Saturday, April 29, 2006

Radical Islam's Eruption

Reuel Marc Gerecht, The Wall Street Journal:
In 1985, when I first visited the Iran desk in the Directorate of Operations of the Central Intelligence Agency in Langley, Va., my attention was quickly drawn to the Iranian-published volumes of the CIA and State Department cable traffic that had been seized by the Iranian "students" who took over the U.S. embassy in Tehran in 1979. That was the year, lest we forget, of the shah's overthrow and the victory of the Ayatollah Khomeini.

The Iranians, post-takeover, had painstakingly reassembled most of the embassy's CIA cables and diplomatic telegrams -- paper that had been insufficiently burned or shredded by the besieged American diplomats. (The U.S. government developed much better shredders in response.) At Langley six years later, an old woman -- a real-life, chain-smoking Le Carré sort who had amazing recall of the CIA's operations -- was reviewing the volumes for sensitive material. No one else on the Iran desk seemed to care.

The desk was plastered with posters of the Ayatollah Khomeini and various references to nefarious clerical behavior, but the Islamic Revolution's defining moment was mostly forgotten history. And little wonder. Officers who had served in Iran before the revolution -- the CIA station had once been fairly large -- were usually disconnected from the place, since virtually none of them spoke any Persian and most, in the course of their time in Tehran, had pursued "third country" targets (Soviets, East Europeans, communist Chinese), not Iranians.

In "Guests of the Ayatollah," Mark Bowden revivifies this crucial episode by parachuting us back to 1979 and enveloping us in the thoughts and experiences of the American hostages -- the diplomats, security officers, U.S. Marines and spooks seized and abused by the "Students Following the Line of the Imam," as they called themselves. The hostages numbered 66 in all; 14 were released before the end of the crisis, which lasted 444 days. Three were held in the more civilized confines of the Iranian Foreign Ministry. (Mr. Bowden does some of his finest writing recounting the increasingly surreal existence of this second small group, who became "guests"-cum-prisoners.) READ MORE

Mr. Bowden subtitles his book "The First Battle in America's War With Militant Islam" -- and he is certainly right in underscoring the entire saga as a formative moment for contemporary Islamic militancy. Sunni fundamentalism, as an ideology inclined to see terrorism as a legitimate activity, predated the rise of the Shiite Khomeini. But the Ayatollah's triumph over the shah and over his primary foreign backer -- the U.S. -- globally supercharged Islamic radicalism.

Mr. Bowden does not spend much time delving into radical Islam or the Persian side of the Islamic Revolution. He describes the force that overwhelmed the embassy (and would later strike us on 9/11) as "totalitarianism rooted in divine revelation." This phrase, although roughly accurate in its gist, may be a bit overloaded for what happened under Khomeini.

The Islamic Revolution was a ghastly time in Iranian history, but there were mitigating influences in Persian Islamic culture, and they were not without effect: Thousands died in the revolution, but it never reached the blood-soaked frenzy that was seen in the Soviet Union under Lenin and Stalin, or in China during Mao's long reign, or even in Algeria after the French. But Mr. Bowden is right: Something horrible was unleashed in Iran by Khomeini -- a divinely sanctioned fanaticism that made decent people into monsters. The aftershocks of that event still torment and inspire Muslims world-wide.

Mr. Bowden is pre-eminently a storyteller, not a theologian. He has a sensitive eye for both people and places. This talent isn't an easy thing to exploit with the Iranian hostage crisis since Mr. Bowden is essentially giving us a variation of prison literature, where the solitary internal struggle must compensate for the unchanging scenery. Yet he accomplishes his task sublimely well -- the book is suspenseful, inspiring, mordant and, perhaps most of all, affectionate toward those who had to endure such trying circumstances. He shows unfailing respect for the hostages, many of whom gave him extensive, intimate and at times embarrassing access to their memories. Mr. Bowden lets you feel, above all else, the fear and anger of the Americans during their long imprisonment.

This is perhaps the most striking and underreported part of the hostage crisis: how angry the Americans became toward their jailers. Some of the Americans were treated very roughly indeed -- periodic beatings, mock executions -- and they lived with the constant fear that in the end they were going to die. But the Iranian actions led to ever more American defiance.

John Limbert, an academically trained, Persian-speaking diplomat -- who probably has the softest heart for Iran among the hostages -- is in solitary confinement in the city of Isfahan, 200 miles from Tehran, after the failed Desert One rescue mission. (President Carter, after long delay, had sent fuel-tanker planes, gunships and helicopters to recapture the embassy; in a night-vision-goggle debacle set into motion by a sandstorm, a helicopter and a plane collided in the desert; the aborted the mission left the burnt remains to be toyed with by revolutionary clerics.) Mr. Limbert has no idea regarding the whereabouts of his compatriots until an Iranian guard, whom he is tutoring in English, asks him the meaning of the words "raghead," "bozo," "mother-" and "c-sucker." "Limbert laughed," Mr. Bowden writes. "It warmed his heart. Someplace nearby, his captors were still coping with the United States Marine Corps."

Mike Howland, a Persian-speaking security officer marooned in the Foreign Ministry, starts to wander naked around the building at night, to show his disrespect for those who were keeping him in confinement and to give him an advantage if spotted by bashful Iranian guards. Anticipating an eventual rescue mission, Mr. Howland cleverly figures out a way of sabotaging his guards' guns.

The most brazen and hard-edged of the hostages is Michael Metrinko, a street-wise former Peace Corps volunteer and Persian-speaking diplomat who declares war on the gerugangirha, the hostage-takers. Using his vast knowledge of Persian culture, psychology and slang, Mr. Metrinko fights back. Beaten repeatedly, held in solitary confinement, hooded, tied up and denied food, he never stops searching for means to annoy and emasculate his captors. At one point he tries to derail the interrogation of an Iranian friend before him by baiting his interrogators to beat him (he succeeds). Even on his last day of captivity, on the bus to the airport, Mr. Metrinko verbally lashes out at a guard's offensive behavior by making a very Persian reference to the guard's mother and the procreative act; he is again beaten and then thrown off the bus. (A last-minute intervention by Iranian officials gets him on the plane to Germany.) Throughout, Mr. Metrinko is a proud, outraged man whose anger grows more intense precisely because he loves Iran so profoundly.

To verify some of Mr. Bowden's reporting, I sent an email to Mr. Metrinko, who is now working in Afghanistan. A short, rough, not particularly handsome fellow, Mr. Metrinko remarked that he hoped that this book, like Mr. Bowden's "Black Hawk Down" (1999), would become a movie. He really wanted Brad Pitt to play him, since "that's the way I would really like to remember myself." Mr. Pitt should be so lucky as to play such a part.

For many of us -- not least those of us who have known Iran and Iranians over the intervening years -- Mr. Bowden's book is the first opportunity to put the Iranian hostage crisis into perspective. It scarred both Iran and the U.S. -- though the Iranians probably more deeply, since it helped to propel them down an ugly, dictatorial path. The current rulers of Iran, such as Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and Ali Khamenei, were zealous backers of the hostage-seizing. Some of the hostages believe that Iran's president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, was one of their "student" captors. Such figures do not seem less like zealots with the passage of time.

The hostage crisis has been seen as a test of American resolve, a test that America failed under the wobbly leadership of Jimmy Carter. There is some truth to this, but it is also true, as Mr. Bowden notes, that Mr. Carter's White House worked constantly behind the scenes for the hostages' release, embracing the doomed Desert One rescue operation when other options had been exhausted. Ineffective Mr. Carter may have been, but he was not complacent.

Mr. Bowden performs a great service by pulling us back in time, to the dawn of an awful age when America was low and radical Islam triumphant. But "Guests of the Ayatollah" also calls on us to remember that good and brave men -- in the American embassy in Tehran, in Desert One's Special Forces and in President Carter's White House -- did their nation proud.