'Guests of the Ayatollah': Hostage takers explain their actions

In 1979, followers of Ayatollah Khomeini seized 66 Americans in Tehran and held them for 444 days. The crisis marked the start of a conflict that continues to this day. Here, for the first time, hostage takers explain their actions

By Mark Bowden,Author
Sunday 23 October 2011 00:23

Nowadays the grand old US embassy in Tehran looks forlorn, like a hostage left behind and long forgotten. A solid battleship of an office building in orange brick, it was once the symbol of America's formidable presence in Iran. Long ago dubbed the "Den of Spies" by Islamic radicals, the old embassy building is now covered with anti-American graffiti, banners and propaganda displays to remind people of the nation's undying disdain for its once-favourite ally. The embassy compound is home to the Revolutionary Guards, an élite military unit that reports to the black- turbaned clerics of Iran's authoritarian mullahocracy, and to the basij, Islamic brownshirts, the civilian squads that turn out en masse to demonstrate on behalf of the regime and to help put down those who engage in public displays of dissent and "immorality", such as women whose scarves do not fully cover their hair, or young people who hold hands. The former embassy itself serves as an anti-American museum, with a grim, ugly permanent display called "The Great Aban 13 Exhibition", commemorating one of the most important dates on the modern Iranian calendar. Aban 13 corresponds to 4 November, the date on which, 27 years ago, scores of Iranian students scaled the compound walls and took hostage the entire US diplomatic mission, setting off a tense 15-month stand-off between the United States and Iran. It was one of the founding events of the Islamic Republic, and its geopolitical repercussions are still being felt throughout the world.

The old embassy is supposed to be an official shrine to that bold act of national defiance, f which defined for the world the glorious 1979 revolution. Yet in the four times I went to the embassy during trips to Iran in recent years, it was empty of visitors. The slogans and artwork that had been spray-painted on the embassy's brick outer walls by angry crowds during the tumultuous hostage crisis had faded. Even the guardhouse on the south-east corner, where visitors enter, was in shambles.

For a visiting American, Iran is like an inverse world. Bad is good and good is bad. In the West we are bombarded with advertising images of youth, beauty, sex and life; in Tehran the preponderance of advertising images celebrate death. There are murals everywhere honouring martyrs - primarily those who died in the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s, but also more recent Islamic martyrs, including Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, the spiritual leader of Hamas, who was assassinated by Israeli forces in Gaza in 2004. Billboards in the West often feature provocatively posed teenagers, but in Tehran the murals tend to depict grumpy-looking white-bearded clerics - especially the bespectacled face of the current Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and the more imposing, threatening visage of the late Imam, Ruhollah Khomeini, the major force behind the overthrow of the Shah in 1979, and the father of Iran's theocratic state.

And just when one seems to have the place in full inverse focus, there comes some wildly discordant note - such as the sprawling open-air drugs market right in Tehran's centre, where dealers hawk Viagra, ecstasy and opium, at rock-bottom, infidel prices. In this pious city where women are forced to cover their bodies and heads, even in stifling summer heat, it is common to see prostitutes - duly scarved and draped - freely patrolling the streets. As I posed before a Khomeini mural for a snapshot one afternoon, a well-dressed young Iranian passer-by asked me in perfect English, "Why do you want a picture of that asshole?"

Nowhere is the inverse nature of Iran more evident than in the country's national memory of the gerogan-giri, the "hostage-taking". On 4 November 1979, a well-organised core group of Iranian university students scaled the walls of the US embassy compound, seized the embassy building, and bound and blindfolded about 60 Americans, including the embassy's top foreign-service and CIA officers, military liaisons, administrators, clerks, secretaries and a detachment of Marine guards. The invaders, calling themselves Students Following the Imam's Line, demanded that their despised Shah, who had been forced to flee the country nine months earlier and had just been admitted to the United States for cancer treatment, be returned immediately to face revolutionary justice. Hundreds of his former associates had already been executed or thrown in jail.

President Jimmy Carter refused the demand, and the subsequent 15-month stand-off became one of the signature international crises of modern times. It left a lot of Americans feeling helpless and enraged, while imbuing Iranians, many of whom blamed the US for the Shah's inarguable despotism, with a new sense of strength and national purpose. The episode turned tragic when the secret rescue mission, approved after much agonising by President Carter, ended in catastrophe at a staging area in the Iranian desert: owing to freak dust storms, several helicopters had to set down or turn back and the entire operation had to be aborted. During the withdrawal one helicopter collided with a transport plane, exploded into flames, and left eight servicemen dead. In a final insult to Carter, the hostages were at last released on 20 January 1981 - Inauguration Day for the man who had defeated him, Ronald Reagan.

The different ways this event is remembered in America and in Iran illustrate how nations invent their own pasts, and how the simplification of history can create impossible gulfs between peoples. To Americans, for whom the incident has become little more than an embarrassing footnote, the hostage crisis was an unprovoked crime, carried out by a scruffy band of half-crazy Islamist zealots driven by a senseless hatred of all things American. It was a terrifying ordeal for the hostages and their families, fatal for eight of the would-be rescuers, and a political disaster for Jimmy Carter - perhaps the single most important factor in making him a one-term President. It was a protracted public humiliation and America's first modern encounter with militant Islam, and the first time Americans heard their country called "the Great Satan".

For many Iranians, however, the hostage crisis was an unalloyed triumph. Embossed with florid Shia mysticism, the episode has taken on the force of national myth - an epic story of a small group of devout young gerogan-girha (hostage-takers) who, armed with only prayer and purity of heart, stormed the gates of the most evil, potent empire on the planet, booted out the American devils, and secured the success of the mullahs' revolution. And when the Great Satan dispatched its deadly commandos to slay these young heroes, Allah stirred dust storms to down the infidel helicopters and turn back the invaders. This is the story taught to schoolchildren who are bussed in to see the Great Aban 13th Exhibition and to touch the remains of the helicopters that Allah scorched while the gerogan-girha slept.

During my trips to Tehran I went looking for the people who planned and directed the embassy takeover and the ones who found themselves caught up in it. I wanted to know what had happened to them in the quarter century since they climbed the embassy walls, what they had hoped to accomplish, and how they felt about what they had done.

Ibrahim Asgharzadeh, a ringleader of the takeover who has become a reform politician and newspaperman, is emphatic in his assessment. "Hostage-taking is not an acceptable action under international norms and standards," he tells me. "The hostages underwent severe emotional difficulties. Prolonging it affected both countries in a negative way. The chaos caused such tension between Iran and the US that even now no one knows how to resolve it."

I learnt from talking to the gerogan-girha that the "hostage crisis" was not supposed to involve the prolonged detention of hostages. The young Iranians envisioned having to subdue and confine members of the American mission for perhaps a day or two, but they had no intention of holding them for any length of time. They made no preparations for doing so.

The demand for the Shah's return was f primarily rhetorical. The hostage-takers' immediate goal was to put pressure on the provisional government of Prime Minister Mehdi Bazargan. This interim authority had been appointed by Khomeini after the fall of the Shah to preside until a new constitution could be written. Bazargan favoured a Western-style state, but in the eyes of extremists - both Islamists and Marxists - he was watering down the revolution. They saw the provisional government's efforts to re-establish ties with the rest of the world as a sell-out.

The opportunity for radical change appeared to be slipping away. So extremists fanned fears of an American-led countercoup; the plan to seize the embassy grew out of these fears. Khomeini was not informed about the takeover in advance, and by the time it was presented to him it was a fait accompli, and hugely popular. Hundreds of thousands of gleeful Iranians celebrated in the streets around the embassy night and day, burning Carter in effigy and chanting: "Death to America!" Khomeini had little choice but to embrace the brash gerogan-girha, and to officially anoint them as national heroes. Bazargan's government resigned two days after the takeover, and the revolution tilted permanently into the arms of the mullahs.

The gerogan-girha saw themselves as part of an experiment: they were trying to build a utopia. They were striving toward umma, a perfect, classless, crimeless Muslim community infused with the "spirit of God".

But instead of a shining city upon a hill, Tehran today is a teeming sprawl, a study in faded brown and grey, swimming in a miasma of smog and dust. Umma remains a distant, unfulfilled promise, as Iranians grapple with unemployment, rampant corruption and self-destructive domestic and foreign policies. Straining under tight economic sanctions imposed by the US and some of its allies, Iran remains an international pariah; it courts tougher sanctions - even invasion - by its resumption of a nuclear programme, amid fears that the country is working to manufacture nuclear weapons. Women live under archaic restrictions on employment, social relations and mode of dress. Teachers and other intellectuals labour under oppressive government oversight. The country's Intelligence and Security Ministry is as omnipresent and feared as was Savak, the Shah's old secret police.

The gerogan-girha live in the ruins of their dream. Those who despise the current regime now regret their role in bringing a small circle of authoritarian clerics to power. And more than anything they blame the hostage crisis for a litany of problems and set backs that have befallen their country in the past quarter of a century. Iran's loss of ties to the US after the embassy seizure prompted Saddam Hussein to invade in 1980 (when the hostages were still being held). In the ensuing war Iran lost more than half a million young men. Iran's status as an outlaw nation has had a stifling effect on its chances for an economic turnaround.

Asgharzadeh was a wiry, intense, bearded engineering student when he came up with the idea, in September 1979, to seize the American embassy. "The initial idea was mine," he tells me at the office of his newspaper, Hambastegi. "Ever since high school I had been outraged by American policies."

According to him, there were five students at that first planning meeting. Two of them - Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (who became Iran's president last year) and Mohammed Ali Seyyedinejad - wanted to target the Soviet embassy. But the others supported Asgharzadeh's choice. "Our aim was to object to the American government by going to their embassy and occupying it for several hours," he said. "Announcing our objections from within the compound would carry our message to the world in a much more firm and effective way."

Asgharzadeh has since served as a member of the Majlis (Iran's legislature) and as president of the Tehran City Council, and ran unsuccessfully for President in 2001. In his politics and journalism he has strongly urged the mullahs to adopt democratic reforms, such as freedom of the press and the elimination of veto powers they wield over political candidates and legislation; he has now been banned from seeking public office, and has served a term in solitary confinement.

Asgharzadeh is the most prominent of the gerogan-girha who have turned against the mullahocracy. He now sees the embassy takeover as a mistake - one that has had a disastrous long-term impact on his country. "We failed in enforcing it the way it was meant to be," he says. "We lost control of events very quickly - within 24 hours! Unfortunately, things got out of hand and took their own course. The initial hours were quite pleasant for us, because [the protest] had a clear purpose and justification. But once the event turned into a hostage-taking, it became a long, drawn-out, and corrosive phenomenon."

In the confusion, Asgharzadeh recalls, they failed to fully control even their own members. "American hostages were not supposed to be paraded blindfolded in front of the press," he says. "The blindfolding was done only for security reasons; in order to control the hostages we used strips of cloth to blindfold them. Unfortunately, our humane objectives were distorted. We objected strongly to this behaviour, and the people who did this were reprimanded, but the damage had been done. We tried very hard to prevent the operation from being manipulated by political groups and factions." Asgharzadeh and his fellow students eventually chased the other political groups out of the compound and locked the gates.

How would President Carter respond? Would there be military action? Sanctions? A blockade? The thing began to take on a life of its own. With the provisional government in tatters, the US had no one with whom to negotiate a solution.

In the coming weeks, it became clear that the stalemate would not be resolved quickly, the hostage-takers recruited hundreds of volunteers to serve as guards. Others went to work piecing together documents that had been shredded by embassy officials on the day of the takeover, while others tried to decipher and translate them. Fluent English-speakers were brought in, including Massoumeh Ebtekar, who became the voice of the gerogan-girha at her daily press conferences with the world media. For the young Iranians, those days were heady and even romantic: Asgharzadeh met and proposed to his wife, and Ebtekar f met and ultimately married Mohammad Hashemi, one of the core group of leaders.

For the first two days the seized Americans inside the compound were tied to chairs in the ambassador's residence and blindfolded. In the coming months, 13 of them were released -all women and blacks, in the hope of winning the public support of America's "oppressed" minorities. Most of the remainder - lower-level embassy staffers, guards and a few unfortunates who had come to Iran on business or as part of cultural exchanges - were herded into the basement of a warehouse on the embassy grounds, where they lived for months in a large windowless space divided into cells by bookshelves. They were forbidden to speak. The higher-level Americans - diplomats, CIA officers and military-liaison personnel - were taken away one by one for interrogation. Some were beaten; the CIA officers were worked over with heavy rubber hoses.

Asgharzadeh realises that he cannot change the past. But knowing what he knows now, he would not do it again. "If today I were to devise a plan or political action, it would certainly not be an action along the lines of the takeover of the American embassy," he says.

The surviving gerogan-girha who have prospered most in the mullahocracy are regarded by many Iranians as opportunists, and the most tempting targets for this label are Hashemi, who retired as first deputy of the Ministry of Intelligence and Security, and Ebtekar, now Minister of the Environment. They are Iran's premier power couple. Both regard the embassy takeover as an unadulterated success.

I found Hashemi in an office several flights up from a noisy, bustling street in downtown Tehran. He served the customary small glasses of tea and chatted animatedly. Self-assured, even imperious, Hashemi defends not only what he and the other hostage-takers did but also how they did it.

"We knew that there is an end to everything, like there is peace after every war," he told me. "We wanted it to be a hostage-taking without any harshness and scuffle, unique in history, a hostage-taking that represented a nation and its concerns, and that is what we are proud of."

As one of the ringleaders of the embassy takeover, Hashemi recruited Ebtekar. He knew that, having lived in a suburb of Philadelphia as a child, she spoke fluent English. Known as "Mother Mary" and "Screaming Mary", she was especially disliked by many of the hostages, in part because her accent made her seem like a turncoat, a "Tokyo Rose", in part because of her endless propagandising. She would saunter through the captured embassy with a camera crew in tow, urging the hostages to describe their ordeal in upbeat terms. "You have been treated well, haven't you?" was her constant refrain. During one such filming session, in the final days of captivity, Army Sergeant Regis Regan got so fed up with Ebtekar that he let loose with a stream of invective and was dragged into a hallway for a beating.

It had occurred to me as I finished my interview with her husband that his willingness to talk to me might reflect an ulterior motive. He and his wife have heavily invested in an ambitious new vacation resort on the Caspian Sea called Cham Paradise. Hashemi showed me slick brochures and advertisements for the venture, printed in both Farsi and English; they were evidently designed to attract foreign visitors as well as Iranians. Hashemi was clearly excited as he showed me a detailed model of the project - a cluster of modern apartment buildings, hotels, villas, restaurants, lakes and other features arrayed on the tip of a peninsula. Then he had an idea.

"Perhaps, in a few years," he said, "we might invite back the Americans we held hostage, and they can all stay at the resort as our guests!"

"This time, can they go home when they want?" I asked, and waited for my interpreter to relay the question to him.

Listening to the Farsi, Hashemi first scowled, and then reeled with laughter. He said to me in English, "You make a joke!"

By the time I next returned to Iran in August 2004, Cham Paradise had gone bust. Hashemi and Ebtekar had been forced to sell their home to pay off their debts, and the two were living with her mother - somehow, one suspects, blaming the US for their troubles.

On my last day in Tehran I visited the Den of Spies one more time. I was accompanied by David Keane, a film-maker who was shooting a documentary in tandem with my reporting. David (who is also my cousin) wanted to shoot some film inside the compound and inside the old embassy building itself. We stopped at the by now familiar guardhouse on the south-east corner, and to our surprise, it had been spruced up. The walls and ceiling looked as if they'd been given a new coat of paint, the boot prints had vanished, and the broken-down furniture had been replaced. Another bored-looking team of young Revolutionary Guards - this time a threesome - sat sullenly behind the marble-veneered reception counter.

We sat for hours before a mid-level official in the management of the compound arrived at the guardhouse. A worried-looking man, he said we would be permitted to walk through the exhibit, but no filming would be allowed. Our appointment, our document with the important signatures, did not seem to matter.

Eventually we gave up. We had already taken still pictures on an earlier visit. As we made our way out of the compound to hail a cab, the three young Revolutionary Guards came running after us. We wondered for a minute if the procedures were going to change yet again.

The guards all spoke to our interpreter Ramin in Farsi, smiling and gesturing towards us, and then he relayed their comments: "They want me to tell you that they are embarrassed, that they think this is silly. They want to apologise on behalf of their country."

Ramin grinned as the soldiers huddled around him. "They want me to tell you that they love America."

The soldiers flashed big smiles at us and nodded approvingly. And right there in front of a "Death to the USA" sign, in front of the faded banners denouncing "The Great Satan", one of the Revolutionary Guards raised his thumb high into the air and said in halting English, "OK for George W Bush!"

Extracted from 'Guests of the Ayatollah' by Mark Bowden, published 8 June by Atlantic Books, £19.99. To buy the book for £16.50, inc p&p, call Independent Books Direct on 0870 0798897

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