On November 4, 1979, revolutionary Iranian students stormed the U.S. embassy in Tehran in retaliation for granting the Shah, whom the students had ousted from power, entry to the U.S. for cancer treatment. Fifty-two Americans were held captive for 444 days.
Much has been written about this monumental episode, but until now, with the release of Mark Bowden's Guests of the Ayatollah: The First Battle in America's War with Militant Islam, accounts were fragmented.
Bowden, using the dramatic flare that brought his book Black Hawk Down to the silver screen, painstakingly details various aspects of the situation, from the Carter administrations handling of it and the failed Delta Force rescue mission to interviews with both captives and captors.
Beyond a great read, Guests of the Ayatollah provides insight into the West's problems with Iran today.
"We are naturally at odds," Bowden says.
While the author says the revolutionary spirit of 1979 Iran is largely gone current President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was one of the students the deep ideological differences that create conflict with the West are still present. So, what's the solution?
"As long as this regime is in power in Iran, we aren't going to improve anything that much by better understanding each other, if understanding means accepting their outlook on things, which I don't think we can fairly do," he says. "The best we can hope for is a pragmatic, mutual respect."
Bowden compares this agreeing-to-disagree approach to Cold War relations between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R., and feels that despite Iran's pursuit of nuclear weapons, this aim could be on target.
Bowden doesn't doubt that Iran is pursuing nuclear weapons, calling those who believe the Iranian line that the country is enriching uranium purely for civilian energy sources "gullible."
"The idea of building nuclear weapons is a very popular one in Iran," he says. "Even people who are opposed to the regime are in favor of Iran having nuclear weapons, because they feel they're surrounded by enemies who have nuclear weapons and they will be a safer country if they have them. It's a defensible point of view, I suppose."
The Carter administration exhibited remarkable restraint in dealing with the 1979 crisis, not reacting militarily until exhausting all other options. Despite the current administration's failure to show restraint in the past, Bowden feels they've learned their lesson in Iraq and are best advised to seek diplomatic solutions with Iran, understanding that the West and Iran have "fundamentally different outlooks."
Bowden spent 30 days in Iran researching Guests of the Ayatollah, interviewing reluctant Iranians who participated in the 1979 hostage taking. But the book, with movie rights already sold, is admittedly slanted.
"There's no doubt the book reflects far greater access to the Americans than it does to the Iranians. And, of course, it also reflects my outlook on the world, that of an American. I am who I am."
Mark Bowden signs Guests of the Ayatollah
Borders Books, 1710 Briargate Blvd.
Saturday, June 24, 7 p.m.
Call 266-1600 for more.