On November 4, 1979, a few months after the collapse of the Iranian monarchy and the inauguration of Iran’s Islamic Republic, a group of college students calling themselves the Muslim Students Following the Line of the Imam rushed the gates of the US Embassy in Tehran, scaled its walls and promptly took control of the compound and its diplomatic staff. The students’ objective was simple. They would peacefully occupy the embassy’s courtyard for forty-eight to seventy-two hours and use the ensuing spotlight both to present their objections to American meddling in Iranian affairs and to publicly discourage Iran’s shaky provisional government from aligning itself with the Carter Administration. The students were unarmed–this was a peaceful act of civil disobedience, not a violent takeover. Once their grievances had been properly aired, they would release their captives and hand the embassy back over to the Americans.
This was not the first time the embassy had been attacked during that tumultuous year. Nine months earlier, on Valentine’s Day, a smaller group had briefly captured the compound before being immediately dispatched by an irritated Ayatollah Khomeini, who personally apologized to William Sullivan, the American ambassador, for the incident. So when the embassy staff saw the Muslim Students running around the courtyard “like little kids in an amusement park,” in the words of one Marine, they assumed this would be a repeat of the Valentine’s Day seizure. Surely rescue would soon be on its way, especially once the Ayatollah, who had pledged to protect the embassy, received word of what had happened. No one–not the embassy staff nor their student captors–could have predicted that this would be the beginning of a hostage crisis that would seize the imaginations of both countries for 444 fretful, grueling days.
It has been more than two decades since the Iran hostage crisis drove a permanent wedge between the United States and its former ally, Iran. With the arrival of the twenty-fifth anniversary, two books–David Harris’s The Crisis and David Farber’s Taken Hostage–revisit the event now widely recognized as America’s first encounter with militant Islam.
Harris, a former staff writer at The New York Times Magazine and Rolling Stone, has crafted a beautifully written, impeccably researched and remarkably astute account that draws on candid interviews with key American and Iranian figures to examine events from both sides of the conflict. The result is one of the most comprehensive, most compelling narratives of the hostage crisis ever written.
David Farber’s Taken Hostage is narrower in scope, focusing almost exclusively on America’s response to the crisis. Farber, a professor of twentieth-century American history at Temple University, provides a fascinating glimpse into how events in Iran capped for Americans a decade of unfulfilled expectations and widespread disillusionment in the wake of the Watergate scandal, the fall of Saigon and a spiraling energy crisis. Perhaps at no other time in US history could a man like Jimmy Carter have become President. Carter brought to the White House a sense of integrity and intelligence that had been sorely missing in the Nixon and Ford administrations. His emphasis on human rights and his public commitment to curb US involvement in the affairs of foreign countries were a means of injecting what he considered to be American moral principles into the country’s foreign policy.
Yet in the eyes of his political enemies, it was precisely this “moral approach” to foreign policy that crippled the CIA, rendering it incapable of either predicting the Iranian revolution or coping with the hostage crisis that followed. Henry Kissinger in particular felt that Carter’s foreign policy was “weak-kneed” and that Carter himself was “ill prepared and poorly suited” for the presidency.