Days of Rage
But Carter's failure to anticipate and adequately deal with events in Iran was not entirely owing to his lack of political acumen. America's intelligence community had been severely handicapped by promises made by Carter's predecessors never to contact the Shah's political opponents. What's more, Carter's attempts to formulate a comprehensive policy on Iran were repeatedly frustrated by the internal power struggles taking place between his two most trusted advisers--Secretary of State Cyrus Vance, who favored negotiations with Khomeini and the revolutionaries, and National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski, who secretly encouraged the Shah through backdoor channels to use whatever force was necessary to crush the rebellion in Iran.
The backbiting and division that plagued the White House came to a head after the Shah fled Iran in January 1979. Vance, who specifically warned that the embassy in Tehran would be targeted if the exiled Shah were allowed to enter the United States, pressed Carter to turn the deposed monarch away. Brzezinski, however, was adamant that America's loyalties to a front-line ally in the cold war be preserved, and may even have supported Carter's political nemeses, Henry Kissinger and David Rockefeller, in their relentless campaign to grant the Shah asylum.
In the end, Carter chose to welcome the Shah into the United States, ostensibly to seek treatment for his cancer, a decision that Farber, like so many American historians, erroneously cites as the impetus for the embassy takeover. Indeed, Farber depicts the hostage crisis as merely "the second act" in a drama that began the moment the Shah set foot in the United States. Such statements are indicative of the great weakness of Taken Hostage. Farber has a firm grasp of American political and social history, but his knowledge of Iran is too limited to provide a complete account of the motives and rationale that sparked the hostage crisis and kept it going far longer than anyone on either side wanted.
The truth is the embassy takeover was not so much a response to American actions as it was the result of an internal battle between Khomeini's religious supporters and the secular leaders of the provisional government to control postrevolutionary Iran. Harris, who exhibits an exceptional awareness of Iranian culture and history, recognizes this and goes to great lengths to depict the Muslim Students as one of a large number of competing factions struggling to define the nature and scope of the new Islamic Republic. The students who captured the embassy were certainly anti-American, and they no doubt considered the US Embassy a "den of spies"--rightly so, as it turned out. However, their objective in attacking the embassy was not so much to punish the United States as to seize the political initiative for Khomeini and his clerical allies at a time when the country's religious and secular factions were at an impasse over the drafting of the new constitution.
As Harris demonstrates, their plan worked all too well. The provisional government boisterously protested the students' actions and fought fiercely for the unconditional and immediate release of the hostages. Khomeini, however, labeled the hostages spies, called the students' actions "a second revolution" and galvanized domestic support for a hugely popular cause: the release of the hostages in return for the extradition of the Shah (this despite the fact that the embassy takeover had been planned long before the Shah ever entered the United States, and without Khomeini's knowledge). With the country's disparate anti-imperialist factions seemingly united by this single, overpowering issue, the leaders of the provisional government had no choice but to resign, handing the government, the Constitution and the country to the clerics.
It is this ability to so deftly explore the nuances of an incredibly complex episode in American and Iranian history from both points of view that makes The Crisis a superb work of scholarship and a profoundly enjoyable read. Harris writes with the skill of a historian and the flair of a novelist. His narrative of the embassy takeover, the plight of the individual hostages (and the failed rescue mission to free them), the blunders, backdoor maneuverings and diplomatic miscues that, despite desperate attempts on both sides, kept the crisis going for more than a year matches the best spy novels.