The Iran Hostage Crisis: Déjà Vu in the Middle East

If they weren’t real, many of Mark Bowden’s characters would seem like the creations of a lazy Hollywood scriptwriter crafting roles for Bruce Willis and Colin Farrell. He favors men who are gruff and hard-living, honorable but contemptuous of authority. In his fascinating, occasionally frustrating new book, Guests of the Ayatollah, Mr. Bowden describes Col. Charlie Beckwith, the founder of the Army special-operations unit known as Delta Force: “He was a difficult man, proud, tough, and at times arrogant and capricious, traits aggravated when he drank, which was often.” There are weaker, softer people in Mr. Bowden’s story, but he tends to gloss over their stories as if eager to get away from them. His prose pulses with testosterone.

It’s tempered, though, with a sense of the tragic and absurd, because Mr. Bowden’s heroes often fail. Like his famous Black Hawk Down, the story of America’s military fiasco in Mogadishu, Guests of the Ayatollah is the tale of a debacle. Written like a novel and shot through with page-turning suspense, the book tells the story of the 1979 hostage-taking at the American embassy in Tehran and Delta Force’s calamitous attempted rescue mission—a mission that, thanks to bad weather and mechanical failure, ended in dead soldiers and national ignominy despite barely getting off the ground.

Though Mr. Bowden tries to draw parallels between the Iran hostage crisis and today’s conflagrations, the students who stormed the American embassy in Tehran are surprisingly unlike the terrorists we currently face. The sense of déjà vu comes from descriptions of America sunk in impotence and malaise: “While still ostensibly the leader of the ‘free world,’ the nation suddenly seemed powerless, corrupt, inept and despised,” writes Mr. Bowden. “Many of the bad things people said about us had turned out to be true.”

At well over 600 pages, Guests of the Ayatollah is a big brick of a book, and the amount of research and reporting that must have gone into it are awe-inspiring. It’s crowded with dozens of characters, and the narrative is pieced together from so many different perspectives that it’s hard to keep everyone straight. To recreate the 52 hostages’ 444 days of captivity, Mr. Bowden interviewed them, their relatives, some of their kidnappers and their would-be liberators. He immerses the reader in the late-70’s milieu that allowed the hostage takers to fancy themselves champions of all the world’s oppressed masses, and that led some bien pensant American leftists to agree with them. He works hard to make visceral the hostages’ clammy, maddening boredom, their sudden moments of terror and their tiny, defiant triumphs.

A vast load of detail sometimes weighs the book down: Mr. Bowden spends page upon page describing the routines the hostages developed to fill their empty days. Even so, the story moves remarkably quickly, especially given the relative lack of action, and the fact that most readers know how it all ends.

Guests of the Ayatollah begins in November of 1979, with Iran, as Mr. Bowden writes, “in tumult, in mid-revolution.” In January of that year, a mass public uprising, comprised of both Islamists and secular nationalists, had driven the hated shah from power, and in February, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the spiritual leader of the revolution, returned to Iran from his exile in France. Months later, it was not yet clear what kind of country Iran was going to become. The provisional government was led by modern men who were locked in a power struggle with the Islamists. As Mr. Bowden shows, the embassy takeover was a key part of the theocrats’ eventual victory.

But despite its momentous importance, the hostage situation seems to have developed almost by accident. Writing of the students who first planned the siege, Mr. Bowden explains, “They would storm the hated U.S. embassy, a symbol of Western imperial domination of Iran, occupy it for three days, and from it issue a series of communiqués that would explain Iran’s grievances against America, beginning with the overthrow of Mohammed Mossadeq in 1953 and decades of support for the shah, now a wanted man in Iran accused of looting the nation’s treasury and torturing and killing thousands.”

It’s not quite clear how this relatively innocuous stunt turned into a crisis that kept American diplomats and other embassy employees imprisoned for over a year. The action, undertaken without Khomeini’s approval, was enormously popular—ecstatic crowds danced and celebrated in the street, turning the area around the embassy into a fairground. Seeing the public’s reaction, Khomeini threw his support behind the students. “In a sense, the enthusiastic endorsement of their action had called the students’ bluff,” writes Mr. Bowden. “The overwhelming acceptance of their act trapped them in it; rooted them in the spotlight.” Soon, militants who weren’t among the initial planners began taking over. Documents found at the embassy that referred to Iranian officials became pretexts for purging the hardliners’ enemies. The hostage takers demanded that America return the shah, then being treated for cancer in the United States, to stand trial in Iran. America, refusing, found itself locked in a standoff that would end Jimmy Carter’s Presidency and continue to shape our politics to this day.

Mr. Bowden intends the book to resonate with current events, painting the hostage crisis as the first battle in the war between Islamic extremism and the West. On the opening page is a photograph of one of the hostages being paraded by the embassy gate; his arm is held by a man some have identified as Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the fanatical current president of Iran. Mr. Bowden repeatedly points to the blindness of those in the West who didn’t understand the emerging Iranian threat because they were used to thinking about nations acting on the basis of self-interest, not eschatological fantasies. The implication, as Iran lurches forward with its nuclear program, is that the country’s leaders are not bound by realism or rationality, and thus not susceptible to containment or deterrence.

Yet Mr. Bowden points out that the Iranian radicals who seized the embassy were nowhere near as depraved as later generations of terrorists. “Given the tragic and brutal progress of the Islamo-fascists in the years since, the videotaped beheadings and horrific mass slaughters, the embassy takeover seems almost polite,” he writes. The hostages’ ordeal was awful, especially since they never knew how it would end, but while the kidnappers were cruel, they weren’t ruthless: They let them have books, fed them decently and allowed occasional visits by clergymen and the Red Cross—and they wanted desperately to be recognized as justified and decent. Their speeches abounded with naïve anticolonialist cant, which they apparently wholeheartedly believed. They released all but one of the African-American hostages, assuming them to be merely oppressed pawns, and were shocked when American blacks didn’t rise up to support their bold strike against the Great Satan.

In the book’s epilogue, Mr. Bowden travels to Iran and finds that two of the kidnappers, now married and occupying powerful positions in the government, are investors in an ambitious resort project on the Caspian Sea. “Perhaps,” one of them suggests, “in a few years, we might invite back the Americans we held hostage, and they can all stay at the resort as our guests!” Preposterous as the idea is, it’s difficult to imagine any of today’s jihadists ever conceiving of such a rapprochement. It’s a sign of how grim the world has become that today the terrorists who transfixed America 26 years ago seem almost quaint.

Michelle Goldberg is the author of Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism (Norton).