This November 4 marked twenty-five years since a small group of Iranian university students, accompanied by a much larger mob of supporters, stormed the vast American embassy compound in Tehran and held its staff hostage for 444 days. Those behind the takeover were concerned about the future of the Islamic revolution in Iran, a movement that had come to power just ten months earlier under the leadership of Ayatollah Khomeini. The students and their clerical leader, Ayatollah Khoeiniha, worried that the revolution was in danger of subversion by the former regime and moderates supported by the United States. When the U.S. admitted Iran's ousted monarch, the Shah, in October 1979 for cancer treatments in New York, the students decided to take over the American embassy and demand the return of the Shah to Iran for prosecution. They labeled the embassy a "Den of Spies" and accused its personnel of being CIA agents trying to overthrow the revolutionary government; the regime threatened several times to put the hostages on trial for espionage and to execute the guilty. Khomeini threw his support behind the hostage-takers, and the event rapidly became a defining political moment in Iran, one that consolidated power under the hard-line Islamic clerics and sidelined the moderates, thereby setting the stage for the theocratic authoritarianism that continues to this day.
By seizing the embassy, the students emerged from a crowded sea of millions of revolutionaries marching in the streets of Tehran to become national heroes seen every night on televisions across the world. Today, those hostage-takers who work with the regime still hold positions of power and influence in Iran, but those who vocally advocate reform frequently find themselves on the sidelines. Hoseyn Shariatmadari, one of the students behind the plan to take the embassy, runs one of the largest state-controlled papers in Iran, Kayhan, and acts as the unofficial spokesman for Iran's ruling cleric, Ayatollah Khameini, while his fellow hostage-taker, Abbas Abdi, sits in Evin Prison (the same site where some of the American hostages were held) serving a seven-year sentence for selling government secrets to the CIA. Abdi had published in his reformist newspaper the results of a poll showing that seventy-four percent of Iranians in Tehran want renewed relations with the U.S. Another of the students, Mohsen Mirdamadi, experienced a return to prominence earlier this year when he led 124 parliamentary members in a mass resignation to protest the disqualification of thousands of candidates (including himself) from parliamentary elections. "None of us in the revolution believed Iran would ever have an autocratic regime again," he said at the time. "Yet here we are."
For his third cover story for The Atlantic, national correspondent Mark Bowden traveled to Iran twice to visit the embassy and meet the hostage-takers. Tehran, Bowden discovered, is now a city of deadly traffic, open-air drug markets, and veiled prostitutes. He found the embassy, once a symbol of American prestige in Iran, now "garishly covered with anti-American graffiti, banners, and propaganda displays to remind people of the nation's undying disdain for its once favorite ally." The hostage-takers Bowden spoke with expressed little regret at their seizure of the embassy, but most, like Mirdamadi, lamented the role they played in cementing the repressive rule of the clerics. "The hostage-takers of 1979 were striving toward umma, a perfect Muslim community," Bowden writes. "Now they live in the ruins of their dream. The admiration they once enjoyed has faded like the graffiti at the Den of Spies."
Mark Bowden is a national correspondent for The Atlantic. His most recent book is Road Work: Among Tyrants, Beasts, Heroes, and Rogues, a collection of his best reporting over the past twenty-five years, including all of his work for The Atlantic. His book on the Iran hostage crisis, Guests of the Ayatollah, will be released next year in tandem with a four-part documentary based on his book that will air on the Discovery Times channel.
We spoke by telephone on November 3.
How were you able to find and speak with the hostage-takers twenty-five years after they took over the U.S. embassy in Tehran?
It was fairly easy once I got over the difficulty of getting a visa and getting to Tehran. In Iran, the gerogan-girha, as they're known—the hostage-takers—are well-known figures. Most of them are high-ranking members of the government, and others are members of the reform movement. Some have actually left Iran to join resistance groups that are fighting against the regime. So they fall all across the spectrum. but they became famous in Iran because of this incident.
Why was it difficult getting a visa to Iran?
Well, as a tourist, I could probably apply for a visa and get to Iran fairly easily. But if I arrived in Iran on a tourist visa and began doing journalism work, I would very quickly come to the attention of the authorities and probably be thrown out of the country, if not put in jail. It's a very authoritarian regime, and they keep close tabs on their own press, not to mention any foreign journalists in town. So I was more or less obliged to apply for a visa as a foreign journalist. I did so through the UN consulate in New York—Iran doesn't have diplomatic relations with the United States—and while they assured me that eventually I would get a visa, they kept delaying it month after month after month.
For me to travel to Iran and do the reporting I needed to do, it takes a fairly big chunk of time, and it's hard to keep waiting and waiting and hoping that eventually somebody will decide to give you a visa. So with my cousin David Keane, who is a documentary filmmaker working in tandem with me on this project, we opted to bribe somebody, which apparently is the way most journalists obtain visas to Iran. We found a fellow who works with the Iranian Intelligence Ministry, a former Iranian intelligence agent who has his own business basically providing visas to journalists. It cost a good bit of money to obtain the visa, but once I did I was able to travel there and work.
Once you arrived in Iran, did you have to keep paying bribes as you went along?
A little bit. For instance, when the individual who secures visas—Khamal Taheri—saw that I have a nifty palm pilot, he decided he wanted to have one for himself, which he had to be supplied with. We tried to oblige Khamal, because we knew we would want to go back again, so we needed to preserve that avenue. To a certain extent we had to keep paying him, and we also had to pay for a "fixer"—a guide and translator—who works for Khamal. The "fixer" in this case performed the dual service of helping us while at the same time reporting back on who exactly we're talking to and what they're saying.
So was the "fixer" an agent of the Iranian government?
No. The "fixer" is an employee of Khamal's, and Khamal is, I believe, an agent of the Iranian government. What they've done in Iran is to privatize many public responsibilities—much like here in the United States. In an authoritarian state, keeping track of foreign journalists who come into the country is one of the things the government wants to do. So they've allowed Khamal to set up his own little business of "helping" foreign reporters for a fee—Khamal gets to keep the money and the Iranian government gets to keep tabs.