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Guests of the Ayatollah

Guests of the Ayatollah

Earlier this year the State Department in Washington singled out the Islamic Republic of Iran as the number-one challenge that the United States faces in the international arena. Since then several events have proved that analysis right. Tehran has thumbed its nose at Washington over the nuclear issue while intensifying efforts to secure greater influence in Iraq and Afghanistan. It has also reactivated its support networks among Shi’ite minorities in several Arab countries allied to the US. The mini-war fought between Israel and Hezballah also helped underline the Islamic Republic’s determination to remain on the offensive against the US and its regional allies.

In his new book, star-reporter Mark Bowden argues hat the Islamic Republic has effectively been at war against the US since 4 November 1979 when a group of “students” raided the American embassy compound in Tehran, held its 66 diplomats hostage, and continued their defiance for 444 days. Under international law, an embassy compound is part of a foreign nation’s territory. Thus invading it is a casus belli (act of war). What is remarkable, as Bowden shows in this fascinating book, is that President Jimmy Carter decided not to treat the occupation of his embassy as an act of war, thus encouraging the late Ayatollah Khomeini to come out with his notorious dictum: American Cannot Do a Damn Thing!

Bowden sees the invasion of the US embassy as America’s first battle “in the war against militant Islamism”, and the diplomats who were captured as the fist victims of the same terrorist war that reached its zenith with the 9/11 attacks against New York and Washington.

The interest of Bowden’s book, however, is not in such controversial assertions.

The book deserves attention as a human-interest story, telling the story of men and women whose lives were altered, and in some cases practically destroyed, by the experience. To write this book, Bowden has talked to more than a dozen of the former hostages and quite a few of their Khomeinist jailers. Bowden has also spent time in Tehran trying to gauge the atmosphere of the city in the feverish season that led to then attack on the embassy. The result is a hugely readable yarn, almost deliberately written as the basis for a putative film-script. This is not surprising as Bowden’s previous book “Black Hawk Down”, about the murder of US Marines in Mogadishu, was made into a film.

Bowden’s reporting talents enable him to bring the hostages and some of their captives to life in pen portrayals that are both sympathetic and critical.

When it comes to historical context and political analysis, however, Bowden falls short of the aims he sets for himself and, in the process, makes numerous errors.

For example he claims that on the eve of the embassy raid the US had little real intelligence about Iran.

“For years, little intelligence was collected from Iran that did not originate with the shah’s own regime,” Bowden writes. “Now, with Iran suddenly under new masters and the situation in constant, confusing flux, the agency was . . . pathetically far from being able to influence events, despite the overblown fears of most Iranians, who saw the CIA as omnipotent and omnipresent.”

But what about the tonnes of material that the raiders seized at the embassy? To be sure much of the material seized was mere routine and not of much interest, if only because the really “top secret” stuff had been destroyed by the embassy staff weeks before the raid. Nevertheless, the remaining material, if studied carefully, shows that the US had a pretty good idea of what was happening in Iran under the Shah. The CIA and other American intelligence services had more than 5000 ” sources” or “informants” throughout Iran and at all levels of society. The problem was that the intelligence gathered was seldom properly analysed and almost never used by high-level policymakers in a serious way.

The failure of the US to foresee the Iranian revolution and thus prepare top cope with it was political, not intelligence based.

Bowden also claims that the US contingent in Iran had “virtually no one familiar with the local language and culture.” As a result, he claims the legation resembled an isolated fortress with little contact with the world surrounding it. But then Bowden introduces us to people like John Limbert, Barry Rosen and Michael Metrinko who were as conversant with Iranian culture and spoke Persian as fluently as any man in downtown Tehran. The list of contacts that Metrinko, to cite just one example, had established was quite impressive. It included Ayatollah Hossein-Ali Montazeri, then Khomeini’s number-two, Ayatollah Mahmoud Taleqani, a left-wing mullah, Admiral Ahmad Madani, Khomeini’s first Minister of Defence, and Ayatollah Muhammad Beheshti, who became Chief Justice under Khomeini.

Several of the American diplomats had spent years in Iran as members of the Peace Corps, often serving in remote parts of the country and getting to know Iranian society first hand. At least four had Iranian spouses.

Bowden repeats the standard charge that the Carter administration had no clue of what was happening in Iran. But he himself sows that this was not the case. The administration included men like National Security Advisor Zbigniew Bzrezinski and Captain Gary Sick the man in charge of the Iran desk, who knew perfectly well what was going on.

The problem was with President Carter himself and his Secretary of State Cyrus Vance. Carter misunderstood the aims of the Khomeinist revolution for which he had undoubted sympathy. He also believed that nations were motivated by self-interest and would do nothing to undermine their own security for purely ideological reasons. He did not realise the duality of Iran, as state and as revolution, which continues to this day. Iran as a nation was itself a hostage to the revolution.

Carter’s misreading of the Iranian situation was not entirely due to his supposed naiveté. He believed the claim of the revolutionaries that they had rise in revolt against the Shah’s tyranny and in the name of freedom and human rights. Carter was also misled by other facts. The first Cabinet formed by Khomeini, with Mehdi Bazargan as Prime Minister, included five ministers with dual Iranian and American citizenship. The revolutionary regime had also helped the US withdraw 27000 Americans, most of them military personnel, from Iran without any incident. An attempt by an Islamist Marxist group, the Mujahedin Khalq (People’s Combatants), to seize some of those Americans hostage in the early days of the revolution had been foiled by gunmen loyal to Khomeini. Carter had also established contact with Khomeini before the latter’s return to Iran in February 1979, and received assurances about future relations. Those assurances were later repeated by Bazargan during is meetings with Bzerzinski in Algiers just two days before the raid on the embassy. Thus, Carter tended to see the Khomeinist revolution as a success for his own “human rights” agenda that had been at the centre of his presidential campaign in 1976.

The way Carter saw it, an Islamic Iran could emerge as the central part of a “Green Belt” of Islamic states, initially dreamed of by Bzerzinski, with which to contain the Soviet Union.

Four months after the seizure of he embassy, Carter still kept saying: “We have no quarrel with the Islamic Revolution.” He did not realise that although the US had no quarrel with Iran as a nation, it precisely had a quarrel with Iran as the embodiment of the Khomeinist revolution.

Bruce Laingen, the US Charge d’Affaire at the time of the embassy raid, writes in his memoirs that almost every day he asked himself: Why, to what end? He did not see why revolutionary Iran pick up a quarrel with a US which, under Carter, sympathized with the revolution an wanted to help consolidate its hold on Iran.

Laingen wrote in his diary: “Why? To what end? What purpose is served? We have tried by every available means over the past months to demonstrate, by word and deed, that we accept the Iranian revolution . . . . we wish it well and hope it can strengthen Iran’s integrity and independence.”

That “Why, to what end?” moment, known as “The Laingen Paradox” continues to haunt American policymakers to this day.

Bowden is right in pointing out that the hostage-takers had acted without the prior knowledge of Ayatollah Khomeini. But then he tries to associate some of Khomeini’s closest aides at the time with the embassy plot. Among them, he mentions Ali Khamenehi, a junior mullah who was to become “Supreme Guide” after Khomeini’s death in 1989, and Ali-Akbar Hashemi, a businessman-cum-mullah who later became President of the Islamic republic. The fact, however, is that Khamenehi and Rafsanjani knew nothing of the embassy plot and were in Mecca, on a Hajj pilgrimage, when the embassy was seized.

Bowden is also wrong to place Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the current President of the Islamic Republic, among the leaders of the hostage-holders. “Without any doubt,” Bowden writes, “Ahmadinejad was one of the central players in the group that seized the embassy and held hostages.” All sources, however, concord that Ahmadinejad, although contacted on the subject, refused to take part and was in no way involved at any stage of the operation.

Curiously, Bowden does not mention Habiballah Peyman, a dentist, who was the ultimate political guru of the hostage-holders. Nor does he probe into the links that existed between Peyman and the Soviet KGB office in Tehran.

Bowden says that a certain Mashallah Kashani, described as a gangster heading a protection racket, had helped prevent the seizure of the US embassy on previous occasions in exchange for monthly payments by the Americans. But we are not told why that protection was no longer there when the hostage-takers struck. Was it because Kashani, the protection racket chief, had close ties to the Fedayeen People, a Marxist-Leninist urban guerrilla outfit?

Another fact that Bowden does not even touch is the cost of the operation that must have ran into millions of dollars. Over 600 “students” were involved in the 444-day event. Who paid their wages, the cost of feeding them and the hostages, and the inevitable upkeep cost of the vast embassy compound?

The portrait gallery of the hostage-takers, as presented by Bowden, includes a variety of types. There were idealists such as Ibrahim Asgharzadeh, Mohsen Mirdamadi, and Muhammad Naiimipour, who had been brainwashed into believing that the US embassy was a centre for plotting a counter-revolution. There were also opportunists like Muhammad Hashemi, who was to become a business tycoon later on, and Habiballah Bitaraf, who became Minister of Energy, who wanted to secure revolutionary credentials for themselves. Others, like Muhammad Reza Khatami, who was to transform himself into a reformist years later, and Abbas Abdi believed that the Khomeinist movement needed to establish a militant anti-American credentials to ward off competition from the Marxist-Leninist left which was then in the ascendancy.

The group also included individuals presented by Bowden as sadists seeking a political cover for venting their own frustrations. Among them was Hussein Sheikh al-Islam, known as “Gap Tooth” and “Rat Face”, who took an evident pleasure in the sufferings of his captives.

But the top prize for nastiness goes to one Ma’asoumeh Ebtekar who served the criminal groups spokesperson under the code-name of “Sister Mary” who took evident pleasure in insulting, bullying and demeaning the captives while filming the whole proceedings. Ebtekar had changed her name from “Nilufar”, which is a flower in Persian, to Ma’asoumeh, a popular Shi’ite name to underline her Islamic credentials. She also made a point of specially humiliating the women hostages. For example, she could not understand how Anne Swift, a “mere woman”, could be the senior political officer at the US Embassy, and not “a mere secretary”

Richard Moorefield, one of the hostages, had this to say to Ebtekar: “Nothing we could have done to you in our wildest dreams is half as bad as what you have done to yourselves. Your children and your grandchildren are going to curse your name.”

Metrinko was even bitterer about Ebtekar who later became President Muhammad Khatami’s assistant for environmental affairs. “If she is on fire in the street,” Metrinko said. “I wouldn’t piss on her to put it out.”

Barbara Tim, another hostage, went further by shouting at Ebtekar:” You are full of shit.”

“Sister Mary”, also known as “Screaming Mary”, had a nasty habit of opening letters and parcels sent to the hostages and purloining whatever she thought they should not see. On one occasion, Ebtekar threatened one hostage that they would kidnap his son from school bus in US, chop him into pieces and send the pieces to his mother.

Another hostage had this remark: “You think you are civilized because you had civilization 3000 years ago? Well, there is no trace of it anymore. You are nothing but animals.”

In contrast with sadists like “Screaming Mary”, there were also some good-hearted men and women among the hostage-holders. One such was Akbar Husseini, nicknamed “The Courteous”, who forged a genuine bond of sympathy with his captives. During the 444 days of the ordeal some hostage-holders, like Feroz Rajaeefar, dropped out, finding the whole situation unbearable.

Only the hard-core of sadists and opportunists remained to the end, and later managed to capture senior posts in the Khomeinist regimes. Many of the idealists went to the battlefront against Iraq in the 1980s, where many died.

Bowden’s book includes a number of intriguing assertions that he does not develop. For example, he claims that Carter wanted to poison the Shah Panama, in the hope that the monarch’s death would satisfy the Tehran hostage-holders.

Bowden also claims that Khamenehi, who became Deputy Defence Minister a year after the seizure of the embassy, wanted to negotiate the purchase of US arms with the American military attaché who was among the captives. The claim that two of Ayatollah Taleqani’s sons worked for the Americans is also intriguing as is the assertion attributed to them that Taleqani had been murdered on Khomeini’s orders.

The most intriguing revelation, however, concerns Ayatollah Beheshti, whom Bowden reveals as a key American “contact” and the figure that Washington regarded as the new regime’s strongman.

The book contains numerous errors that more eagle-eyed fact-checkers could have spotted. Reza Shah was not a self-appointed king and did not seize power in a coup d’etat in 1925. The coup had happened in 1921 under the leadership of Sayyed Ziaeddin Tabatabai. Reza Khan was elected Shah by a Constituent Assembly in 1925.

Muhammad Mussadeq was not elected Prime Minister in 1951 but was appointed by the Shah. Iranian oil had already been nationalized when Mussadeq assumed the premiership.

The change of the Iranian calendar from an Islamic one to a nationalist one took place in 1975, not 1925.

In 1945 Tehran was something more than “a mere village”. In fact, it was a major city with almost one million inhabitants.

Khomeini spent only four moths in France, not “many years.”

Simon Farzami, the Jewish journalist who was executed on Khomeini’s orders, was a born and bred Iranian, and not a foreigner who had acquired Iranian citizenship.

The CIA contacted Abbas Amir-Entezam, deputy premier in the fist cabinet formed by Khomeini, when he was ambassador to Sweden in the 1980s, not before the revolution. Amir-Entezam had not been involved in setting up a Swiss based newspaper to fight the Khomeinist regime.

Admiral Madani was not poisoned by Khomeini’s agents in Paris in 1986. In fact, he died of heart attack in the US in 2004.

Sadegh Tabatabai was not a “veteran diplomat” and had never worked for any diplomatic service; His sole claim to power was that he was a brother-in-law of Khomeini’s son Ahmad.

In 1979 Iran’s population was 38 million, not 46 million.

Bowden interviewed more than a dozen of he hostage-holders and, curiously, found almost all of them changed for the better. They all tried to explain the event as a result of youthful ardour, misunderstanding, and what the French call l’air du temps. (The mood of the moment.) The only two that the found to be unrepentant were Ebtekar and Sheikh al-Islam.

In interviews with Bowden, some former hostage-holders made intriguing remarks.

For example, Mirdamadi told Bowden: “None of us in the revolution believed that Iran would ever have an autocratic regime again. Yet, here we are.”

Naiimipour insisted that h was an enthusiastic supporter of US action in Iraq.

“The vast majority of Iraqis are certainly happy that Americans have come and saved them,” the former leader of the hostage-holders said.

Even more intriguing was a remark made by a Revolutionary Guards officer who commanded the unit protecting the embassy compound.

“We love America and thank George Bush for toppling Saddam Hussein,” he said.

Well, who said Iranian politics was simple?

Amir Taheri

Amir Taheri

Amir Taheri was the executive editor-in-chief of the daily Kayhan in Iran from 1972 to 1979. He has worked at or written for innumerable publications, published eleven books, and has been a columnist for Asharq Al-Awsat since 1987. Mr. Taheri has won several prizes for his journalism, and in 2012 was named International Journalist of the Year by the British Society of Editors and the Foreign Press Association in the annual British Media Awards.

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