Guests of the Ayatollah : The Inside Story of the Iranian Hostage Crisis, Paperback

Guests of the Ayatollah : The Inside Story of the Iranian Hostage Crisis Paperback

4 out of 5 (2 ratings)


In 1979, the Ayatollah Khomeini's followers abducted 66 American citizens and held them hostage for 444 days.

The crisis that followed is a watershed in modern history.

Acclaimed author Mark Bowden tells this shocking and unforgettable story through the eyes of the hostages, their Iranian captors and the American special operations soldiers and pilots who tried to end the crisis with one swift, violent strike.

Guests of the Ayatollah is the epic account of the first American showdown with Islamic fundamentalism.


  • Format: Paperback
  • Pages: 704 pages
  • Publisher: Atlantic Books
  • Publication Date:
  • Category: International relations
  • ISBN: 9781843544968



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Review by

Mark Bowden, of Black Hawk Down fame, has written a door-stopper about another US tragedy. "Guests Of The Ayatollah: The First Battle In America's War With Militant Islam" is divided into five parts. Part one, the finest, is a breath-taking, up-close and personal account of the embassy take-over (in Black Hawk Down style). Parts two and three follow the captives' experience. Part four gives a (rather short) recap of Operation Eagle Claw, the botched rescue mission. Part five returns to the captives' experiences and their release.Mark Bowden is a journalist, not a historian. So it might be a bit harsh to judge him on a historian's standards. Journalist's are tasked to check for bias too. This book ventures into Judy Miller terrain. It starts with language: Iranians are "swarthy, fat, oily", while Americans are valiant and have "ample girth". It continues with unwarranted cultural biases: He ridicules the mullah's for censoring "racy" parts of James Joyce's Ulysses. Hasn't he heard about Nipplegate or US efforts of covering up Michelangelo's David? The American Taliban are screaming murder too. Besides, Vladimir Nabokov was unable to get an American publisher to print Lolita. This just sets the stage for the biggest bias."We don't do stuff like that (torture)", said the CIA station chief. Unfortunately, that is not even true in the movies. Why does Bowden do this? Does he think that Americans can't handle the truth? Does Bowden not know that CIA's hands are covered in blood (eg the murder of Che Guevara, of which a 1979 CIA station chief would certainly have been aware of)? Did Bowden somehow not notice the US war crimes in Iraq? The Abu Ghraib scandal broke while Bowden was writing this book. It is sad that the shock effect of the Iranian abuse now seems quaint in comparison to US sadistic practices. An honest reporter would at least have added a few remarks.Bowden's mis-characterizations go further. Only in the epilogue, does he mention that US Republicans had actively worked to prolong the captivity of their fellow Americans in order to boost Ronald Reagan's chances. Or, Bowden titles his final chapter "Yeah George W. Bush", an Iranian he quotes from his visit in 2004, after the take-down of Saddam Hussein. An honest reporter would have included the distinctively different impression of George W. Bush afterwards. But then again, Bowden is fighting against "islamo-fascism", a nonsensical term en vogue in the darker corners of the USA.As far as the hostage crisis is concerned, it again revealed an amazing incompetence both of the US diplomats and the CIA. Even the Iranian kidnappers could not believe that the CIA sent spies to Iran who did not speak Farsi. US diplomacy relied upon the sickly shah's regime. When it toppled, the US lost all its contacts and information. Despite a near take-over of the embassy earlier, the US kept too large a staff in Teheran. Given the unwillingness to shoot intruders, the military component of the embassy was over-sized. Against the better knowledge of the state department's Iran desk, the US let the shah into the US (the hand of Kissinger) - without alerting the embassy.Militarily, the embassy structure was badly protected against a rush attack. Proper concrete barriers needing heavy construction equipment to break them may have prevented the take-over. The rescue mission was beyond reckless. The Americans were lucky to abort with limited casualties. If the mission had continued one stage further, losses would have exploded, as there was no margin of error: Black Hawk Down without the rescue forces.Politically, the hostage crisis probably cost Carter the presidency. By aligning himself with the shah, The US negotiations failed because they did not want to speak to the new power, dealing with the de-facto deposed government instead. A deal on the final terms could have been achieved much earlier. Carter broke his ideals by endorsing the shah, while not negotiating with the mullahs set him up for failure in the arena of hard-nosed political realism, assisted by the first shady dealing of the Reagan team.Overall, an interesting read, a bit overlong in the middle, marred by major distortions and incomplete accounts. Self-reflection is not Bowden's forte.

Review by

I had no idea what to expect - this book really deserves a better, more sober cover. It isn't a book with all-out action sequences, although I have never read anything quite as compulsive as the disastrous rescue attempt.Even though the taking of the American Embassy in Tehran happened as far back as 1979, the event still has ramifications for today, and this book goes a long way towards explaining the current situation. Required reading for anyone interested in Middle Eastern politics.

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