Saturday, 9 January 2010

Review: Guests of the Ayatollah, Mark Bowden (2006)

The author spent over five years working out why a group of Iranian students took hostage the entire complement of staff in the US embassy in Tehran. He shows that the symbolism native to the Iranians was totally foreign to US authorities and defence agencies, who completely missed the signs that such an assault was likely. The romantic urge of the hostage takers was alien to US strategists.

Bowden also answers the equally compelling question of why the Iranian authorities finally decided to free the hostages. With Russian forces in place in Afghanistan to the east and Iraqi airstrikes echoing through the streets of Tehran, the need for American military supplies was pressing. That, and the fact that the students had gotten tired of their onerous task.

Keeping over 50 people prisoner for over a year is not a trivial undertaking. Bowden shows how various external factors influenced the jailers, causing them at times to increase surveillance as well as the severity of their measures. At other times, such as Christmas, they gave their charges treats and special treatment.

With such a large number of players in this 637-page tome, it is not surprising that you lose track of the majority. Bowden spoke with almost all of the ex-hostages for the book, but only a few are well-delineated enough to evoke recognition in the reader each time the author returns to their story.

This is a shortcoming, but it is not fatal.

More important is the insight the book gives the reader as to the motivations for the attack. The way Iran's religious leaders leapt on the attack as an opportunity to cement their own positions more firmly in the country's evolving politics, reminds us that random acts in a time of flux can have unforseen consequences.

The students' utter conviction that what they were doing was right is cause for disquiet. Those religious leaders, who only recently had been freed from constraints imposed by the deposed shah's regime, were whipping the country into a frenzy of excitement. Taking the American embassy was just the most obvious way to create a significant other that was then exploited by the mullahs to create cohesion in the country, with themselves as the powerful core.

In this way, the students played right into the hands of their more formidable compatriots, some of whom were imprisoned by the shah in the time of his reign.

Bowden goes the extra mile by providing updates from the present based on interviews conducted in Tehran, showing how the student hostage-takers prospered under the mullahs.

All-in-all this is an engrossing and well-concieved book. There are some problems in execution however careful the reader. Nevertheless, it comes highly recommended from me.

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