Guests of the Ayatollah: The Iran Hostage Crisis: The First Battle in America’s War with Militant Islam – Mark Bowden

AyatollaOn November 4, 1979, university students seized the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, Iran and detained more than fifty U.S. Government employees. Though some were later released, the majority remained behind for four hundred forty-four days in what is known as the Iran Hostage Crisis. In 1953, Mohammad Mosaddegh (1882-1967) and the National Front Party gained political power in opposition to Mohammad Reza Shah (1919-1980). A twice elected member of Parliament, Mossadegh emerged as a popular figure but within days of the Shah’s exile in August of that year, Mossadegh was removed in a coup sponsored by the British Government and the United States. Mossadegh’s removal and the Shah’s return, inflamed tensions and in November 1979, Iranians decided that America must go. This is the story of the hostage crisis from start to finish in an account that provides a thorough discussion of America’s foreign policy mistakes and Iran’s inner struggle between traditionalism and modernity.

It is not necessary to have extensive knowledge of Iran’s history or the Shah’s life. However, I strongly recommend Stephen Kinzer’s “All the Shah’s Men: An American Coup and the Roots of Middle East Terror“. The book is an excellent compendium of the coup that removed Mossadegh from power and allowed the despised Shah to return to his former throne. Bowden does provide background information on Iran throughout the book when needed for readers as the story progresses. But first, the author revisits the night of November 4 when all hell broke loose. Like a Hollywood thriller, the movements behind the scenes of embassy employees who realized that something was wrong outside the building take center stage and when the world came through that the embassy had been breached, contingency plans went into effect. The shredding of documents, securing weapons and other protocols highlight the urgency that ensued. We also learn the names of the main figures who are the focus of the story that is developing. Readers may be surprised to learn that the angry Iranians outside are young students and not Islamic radicals. Their goal was to remove American influence from Iran’s affairs. But what they failed to see is that they had become pawns in a chess match. As Bowden states:

“The revolution was shaping up as a struggle between leftist nationalists who wanted a secular, socialist-style democracy and young Islamists like these who wanted something the world had not yet seen, an Islamic Republic.”

The students did not expect to hold the embassy for long but as time progressed, the situation had grown from the seizure of a building to an international crisis between Tehran and Washington. Inside the embassy, employees are shielded from the outside world and current events in America. In Washington, D.C., President James “Jimmy” Carter is struggling with how to resolve the crisis. War was the last thing anyone wanted but Carter knew action must be taken and gave the order to attempt a rescue mission and protect his chances of reelection. He was facing the popular actor turned politician Ronald Reagan (1911-2004) whose appeal to conservatives and war hawks could not be ignored. The planning of the military operation and why it failed are thoroughly explored in the book, and I found myself both inspired and dismayed at what I learned. However, I did not find fault with anyone and realized that officials did what they could with the best intentions they had. Sometimes things do not go as planned. To save face, Washington admitted to the plan and even took steps regarding the Shah’s future to no avail, and the fallout provided the ammunition needed by the man who was determined to reshape Iran into a true Islamic kingdom, Sayyid Ruhollah Musavi Khomeini (Ayatollah Khomeini) (1902-1989). Though he is a minor figure in the book, his influence cannot be underestimated. And this is what the students had not anticipated. Bowden keenly observes that:

“The postrevolutionary struggle was between the victors: the nationalists and the Islamists. They had united to throw out the shah but were now locked in a struggle to shape the new Iran.”

Islamic clerics seized the opportunity provided by the siege to implement their vision or Iran’s future. Their vision was that of a true Islamic Republic incompatible with the customs of the West. To this day, Iran is locked in a struggle between the two. The most bewildering part of the story is that halfway through the crisis, it becomes clear that the students did not have a long-term plan. The movement they initiated had morphed into a new cause over which they had no control. Unsurprisingly, some students had abandoned the movement, but others remained. And even Iranian leaders had little enthusiasm for a situation that was embarrassing the country and inflaming tensions with Washington. Their ineffectiveness at resolving the crisis is a clue into the stronghold by radicals who had infiltrated the government and the siege at the embassy. As to why this happened, I draw focus to this statement by the author that sets the tone for the story:

“Revolution gives ordinary people the false belief that they can remake not just themselves, their country, and the whole wide world but human nature itself. That such grand designs always fail, that human nature is immutable, that everyone’s idea of perfection is different—these truths are all for a time forgotten.” 

Readers will observe that opinions and goals for Iran varies among the students. There are hardliners in the group and pacifists who do not want war with America but to see Iran free of any foreign influence. Their interactions with the hostages are invaluable for providing insight into the thought process behind the actions in Tehran. But the beauty of this book is the hostages themselves. Instead of them simply appearing as U.S. personnel, each hostage is given a platform in the book so that readers learn their life story, why they came to Iran and how they manage being held captive by revolutionaries who do not have a complete revolution. I warn readers that there are moments in the book that will produce anger and rage at the treatment Americans received while detained in Tehran. Though none are murdered, they were not immune to harsh interrogations and torture. There are dozens of employees in the story and keeping track of the names is challenging at first but as I read, their names became embedded in my memory making the story easier to follow. Several are now deceased, but Bowden memorializes them in this account that will live on. But as I read the book, I asked myself why the embassy remained open after the Shah fled for the final time. We may never know, and I have no doubt that the hostages asked themselves the same question.

Eventually the remaining hostages were released on January 20, 1981. Carter had been defeated at the polls and America prepared for a new president who had a different vision for the United States. Iran remained locked in the struggle between nationalist and fundamentalist which continues today. The final exodus from Tehran is the most emotional part of the book. And I could feel through Bowden’s words, the sense of relief and joy they must have felt as their aircraft left Iranian airspace. They were free physically but mentally their ordeal was far from over. In the book’s epilogue Bowden provides a follow-up on the former hostages. Their comments on their ordeal and Iran are invaluable and thought-provoking and regardless of where they are currently, none of them will ever forget their time as a hostage in Tehran. I appreciated their stories and what they learned from their time in Tehran. And to say that foreign service employees make enormous sacrifices would be an understatement.

I cannot overstate how much I appreciated this book. It is a tool to understand the mistakes of the past so that they are not repeated in the future. This is world history and a good look at a crisis that could have initiated another world war. The threat of terror still exists today but we can only hope that men and women working abroad in service of America are advised and protected from those threats. Forty-two years have passed since the siege but the lessons from it can still be applied today. I close out with this quote that perfectly explains the hostages’ experience:

“The Americans taken prisoner on November 4, 1979, did not know if they would ever come home. Every day they lived with the threat of trial and execution, of becoming victims of Iranian political violence or an American rescue attempt. They lived with the arrogance of Islamist certainty, which prompts otherwise decent men to acts of unflinching cruelty. My goal was to reconstruct their experience as they lived it. The men and women held hostage in Iran survived nearly fifteen months of unrelenting fear. They were the first victims of the inaptly named “war on terror.”” 


I, Who Did Not Die: A Sweeping Story of Loss, Redemption and Fate – Zahed Haftlang, Najah Aboud and Meredith May

zahedOn September 22, 1980, the Iraqi military marched into neighboring Iran under the orders of President Saddam Hussein (1937-2006).  Tensions between Hussein and Ruhollah Khomeini (1902-1989) had been brewing over control of the Shatt al-Arab river, Iraqi nationalism and Khomeini’s calls for the Ba’ath party to overthrow the Iraqi government.  The conflict raged for eight years before a cease-fired was signed in August, 1988.  It is estimated that the war resulted in the deaths of nearly 1.5 million Iraqis and Iranians.  On both sides, villages were destroyed, leaving thousands homeless and families permanently separated.  Children as young as thirteen were conscripted to serve, becoming trained killers before the age of twenty-one.  After the cease-fire, prisoners of war remained held in prisons on both sides before they were slowly repatriated.  This book is the story of two of those prisoners who survived the war, living to tell their story about the war that changed their lives.

Zahed Haftlang was born in the town of Masjed Soleyman in Khuzestan Province, Iran. His relationship with his father, whom we come to know as “Baba”, is not good and serves as the main catalyst for his flight from home. At the age of thirteen, he joined Iran’s Basij paramilitary and for six years he fought in the war before being captured by the Iraqi army. in 1982.  By Iraqi protocols, he should have been executed, but his captor showed mercy and transported him back to base for medical treatment.  Along the way, he suffers more injuries at the hands of Iraqi soldiers but arrives in stable condition.  He was then joined by other captured Iranian soldiers and for the next seventeen years, he remained there as a prisoner of war before being released in 1999.

Najah Aboud was born in Iraq and grew up in the Shula neighborhood in Baghdad. At the age of eighteen, he joined the Iraqi army and was formally discharged in his early twenties.  He was called back to serve at the age of twenty-eight when the war broke out.  In 1982, he was captured by Iranian forces and and spent seventeen years as a prisoner of war.

The two stories are interesting and although parallel, they show two different sides of the war.  What is clear from the beginning is that neither man wanted the conflict but rather a normal life that would include a career, marriage and children.  Their goals are simple and under normal circumstances achievable.  In fact, Najah had been operating the Bruce Lee Restaurant before the war destroyed his efforts.  The arrival of the war changed all of their dreams each one recounts how destruction settled in as the bombs fell and all hell broke loose. It is at this point in the book that the stories change gears and the ugly realities of the war become vividly clear.

What I noticed in each account is that on both sides of the war, chaos reigned. Neither goes through any type of basic training but rather are thrown into positions and forced to learn through baptism by fire. Their recollections of battle scenes and the horrors of war are graphic and sobering.  Make no mistake, they do not sugar coat this part of the book, it is as real as it gets.  Eventually, both are captured and their experiences as prisoners of war are where their accounts diverge, showing a very stark difference in treatment of prisoners of war.  For Najah, his time served in Iranian camps is quite mild although mundane. He longs for his fiance Alyaa and son Amjad.  But for Zahed, the Iraqi camp is nothing short of a nightmare.  The descriptions given by him of his time as a prisoner of war are beyond shocking.  Inhumane would be an understatement to describe his treatment at the hands of officials, most notably the antagonist Mira Sahib, whose sadistic behavior is repulsive. By the time Zahed is released, he is a shell of himself and man haunted by the war in which he fought. A shining light comes in the form of Maryam, whose entry into his life influences the decisions he makes as love becomes a very real possibility.   Najah continues to carry his own own scars as well without any information of his future wife and son.

The realization that both Iraq and Iran suffered tremendously during the war hits home and they both realize that moving abroad is the only way to help their families and themselves.  In a twist of fate, both end up in search of a new life in North America.  Vancouver, Canada is the destination and fate intervenes in ways that no one could have ever imagined for them both.  Upon arrival life is tough for both, but various figures enter the story, each to serve a different purpose in their lives.  And even after adjusting to life in the U.S., there is still much they must deal with regarding their former lives as soldiers on the front line.

The ending of the book is beyond moving and puts the finishing touch on two incredible stories.  Both express their gratitude to author Meredith May for writing this book and I do too.  It truly is an exciting and emotional book to read but crucial in understand the effect of war on all involved.


Iran Contra: Reagan’s Scandal and the Unchecked Abuse of Presidential Power – Malcolm Byrne

contra1I still remember the video footage taken during the live testimony of Lt. Col. Oliver North (Ret.), as Congress sought to unravel  interconnected covert operations that revolved around Iran, Israel and Nicaragua. North appeared on television in full military dress, earing the sympathy and admiration of a large segment of American citizens.  There were some who felt he should have been incarcerated and that his actions were a dishonor to the very uniform he had on.   Regrettably, his testimony did little to help fully understand what had really taken place.  And even my father who follows politics and news religiously did not fully understand what had taken place.  What was clear, is that the administration of President Ronald Reagan (1911-2004) had engaged in questionable and possibly illegal activities that sent shockwaves of panic through Reagan’s cabinet and raised alarm bells on Capitol Hill.  As more information came to light, the media began to call it the Iran-Contra scandal and even today, it is still known by that description.  It remains one of the darkest moments of Reagan’s time in office.  Author Malcolm Byrne revisits the Iran-Contra scandal to tell the full truth about how and why it developed, and the actions of a president abusing the powers of the Oval Office. 

If you have decided to read this book, I am sure that there is a good chance that you are already familiar with the Iran-Contra scandal. But even if you are not, the story will still be of interest and easy to follow. The story begins by revisiting the events of October 5, 1986, when a C-123 plane carrying arms for the contras fighting the Sandinista government is shot down while over Nicaraguan airspace.  Several days later, a revelation on Iranian television sent Washington in panic mode.  Nearly everyone began to question the actions of Reagan and his cabinet.  The full story was carefully hidden from the public through omissions and in some cases, deception.   Here we have the whole account and Byrne take us on quite a ride as he peels back the layers of obfuscation employed by key officials close to the President.

Although prior knowledge of the events that gave way to the scandal is not necessary, I do believe that it will help if the reader has some prior knowledge of the political climate of Central America and the Middle East during the time period in which the scandal took place.  In fact, the histories of Nicaragua, Honduras, Israel, El Salvador an Iran are all relevant to the information that Byrne is presenting to the reader.   The fear of a communist expansion under the thumb of the Soviet Union, continued to shape U.S. foreign policy following World War II.  The rise of left-leaning and popular figures across Latin America had caused Washington to pay close attention and subvert several governments through the Central Intelligence Agency.  Central America became the next battle ground and as Byrne shows, Reagan intended to pull out all of the stops.

There are many acronyms in the book due to the complexity of Washington’s design with regards to intelligence and foreign policy.  Several departments play a role in the story and Byrne keeps track of them all, keeping the story flowing smoothly.  Chapters one through twelve alternate between Iran and Nicaragua. It was a good decision by the author, for it allows the reader to focus one part of the story before going to the next and then back again.  The two tracks eventually merge but not before Byrne provides a ton of staggering and shocking information.  When the tracks do merge, the book takes another turn as Reagan’s cabinet goes into damage control and the full weight of Congress comes down on his administration.

The hearings and testimony are summarized here so readers should not expect full transcripts but only snippets of the most critical statements.   In fact, the section regarding the hearings and prosecutions by the Department of Justice do not make up a large portion of the book.  The majority is devoted to the developments in Central American and the Middle East.  But that in no way diminishes the importance of the later chapters and they are just as surprising as the rest of the book.

One section in the book that caught my attention was the discussion about Reagan’s health.  Putting aside the attempted assassination in 1981, there were other health issues that arose during his presidency that caused many to question whether he was fit for office.  His actions and later testimony provide evidence that the conditions he later suffered from, had began to manifest as early as the 1980s. Byrne does not give Reagan a pass because of this but is equally mystified at how he was able to function.  He also makes a compelling point regarding Reagan’s mental state and his interactions with subordinates. It is certainly food for thought about the 40th President of the United States.

America has always said that it does not negotiate with terrorist.   On the surface it sounds tough and gives off the impression that the United States can take as hardline of a stance as anyone else.  However,  the events described in this book, challenge that position and Byrne’s research shows that negotiation became as common as public denials.  For many Americans, the scandal is an afterthought.  Reagan died in 2004 and the suriving members from his cabinet who are still alive had faded out of the public light, well into their later years in age.  However, I do believe that the story is still important in light of the recent events regarding the administration of Donald J. Trump.  Impeachment and investigations are two words that give rise to fear and concern but the founding fathers knew early on that such a system of governing was needed if the United States would truly be a democracy.  Future presidents may also want to read this book so that they too are never accused of abuse of power.

This account of the Iran-Contra scandal lays it all out for the reader to digest. It is an incredible and unnerving story about the very dark side of United States foreign policy.  Highly recommended.

ISBN-10: 0700625909
ISBN-13: 978-0700625901

Prisoner: My 544 Days in an Iranian Prison—Solitary Confinement, a Sham Trial, High-Stakes Diplomacy, and the Extraordinary Efforts It Took to Get Me Out – Jason Rezaian

Jason RezaianThe United States and Iran share a long and storied past, defined in moments that changed world history.   The removal of Mohammad Mossadegh in 1953, followed by the reinstatement of the Shah and the Iran Hostage Crisis in 1979, set the stage for decades of tension between the two nations.  And incredibly, it was under this tension that the administration of U.S. President Barack H. Obama engaged in talks that resulted in the The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, simply known as the Iran Nuclear Deal.  The deal was both heralded as a landmark achievement and a kowtow of the worst kind.  But what many Americans did not know, was that there was far more taking place behind the scenes, including the release of U.S. prisoners held in Iranian jails.  Among those prisoners, was American born  journalist Jason Rezaian, of The Washington Post.  You may remember him from his appearance on Anthony Bourdain’s (1956-2018) hit show No Reservations.  The episode was beautifully done and Rezaian and his wife Yeganeh, appear as voices of insight into Iranian culture.  At the conclusion of the episode, there is a message on the screen that they both had been taken by Iranian intelligence.  The episode is my second favorite, the first is Vietnam in which President Obama makes a surprise appearance and enjoys a meal with Bourdain in Ho Chih Minh City.  On January 16, 2016, Rezaian was released was repatriated to the United States. Joining him were his Iranian born wife and his mother who never stopped fighting for her son’s release.

The book came to me as a recommendation from Amazon and I have to say, it was right on the money with this one.  I easily recognized Rezaian and was curious to know exactly what did take place during his incarceration.  The goods are all here and at times, I had to shake my head at the words and actions of his captors.   The Twilight Zone atmosphere, as Rezaian once describes it, is periodically broken by his recollections of his early life and his family’s history.  He explains his reasons for leaving America in his early thirties and moving to Iran, the place of his late father’s birth.  At first, the book reads like a typical story of a young man who found a home away from home.   He meets the love of his life, Yeganeh and the two begin to build their life together as a married couple. But on July 22, 2014, that all changed when they were arrested, blindfolded and transported to the Evin Prison in Tehran.

Authorities are convinced Rezaian is conduction “spionage”, as they call it and have labeled him a master spy who has come to spread revolution in Iran, through the import of “avocados”.   At first I could not believe my eyes but the insanity only increases.   Interrogators employ endless mind tricks in order to get Rezaian to “cooperate” and “admit” his wrongdoings, even without being able to say for certain what they were.  They assure him that they are there to “help”.  Rezaian’s sharp wit, adds a level of comedy to the story that lightens the mood and keeps the reader glued to the book, anticipating the next page. But the reality is that the charges were serious, in fact, deadly serious.  More than once he is threatened with execution.  The jury is still out whether the Iranians ever intended to actually commit such an act or if it was strictly a scare tactic that they knew would have backfired publicly and politically.   Their attempts to interrogate him and their obsession with American films and politics, has the effect of turning the affair into a three-ring circus in which Rezaian is the only one with a sane mind.  How he kept his sanity, sense or humor and composure, many of us will never truly know.  Perhaps it is the human will to survive which at times can be stronger than most would expect.  Rezaian admits that he nearly gave in on more than one occasion but the world was rooting for him and the support of his family, in particular his brother, help provide the inspiration he needed to remain stoic and defiant, until he once again walked the streets as a free man.

As to be expected, the Iran Nuclear Deal is a significant back story to the book and integral to his eventual release.  As a prison inside Iran, Rezaian was given an insider’s view into Iranian society and the mood in Tehran as its leaders and Washington hammered out an agreement that had been reached with the hope that the two nations could begin open dialogue which could eventually end in peace that has eluded both for nearly forty years.  Rezaian discusses the process and the difficulties of reaching an agreement which also included himself and other prisoners.  But even he admits that at the time, he had no idea of how many people were at work, doing everything in their power to secure his release and several others.   The ending of the book plays out as if Hollywood sent its best writers but this is not fiction.  It was a show of diplomatic power at its finest and a story in which the good guy does win.

Sadly, hopes of peace between Iran and America faded with the announcement of President Donald J. Trump that the United States would withdraw from the Iran Nuclear Deal.  On May 8, 2018, the withdrawal went into effect and only time will tell what will happen but I sincerely hope that peace does prevail.  For Jason Rezaian, peace came in a different form and his freedom from the Evin Prison, has given him an even deeper perspective of where Iran continues to go wrong.  He also explains the many areas in which non-Iranians fail in understanding how and why its society  operates in the manner that it does.  But make no mistake, this is his story and how he survived incarceration in the Islamic Republic of Iran.

ISBN-10: 0062691570
ISBN-13: 978-0062691576

All The Shah’s Men: An American Coup and the Roots of Middle East Terror-Stephen Kinzer

all_the_shahs_men_book_coverAugust 19, 1953-Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh (1882-1967) is removed from power in a coup engineered by British MI6 and the United States’ Central Intelligence Agency under the control of Kermit Roosevelt. Mohammad Reza Shah (1919-1980) returns from exile in Rome to reestablish himself as the nation’s highest authority. The Shah proceeds to place the country in an iron grip, enforcing dictatorial rule for the next twenty-five years before his abdication in 1979 resulting in the seizure of power by the Ayatollah Khomeini setting Iran on a path of radical Islamic rule highlighted by the administration of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.  The coup in 1953 and the actions of U.S. President Jimmy Carter in 1979, permanently changed the relationship between the United States and the once promising Islamic Republic.

A little more than one year ago, the United States in conjunction with several other allies, reached a formal agreement to limit Iran’s ability to manufacture and stockpile nuclear weapons.  The agreement has been both lionized and criticized by the far right and far left. It is assumed by many that Iran is a sworn enemy of the United States and seeks to destroy all that America stands for.  Islamophobia and ignorance have allowed the belief that Iran is a threat to peace in the western hemisphere to proliferate exponentially.  Christianity still holds the record for the largest number of followers.  But that might change sooner than we might believe.  The Pew Research Center has projected that Islam will hold the title of the world’s largest religion by 2070.  The overwhelming majority of people who believe in Islam are very peaceful and sincere individuals. Fanatical believers unafraid of committing extremist acts have cast a dark cloud over the faith, breeding fear and suspicion that have resulted in a surge in hate crimes against those of the Muslim faith.  But was Islamophobia the sole reason for the actions of August, 1953?

Stephen Kinzer revisits Iran in 1953 in this investigative account of the origins of the coup, its implementation and consequences which continue to haunt Iran and the world to this day.  The life of Mohammad Mossadegh, the charismatic voice of democracy and liberty who gained a following as he chartered his course with the purpose of transforming Iranian society, is examined in detail.   Free speech, open elections and personal freedom became staples of his rule giving hope and optimism to thousands of believers.  But as we learn in from Kinzer’s investigative efforts, foreign influences, economic restrictions and domestic threats embarked on a collision course that dealt Iran a blow from which it has never fully recovered.

But just how did the coup happen and why was it initiated?  The answers to those questions, found in this book, are key to understanding the tragic results of U.S. and British involvement in the nation’s domestic affairs.  Greed, oil, British embarrassment and the fear of communism, were just a few ingredients in a stew that served as the catalyst for Mossadegh’s removal. The lack of appreciation for Iranian history and the complicated relationship between the Shiites and Sunni Muslims, allowed intelligence operatives from abroad to engage in a deadly plot resulting in one of the darkest moments in Middle Eastern history.  Today it is difficult to believe that the coup affects present day events.  But as we learn through Kinzer,  destabilization and political turmoil that ensued giving rise to fierce anti-western ideology, is directly tied to the coup.  The attack on the U.S. Embassy in 1979 and subsequent events further complicated matters.  War with Iraq and the emergence of international terrorism pioneered by radicals such as Osama Bin Laden continued to amplify aggression on both sides. The nuclear arms restriction deal came as a result of long hours of discussion, assurances and acts of faith by all involved.  Agreements reached with the deal,  have given way to the first steps on the road to reconciliation.

We have much ground to cover as we continue to reconcile with Iran. Many wounds have yet to fully heal and will require more patience and understanding on both sides.  The first step, which has already been taken, is to admit wrongdoing.  Governments can apologize but its citizens can and do sometimes remain defiant and unconvinced of any form of complicity.  In order for us to understand Iran and remove our fear of Islamophobia and our destruction, we must first learn why their feelings exist. Only then can we begin to untangle our complicated coexistence and move forward in a harmonious and promising direction.

“Those who are at war with others are not at peace with themselves.”- William Hazlitt

ISBN-10: 047018549X
ISBN-13: 978-0470185490