actions and of the Islamist cause.

It’s a big book not to put down, but Bowden’s latest will tempt readers to keep turning the pages. Altogether excellent—and its revelations of back-channel diplomatic dealings are newsworthy.