Saturday, May 27, 2006


By Mark Bowden

Atlantic Monthly Press, $26,

680 pages, illlus.


As the Bush administration prepares for a possible showdown with the regime in Iran over nuclear weaponry, strategists should pay sharp attention to the mind-set of persons in charge there. Mark Bowden ends “Guests of the Ayatollah,” his striking book on the 1979 seizure of the American embassy in Tehran, by interviewing members of the Iranian “intelligentsia” — I use quotation marks deliberately — as to the long-term impact of the crisis.

What he discovered is disturbing. Most notable was the wide belief that the CIA engineered the seizure of “The Den of Spies” — mob-talk for the embassy — as a direct continuation of plotting that began in 1953 with the installation of the Shah in place of a deposed elected government. The reasoning goes that CIA was bent on propping up an interim government it had installed after the Shah fled, in hopes of staving off the radical Ayatollah Khomeini.

One can see Mr. Bowden, a seasoned writer, shaking his head as he asks, “Aren’t some of these things mutually contradictory? … For instance, why would the CIA wish to foment trouble for a provisional government it was secretly supporting?”

The “young scholar” Mr. Bowden was questioning “smiled sweetly” and replied, “You must view the world through the lens of Islam to see the logic of these things.”

Well, perhaps so, but the exchange shows why one of the darker periods of recent American foreign policy continues to haunt us today. The embassy seizure, as Mr. Bowden writes, “crushed any hope for a return to western-style democracy … The standoff and the allegations of American plotting purveyed by the students undermined every political faction in the country except the Islamists … [and carried] them firmly into power. It was also a wildly popular assertion of national pride, a symbolic casting-off of colonial subservience and a reassertion of that nation’s greatness and distinction.”

Further, two of the five “students” (Mr. Bowden correctly uses the quotation marks) who led the 1979 seizure are now prominent political figures. One of these names should resonate in the Bush White House as it gropes for a means of dealing with the Iranian nuclear “threat,” whether it be reality or boasting. I refer to president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, one of the loudest voices advocating a nuclear capability for Iran. Another is Habibullah Bitaraf, now the energy minister. When these men took office, several former hostages identified them from press photos as their captors. Mr. Bowden confirms that they indeed were just that.

A longtime reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer and now with Atlantic Monthly, Mr. Bowden is perhaps best known for his book “Black Hawk Down,” on the tragic failure of a Special Forces raid in Somalia. His new book reflects years of on-the-ground reporting, and he seems to have talked to every surviving person of substance involved in the crisis. He also graciously acknowledges his use of oral histories gathered by Washington editor/writer Tim Wells for his 1985 book, “444 Days.”

Alarmingly, “Guests of the Ayatollah” reveals the power of mob-think on governmental decisions in Iran. Ayatollah Khomeini initially frowned on the embassy seizure and intended to order the “students” off the premises after a day or so of venting. Then he realized how the takeover had gripped public opinion, and he did a complete about-face and threw his support behind the mob.

Mr. Bowden sees a parallel in the current nuclear situation. Although Mr. Ahmadinejad carries the title of president, real authority is exercised by “supreme leader” Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has been relatively silent on the nuclear issue. Can Mr. Khamenei insert some sense into the situation?

One irony of the earlier crisis is that the pretext for seizing the embassy — the “Nest of Spies” charge — was no longer valid. To be sure, for decades the CIA station in Tehran was one of the largest and most active in the world, overseeing operations against the southern tier of the USSR and other vital areas. But when the Shah fled, the station deflated overnight to a corporal’s guard of officers. Mr. Bowden lists only six agency people among the captives, three of them communications officers. (I’ve heard suggestions that the “students” never breached the cover of other CIA people among the captives.)

In any event, the 1979 operations were low-key. One of the case officers, Bill Daugherty, did not even speak Farsi; he had been in-country only 53 days, “barely long enough to figure out what his job was …”

The station chief, Bill Ahern, refused to answer questions. “They [the “students”] produced the rubber hose, told him to place his hands palms up on the table, and smacked them hard. It hurt, a blinding flash of pain,every time they struck, but Ahern refused to alter his story.” The captors gave up on him.

Jerry Miele, an agency communications officer, was told repeatedly he would be the “first to be executed” when the killings began. “The method most frequently mentioned was electrocution, and on one occasion the guards had rigged a chair with wires to drive home the point.” Mr. Miele would mutter, “They were going to plug me in.”

Not all captives were as stoic as Mr. Ahern.

The most disgraceful performance came from a young army sergeant named Joe Subic, who “helpfully” identified the captives, “giving their names, job titles and descriptions.”

Many officers “had been trying to keep their status and responsibilities obscure,” for obvious reasons. Yet Mr. Subic stood before one captive and explained to the “students”: “This is Colonel Chuck Scott, the military liaison officer. He’s been in Iran many times before. He was an attache here in the sixties, and he speaks fluent Farsi.” Such a spiel literally shouts out, “This man is an intelligence officer.” Mr. Bowden writes, “Scott would like to have punched the young sergeant in the face.”

There is a sequel to the Subic story that Mr. Bowden missed. At a reunion some years after the hostage release, one of the freed State Department officers sat at a table with Gen. Edward C. “Slick” Meyer, Army chief of staff during the crisis, and writer Wells. Talk got around to Mr. Subic, and Gen. Meyer related that he had wanted to put him before a court martial for his conduct. But “orders from the top,” which Gen. Meyer interpreted as meaning President Reagan, were to let the matter drop.

Despite Mr. Bowden’s descriptive skills, and his ability to bring coherence to a sweeping story, his book is definitely NOT a pleasant read, because it concerns what one could argue was the nadir of post-Cold War foreign policy for the United States. One feels renewed flickers of anger at President Carter and his inept crew for permitting the crisis to drag on for 444 days. We are forced to relive the ignominy of the failed rescue attempt, with no one at the Pentagon willing to impose discipline on military branches, each vying for a “piece of the action.”

But in the end the Iranians, both the “students” and the national leadership, had the sense to realize that Ronald Reagan was no Jimmy Carter, and that their game must come to an end lest they face direct consequences. The hostages went free the very day Reagan took office.

Does the current regime recognize that there is a limit to how far the United States can be pushed? That question is likely to be answered before the summer ends. And after reading this book, I am not optimistic.

Joseph C. Goulden is writing a book on Cold War intelligence. His e-mail is

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