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.
Farber doesn’t necessarily disagree with Kissinger’s assessment. He portrays Carter as catastrophically unaware of the escalating situation in Iran until events had spun completely out of control. Reading Farber’s account of Carter’s earnest yet clumsy handling of the hostage crisis, one can’t help but share Gary Sick’s assessment that the White House seemed to be approaching Iran from a position of “unrelieved ignorance.” Certainly Carter’s unconsidered praise of the deeply unpopular Shah and his appraisal of Iran as “an island of stability in one of the more troubled areas in the world,” indicates a shocking lack of insight into a country that almost everyone, including the President’s own ambassador to Iran, recognized was on the verge of chaos and revolution.
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.
Both Harris and Farber conclude their books by detailing how the hostage crisis became the dominant point of contention in the 1980 presidential elections between Carter and his Republican opponent, Ronald Reagan. But Harris especially delves into the ways Reagan’s campaign manager, the wily future head of the CIA, William Casey, fended off the possibility of Carter pulling an “October surprise” by negotiating the release of the hostages before the election.
At the time, the political and cultural divide in Iran between the increasingly powerless secular democrats and the ruling clerical elite was threatening to plunge the country into civil war. The presence of the hostages only made matters worse by sanctioning and isolating Iran to the point of effectively shutting down its economy. After the Shah succumbed to cancer in the summer of 1980, three months before the US elections, there seemed no reason to keep the Americans any longer. Still, desperate as the regime was to be rid of their “guests,” the Iranians did not wish to appear to bow to American pressure. They wanted to be certain to get something in return for the release of the captives. And, as Harris contends, the Republicans were offering more than the Democrats.
The Crisis exposes the secret agreement Republicans made with Iran’s clerical establishment–who were keen to see Carter suffer for what they viewed as his unwavering support of the Shah–not to release the hostages until after the election. Despite decades of denials, the attempts by Republicans to thwart Carter’s “October surprise” has been confirmed by numerous high-ranking Iranian officials as well as by a number of the American hostages, one of whom recalls watching his captors stare at their watches, literally waiting for the exact moment of Reagan’s swearing-in ceremony before shuffling him and his fellow captives onto the waiting planes.
As both Harris and Farber recognize, there are startling parallels between America’s first encounter with Islamic militancy and the current flailing “war on terrorism.” Yet neither fully appreciates the profound changes that have taken place in Iran since that fateful November morning.
The old American Embassy, long ago transformed into what Iranian authorities drolly refer to as “a museum of anti-imperialism,” is now closed to the public. Only a select few are allowed inside the compound. Near the gates, where two teenage soldiers stand guard, smoking cigarettes and idly sipping tea, a sign reads, We Will Make America Face a Severe Defeat. Yet the massive, open courtyard where thousands once gathered regularly to celebrate the memory of that defeat is now a forgotten and deserted relic of a revolution long ago abandoned, particularly by those who most diligently fought for it.
Ibrahim Asgarzadeh, the founder of the Muslim Students Following the Line of the Imam and the instigator of the embassy takeover, currently heads the reformist Solidarity Party, whose platform calls for immediate rapprochement with the United States. Masoumeh Ebtekar, the woman who, as the principal liaison between the Muslim Students and the American press, was known simply as “Sister Mary,” is vice president of environmental affairs, the highest ranking woman in the Iranian government, and an eloquent voice for throwing off the shackles of clerical rule in favor of democratic reform. Abbas Abdi, another prominent student leader during the hostage crisis, is serving multiple prison sentences for his fearless anticlerical work as editor of the reformist newspaper Salam.
For Americans, whose involvement in the Middle East is being questioned in a way it never has been before, the anniversary of the hostage crisis is an opportunity to reflect on the old and ongoing debate in the United States, between those who wish to re-engage with Iran and those who wish to further isolate and contain it. For most Iranians, however, and particularly for most of those who planned, took part in or supported the attack on the US Embassy, there is no debate. November 4 is an albatross slung around their necks, a bitter reminder of a revolution gone awry and a seemingly permanent obstacle that stands in the way of pursuing a rapprochement with the United States that nearly every Iranian–conservative or reformist–desperately desires.