Among the Hostage-Takers
Twenty-five years ago in Tehran a group of Iranian students stormed the U.S. embassy and took hostage the entire American diplomatic mission—igniting a fifteen-month international crisis whose impact is reverberating still. Now, for the first time, many of the leading hostage-takers speak candidly about their actions—which a surprising number deeply regret
Nowadays the grand old U.S. embassy in Tehran looks forlorn, like a hostage left behind and long forgotten. A solid battleship of an office building in orange brick, two stories high and more than a block long, it was once the symbol of America's formidable presence in Iran. Today it still stands in the heart of the capital, facing a wide, busy thoroughfare called Taleghani Avenue, at the front of a leafy twenty-seven-acre oasis, a rare haven from the noisy hustle of this city of more than 12 million. Long ago dubbed the "Den of Spies" by Islamic radicals, the old embassy building is 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 embassy compound is home to the Revolutionary Guards, an elite military unit that reports to the black-turbaned clerics of Iran's authoritarian mullahocracy, and to the basij, Islamic brownshirts, the civilian goon squads that turn out en masse and at a moment's notice 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 13th Exhibition," commemorating one of the most important dates on the modern Iranian calendar. Aban 13 corresponds to November 4, the date on which, twenty-five years ago, scores of Iranian students scaled the compound walls and took hostage the entire U.S. diplomatic mission, setting off a tense fifteen-month standoff 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, which defined for the world the glorious 1979 revolution, a kind of Iranian counterpart to America's Boston Tea Party—but more central and significant. Yet in the four times I went to the embassy during trips to Iran in the past year, it was empty of visitors. A bookstore just outside the entrance, which was once known for selling anti-American literature and reprints of the thousands of secret embassy documents seized in the takeover (the infamous "spy den documents"), was vacant when I first saw it in December, its racks empty, but nine months later appeared ready to reopen as a bookstore for children. The slogans and spiteful artwork that had been spray-painted on the embassy's brick outer walls by angry crowds during the tumultuous hostage crisis had faded—including an image of the Statue of Liberty with its face portrayed as a death mask and a sign in English that said "DEATH TO THE USA."
Even the guardhouse on the southeast corner, where visitors enter, was in shambles. Two friendly, unshaven Revolutionary Guards stood behind the counter in a small, marble-veneered reception area that looked like a frat house on Sunday morning, with battered furniture, an old swivel chair leaning precariously on its stem with cushion stuffing hanging out, dirt caked on the floors and walls, and muddy boot prints everywhere. I pointed quizzically at a boot print on the ceiling, and asked my guide and interpreter, Ramin, to tell the guards that as an American citizen, I protested these abuses of what could arguably be called U.S. property.
"Tell them that if they are going to steal it, the least they could do is take care of it," I said.
When Ramin relayed my comments, the guards laughed, looked around sheepishly at the mess, and shrugged happily. They were conscripts serving out the last few months of their duty at a gravy post. "It's great here," one said. "Nothing ever happens."
The exhibit itself is amateurish, as if put together by a group of high school students with a bad attitude. On the front steps are two cartoonish statues that appear to have been fashioned from papier-mâché and thickly painted over in bronze. The first—seemingly based on a photograph of one of the hostages, Corporal Steven Kirtley—is of a Marine surrendering with his hands clasped behind his head; the second is a replica of the Statue of Liberty with a white bird (a symbol of Islam) caged in her abdomen. Inside the museum is more of the same: displays illustrating America's "role of evil" in the world over the past several decades; lots of gory photographs of children presented as victims of American bombings; and a framed copy of an important-looking "spy document," impressively stamped Classified and Top Secret, which on closer inspection turns out to be a memo requesting additional drivers for the embassy's motor pool. There are also pieces of helicopters recovered in the Iranian desert from a failed U.S. secret mission on April 24, 1980, to rescue the hostages; photographs of the hostages themselves; and somewhat dated propaganda showcasing America and Saddam Hussein as partners in crime. But in its preoccupation with American symbols the exhibit is more a defacement than an indictment, like drawing a big nose and a moustache on a poster of someone famous. That such a gloating, adolescent display has endured in the heart of Tehran for a quarter century says more about Iran than it does about the United States.
For a visiting American, Iran is like Bizarro World, the mirror universe in Superman comics in which everything is inverted. Bad is good and good is bad. In Tehran patriotic symbols of the United States are everywhere, but always wrenched into images of violence, evil, and defeat. The American flag is shown in the shape of a gun; the bald eagle is shown going down in flames. 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 honoring martyrs—primarily those who died in the eight-year 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 earlier this year. Billboards in the West often feature scantily dressed, provocatively posed teens, but in Tehran the gigantic wall murals tend to depict robed grandpas and grumpy-looking white-bearded clerics—especially common are 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.
This Bizarro World feeling is pervasive. In August, when I left on one of my visits to Iran, a media blitz at home was trumpeting a more or less nonstop parade of American triumphs in the Olympic Games in Greece. Days later in Tehran the popular press was heralding a humiliating cascade of U.S. defeats. The Tehran Times reported an "anguished reaction" in Washington, D.C., over the three losses of the men's basketball team and its failure to win a gold medal (it won bronze), and when the American boxer Andre Ward advanced toward a gold medal, it ran the headline "SAVES U.S. TEAM FROM HISTORIC FAILURE." Coverage of the fighting in Iraq cheers savage insurgent violence there, and portrays the Iraqi Shia Ayatollah Ali Sistani—not the U.S. and British armies that actually toppled the tyrant Saddam Hussein—as the real force for democracy and independence.
And just when one seems to have the place in full inverse focus, there comes some wildly discordant note—such as the blocks-long open-air drug market right in Tehran's center, 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, sending with a slightly heavier application of makeup, flamboyant jewelry, and a few straying strands of hair the same message sent by spike heels and a G-string in Atlantic City. As I posed before a Khomeini mural for a snapshot one afternoon, a well-dressed young Iranian passerby asked me in perfect English, "Why do you want a picture of that asshole?"
Nowhere is Bizarro World more evident than in the country's national memory of the gerogan-giri, the "hostage-taking." On November 4, 1979, a well-organized core group of about sixty Iranian university students scaled the walls of the U.S. embassy compound, seized the embassy building, and bound and blindfolded about sixty 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 fifteen-month standoff 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 United States 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 agonizing 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 C-130 transport plane, exploded into flames, and left eight American Marines and airmen dead. In a final insult to Carter, the hostages were all released on January 20, 1981—Inauguration Day for the man who had defeated him, Ronald Reagan. The hostage-taking was an outrageous violation of international law and of the age-old rules governing diplomatic relations between civilized nations; but as shocking as it was at the time, in today's world of vicious Islamist terrorism the gerogan-giri seems almost quaint.
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, the hostage crisis was an unprovoked, inexcusable 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. In the United States it was a protracted, very public humiliation, made worse by breathless lead-story coverage in newspapers and on television, which began newscasts with a daily reminder of the predicament ("DAY 54: AMERICA HELD HOSTAGE"). It was America's first modern encounter with hostile Islamists, and the first time Americans heard their country called "the Great Satan."
For many Iranians, however, the hostage crisis was a glorious 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. It is a poignant and poetic tale of how these innocent servants of the Imam treated their often crude and abusive captives with kindness and respect even as they pieced together shredded embassy documents to expose and thwart America's plots to destroy the revolution and reinstate the Shah. And when the Great Satan dispatched its deadly commandos to slay these young heroes (this is the part that fires the blood of the faithful), Allah stirred dust storms to down the infidel helicopters and turn back the invaders. This is the story taught to schoolchildren who are bused in to see the Great Aban 13th Exhibition and to touch the remains of the helicopters that Allah scorched while the innocent gerogan-girha slept.
For the past three years I have been working on a book about the hostage crisis, trying to see it through both American and Iranian eyes and to understand how it shaped the world of today. On two recent 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 who they were, 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, in retrospect, about what they had done. Given Iran's current status as one of the two remaining countries on President Bush's "axis of evil," a designation most Iranians seem both to resent and to perversely enjoy, I thought I might learn something about the world's proudest and noisiest self-styled Islamic republic by finding those who so enthusiastically poisoned its relationship with the United States.
What I discovered was a group of graying politicians and intellectuals with a broad range of views about the event. How they felt about the gerogan-giri tended to define where they stood on Iran's wide political spectrum. Some remain true believers and have prospered in the mullahocracy they helped create, and even as they acknowledge that the embassy seizure permanently stained their nation in the eyes of the world, they defend it as necessary and just. They see the problems of modern Iran as growing pains, and are heartened by the upsurge in Islamist fundamentalism around the world. Some of these true believers refused to speak to an American reporter, who they suspected would misunderstand or distort their words. Other gerogan-girha are clearly ambivalent about what they did, weighing the pride and satisfaction of their youthful defiance against a more mature understanding of world politics. These people tend to stay in the shadows, afraid of getting in trouble or of drawing attention to themselves. But a surprising number of gerogan-girha, constituting a third group, are outspokenly embarrassed by their role and regard their actions as a monumental mistake—a criminal act that disrupted not just the lives of the American hostages but ultimately the life of their own country, which has found itself ever since in a downward spiral of economic, political, and social isolation.
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. The hostages underwent severe emotional difficulties. Prolonging it affected both countries in a negative way. The chaos caused such tension between Iran and the United States that even now, after two decades, no one knows how to resolve it."
One thing I learned from talking to the gerogan-girha was that the episode Americans remember as the "hostage crisis" was not supposed to involve the prolonged detention of hostages. The students who seized the embassy believed that they were participating in a conventional protest—not unlike those at U.S. colleges a decade before, when rebellious American students occupied campus buildings. 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 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. The revolution had unleashed tumultuous political passions, and Khomeini, monitoring events from the holy city of Qom, was of two minds about the future. Should Iran be ruled directly by clerics, or should it have a secular democracy? Bazargan favored 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 stabilize Iran and to re-establish ties with the rest of the world as a sellout.
The opportunity for radical change appeared to be slipping away. So extremists fanned fears of an American-led countercoup, and portrayed as treason all contacts between the provisional government and the United States—which were mostly over such practical matters as recovering the $6 billion the Shah had deposited in U.S. banks and obtaining needed parts for the Iranian air force's American-built F-16s. The plan to seize the embassy grew out of these fears. Many of the students involved believed the stories of an American plot, but the cooler heads behind them had more-local concerns. Khomeini was not—as many Americans always assumed—informed about the takeover in advance, and by the time it was presented to him it was already 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 national heroes. In a development never foreseen or even hoped for by the student leaders, 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 that ought to be familiar to Americans. They were trying to build a utopia, their own version of "a city upon a hill." 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 bland, teeming sprawl, a study in faded brown and gray, swimming in a miasma of smog and dust that leaves everything coated with a patina of grit. Umma remains a distant, unfulfilled promise, as Iranians grapple with unemployment, rural migration to the cities, rampant corruption, and self-destructive domestic and foreign policies. Straining under tight economic sanctions imposed by the United States and some of its Western allies, Iran remains an international pariah; it courts even tougher sanctions by reportedly working to manufacture nuclear weapons—an effort the regime officially denies but nearly everyone believes is well under way. Women live under archaic restrictions on employment, social relations, and mode of dress. Teachers and other intellectuals labor under oppressive government oversight. Political dissenters often end up in jail, or worse. The country's vast 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. As they've grown gray-haired and plump, the fame and admiration they once enjoyed have faded like the graffiti at the Den of Spies. Those who despise the current regime now regret their role in bringing a small circle of wealthy, authoritarian clerics to power. And more than anything they blame the hostage crisis for a litany of problems and setbacks that have befallen their country in the past quarter of a century. Iran's loss of ties to the United States 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.
Some of the gerogan-girha have gone into exile and taken up arms against the religious rulers; others have been harassed, denounced, beaten, or imprisoned for advocating democratic changes. In some cases they have been persecuted by their former colleagues. "None of us in the revolution believed Iran would ever have an autocratic regime again," Mohsen Mirdamadi, a leader of the gerogan-girha who is today a controversial reform politician, told a Knight Ridder correspondent earlier this year. "Yet here we are."
Ibrahim Asgharzadeh was a wiry, intense, bearded engineering student when he came up with the idea, in September of 1979, to seize the American embassy. "The initial idea was mine," he told me in an interview in December at the office of his newspaper, Hambastegi, off an alley in Tehran. "Ever since high school I had been outraged by American policies."
According to Asgharzadeh, there were five students at that first planning meeting. Two of them wanted to target the Soviet embassy, because, he said, the USSR was "a Marxist and anti-God regime." But the two others—Mirdamadi and Habibullah Bitaraf (now Iran's Minister of Energy)—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 occupied compound would carry our message to the world in a much more firm and effective way."
Asgharzadeh has 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. When I interviewed Asgharzadeh in Tehran, he looked entirely different from the images of him I had seen in the hostage-crisis days; he is now clean-shaven and very much at ease in a well-tailored suit. Indeed, he looked much too prosperous for his outlaw status; he has been banned from seeking public office, and in 1992 served a term in solitary confinement.
Asgharzadeh is the most prominent of the gerogan-girha who have turned against the mullahocracy. With the advantage of hindsight, he now sees the embassy takeover as a mistake—one that has had a disastrous long-term impact on his country. He chose his words carefully (to denounce the takeover is, in a sense, to debunk one of the founding myths of the regime), but his feelings about the episode were clear. "We failed in enforcing it the way it was meant to be," he said. "We lost control of events very quickly—within twenty-four 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 got out of its student mold and turned into a hostage-taking, it became a long, drawn-out, and corrosive phenomenon."
Asgharzadeh and his fellow planners knew at the time that seizing the embassy would be dramatic and popular with large portions of the Iranian people; they had even thought it might lead eventually to the fall of Bazargan's provisional government. But he and the others had not anticipated how explosive the public response would be. Hundreds of thousands of jubilant Iranians jammed the streets around the embassy to celebrate and rant against the evil U.S. plotters. Students Following the Imam's Line, wearing laminated images of Khomeini around their necks in order to distinguish themselves from other, mostly left-wing political groups that rushed to join the protest, spent much of their first day on the embassy grounds fending off these rivals, who they feared would muddy the purity of their protest with ideological cant, or even harm the Americans. In the confusion, Asgharzadeh recalled, they failed to fully control even their own members.
"American hostages were not supposed to be paraded blindfolded in front of the press," he told me. "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 really distorted. We objected strongly to this behavior, and the people who did this were reprimanded, but the damage had been done. These things did happen, even though we tried very hard to prevent the operation from being manipulated and abused 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 Jimmy Carter respond? Would there be military action? Sanctions? A blockade? This was an unprecedented event, amplified by around-the-clock global television coverage, and it seemed to herald something completely new and unpredictable in international affairs. The thing began to take on a life of its own. With the provisional government in tatters, the United States had no one with whom to negotiate a solution, and the students, locked inside the embassy compound with their hostages, unprepared for a drawn-out ordeal and with no plan for ending it, watched the great storm swirling outside the embassy walls, and began to see themselves as captives too.
In the coming weeks, as it became clear that the stalemate would not be resolved quickly, the hostage-takers recruited hundreds of volunteers to serve as guards, put them through hasty military training, and organized themselves into committees to handle the various practical challenges of holding, feeding, and housing a large number of prisoners. Many of the volunteers 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 daily press conferences with the world media and is now one of Iran's Vice Presidents and the Minister of the Environment, and Hussein Sheikh al-Islam, who zealously interrogated the higher-level embassy staffers and CIA officers, and who is today a conservative member of the Majlis. For the young Iranians in charge of the compound, those days were heady and even romantic: Asgharzadeh met and proposed to his wife, Tahereh Rezazadeh, and Ebtekar met and ultimately married Muhammad Hashemi, one of the core group of leaders. But the days grew tedious, frustrating, and—when the failed U.S. rescue mission awakened the gerogan-girha to the dangers—frightening.
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 weeks and months thirteen 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 slept on mats on the floor and were forbidden to speak. The higher-level Americans—diplomats, CIA officers, and military-liaison personnel—were sequestered, and taken away one by one for interrogation. Some were beaten; the CIA officers were worked over with heavy rubber hoses under the supervision of al-Islam.
After the failed rescue mission, in April, the gerogan-girha realized the tactical error of keeping the hostages all in the same place, and they were hastily scattered around the country, some to prisons and some to private homes. For the next nine months the captors played shell games with the hostages, moving them frequently.
Asgharzadeh realizes 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, for myself personally or for the team of comrades that we were, it would certainly not be an action along the lines of the takeover of the American embassy," he said.
Among the old hostage-takers, Asgharzadeh is not the only one who has found himself at odds with the current regime. In December, the day before I was supposed to interview Mohsen Mirdamadi, one of the original planners of the takeover and now a reform member of the Majlis, he was beaten by stick-wielding basij. Mirdamadi, a slightly built man, was delivering a speech at a university when his assailants stormed the lecture hall and attacked him. A photograph on the front pages of the next morning's newspapers in Tehran showed his head and chest bloodied and bandaged.
Abbas Abdi, another gerogan-girha leader who became a journalist, has been jailed repeatedly for criticizing the regime, and for advocating renewed talks with the United States. He spent eight months in solitary confinement in 1993, and is today serving a four-and-a-half-year term in the notorious Evin Prison—where some of his former hostages were kept—for publishing poll results showing that 74 percent of Iranians favored renewing ties with the United States. The newspaper for which he served as editor in chief, Salam, was banned in the late 1990s, and several years ago Abdi got in trouble with the government when he attended a much publicized meeting in Paris with one of his hostages, Barry Rosen, the embassy's public-affairs officer, in an attempt to begin what Abdi described as a "healing process." But the meeting of the two men fell well short of a warm and fuzzy reunion. Rosen condemned the seizure of the hostages, and Abdi refused to apologize for the action. Indeed, Abdi's old captives feel little sympathy for his plight. One of them, Dave Roeder, a retired Air Force colonel, told me, "It couldn't happen to a nicer guy."
Perhaps the treatment of reformers like Mirdamadi and Abdi explains why some of the gerogan-girha tend to speak in stilted euphemisms, even when they are discussing events now a quarter of a century old. Muhammad Naimipour, a friend and political ally of Abdi's who was also one of the gerogan-girha, would say only, "What happened overall between Iran and the U.S. could have been handled much better. Even the taking of hostages, in my opinion, could have been handled much better."
When I interviewed Naimipour, in December, he was an elected member of the Majlis, but he has since been crossed off the list of eligible candidates (those who are too critical of the regime are branded "un-Islamic") by the Guardian Council, a twelve-member body of clerics and judges accountable only to the current Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei. Thick-set and graying, Naimipour at forty-eight regards himself as "an old man."
"Because of all the stress and pressures we have had to live with, we have all aged well beyond our actual years," he told me. Several months after our interview Naimipour suffered a stroke.
If anyone at the time had a clearer vision of what the embassy takeover's full consequences might be, it was Muhammad Mousavi Khoeiniha, the black-bearded young cleric to whom the students took their plan in October of 1979. Khoeiniha was a well-known spiritual leader whose sermons in the Jobbestan Mosque, in northern Tehran, drew hundreds of radicals. When the students decided to invade the U.S. embassy, they sought out Khoeiniha in hopes of winning advance approval from Khomeini, with whom the young cleric had close ties. To their surprise Khoeiniha—without consulting Khomeini—immediately gave them his blessing, and thus established himself as the key clerical figure behind the gerogan-girha. Khoeiniha told me in an interview in Tehran in August that he had chosen not to ask the Imam's permission because "I did not think it was appropriate to involve him in some action being contemplated by a group of students."
Khoeiniha scoffed at the suggestion that his motive might also have been to force the issue; clearly, asking permission would have set off a furious round of backstage negotiations, which might have aborted the whole idea. But seizing the embassy would stir up popular support and put Khomeini on the spot, compelling him to either make the highly unpopular choice of backing the provisional government—which would have been duty-bound to evict the trespassing students—or go for the practical, post facto option of throwing his powerful support behind them. It was a clever and fateful piece of political engineering by Khoeiniha.
Today he remains a controversial, even somewhat mysterious figure. He is a leader of the reform movement, and was the managing director of the banned newspaper Salam. In 1999 he was charged with publishing lies and classified information, and was found guilty by a special court for the clergy. He was given a three-and-a-half-year prison term and was sentenced to be flogged, but because of his sterling revolutionary credentials, the penalty was reduced to a fine. Despite his feelings about the current regime, Khoeiniha remains a staunch defender of the embassy takeover, and he still thinks the United States owes Iran an apology for meddling in its affairs. As I was leaving his spacious office in central Tehran, located over the former offices of his newspaper, I noticed a gray four-drawer metal filing cabinet in the corner with a combination lock on the front. It bore a plate with the inscription "Property of the General Services Administration."
Khoeiniha smiled when I asked where it had come from. It was a souvenir from the U.S. embassy.
In the nine months between the fall of the Shah's regime and the takeover of the embassy, Iranian fundamentalists increasingly saw even routine contact between Bazargan's provisional government and U.S. officials, both in Tehran and abroad, as part of a CIA plot to undermine Khomeini, derail the Islamic revolution, and restore the Shah to power. Their fears were not irrational. The CIA had done something very similar in 1953, when its station chief, Kermit Roosevelt, orchestrated the collapse of an elected government under Prime Minister Muhammad Mosaddeq, and put the Shah on the throne. These actions had shaped the next quarter century of Iranian life. When the United States decided to admit the ailing exiled Shah for medical treatment, in late October of 1979, the students saw history repeating itself.
But they were wrong. The Shah was terminally ill with cancer, and Carter's decision to allow him treatment in the United States appears to have been purely humanitarian. In November of 1979 the United States had no intention—nor was it capable—of returning the Shah to the throne. As the famous documents seized in the embassy would eventually show, the American spy presence in Iran was at a pitifully low ebb. Only three CIA officers were in the country: Tom Ahern, the station chief; and two undercover operatives, Bill Daugherty and Malcolm Kalp. None of these men even spoke Farsi, and none had been in the country for longer than four months; Kalp had been in Tehran less than a week when the embassy was taken.
U.S. intelligence activities inside Iran during the previous twenty years had been directed primarily at the Soviet Union—and entailed mostly the monitoring of missile tests from bases along Iran's northern border. The warehouse basement where the gerogan-girha initially stashed most of the hostages—who called it the Mushroom Inn—had been built to house data-processing and communications equipment for those listening posts. Iran, as a staunch American ally, was not even a minor target for intelligence gathering. There is no better proof of this than the way the CIA was blindsided by the revolution. No one in Washington saw it coming.
After the revolution the CIA seemed to be largely groping for some understanding of the new regime taking shape in Tehran. Not that the Agency lacked bad intentions. Down the road it was hoping to at least nudge the revolution in a pro-American direction. A top-secret cable to the CIA director, Stansfield Turner, taken from Ahern's desk on the day of the takeover (he had neglected to shred it), summarized the station chief's goals and accomplishments.
You asked me to comment at some point about our prospects for influencing the course of events. Only marginally, I would say, until the military recovers, and that is a process we can do almost nothing to affect. What we can do, and I am now working on, is to identify and prepare to support the potential leaders of a coalition of westernized political liberals, moderate religious figures, and (when they begin to emerge) western-oriented military leaders.
Hardly the stuff of a countercoup. Still, the gerogan-girha did their best to paint the documents they seized as proof of their darkest suspicions, and to this day most of them insist that the embassy seizure did thwart active plots against the revolution.
Iran is still very much in the grip of CIA-phobia, which has spawned a national industry of conspiracy theories. One of the more breathtaking of these holds—and the irony here is apparently lost on most Iranians—that the embassy seizure was actually orchestrated by the CIA. In other words, the gerogan-girha were nothing but CIA stooges. How else to explain the world of trouble that followed the hostage crisis—the economic stagnation; the crackdowns on free speech; the constant patrols of the religious police; the jailing, torture, and even execution of political dissidents; the eight-year war with Iraq; the isolation from the international community?
Reza Ghapour, a fundamentalist scholar who was born the year before the embassy takeover, recently published a book that attempted to prove this theory of its origins. When I interviewed him in December, he told me with a straight face and a strong voice that the CIA had been responsible not only for installing and preserving the Shah but also for engineering his overthrow and secretly planning his return, for propping up the provisional government that followed the coup and fomenting the national unrest that ultimately undermined and toppled it, and for secretly orchestrating the seizure of the Den of Spies and keeping fifty-two Americans (three of them initially trapped at the Iranian Foreign Ministry) hostage for more than a year.
"Aren't some of these things mutually contradictory?" I asked. "For instance, why would the CIA wish to foment trouble for a provisional government it was secretly supporting?"
The slender, bearded Ghapour smiled at me with sweet condescension. "You must view the world through the lens of Islam to see the logic of these things," he said.
I heard the same general theory in slightly different form any number of times. Once was from Abolhassan Bani-Sadr, the former President of Iran, who was elected during the hostage crisis and eventually fled to Paris, accused of being a CIA agent himself. Bani-Sadr, who still lives in Paris, under around-the-clock protection by the French police, is of the school that believes earth-shattering events do not happen spontaneously; he finds it hard to accept that a group of college students by themselves cooked up a protest that had such profound consequences for Iran—not to mention his own life.
I also heard the theory from a liberal magazine editor, a critic of the current regime, who did not want to be named. A worn-looking middle-aged man with a concave face and tobacco stains on his fingertips, he argued fiercely, "If you consider the event backwards, from where we are today to the point twenty-five years ago when the takeover took place, and you consider who was hurt most by it and who most benefited from it, then you would have to conclude that the answer is Iran in the first place and America in the second place." The United States has gained, he said, by impeding the progress of the world's first self-styled Islamic republic.
He went on for a while longer, filling in some of the wilder possibilities of his hypothesis, and then waited with a pleased look on his face as the whole torrent of Farsi was conveyed by my interpreter. I said nothing in response, so he told the interpreter to ask me, "What do you think?"
"I think you're crackers," I said.
My interpreter looked at me quizzically.
"Just use the word 'crackers,'" I told him.
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 Muhammad Hashemi, who just retired as first deputy of the Ministry of Intelligence and Security, and his wife, Massoumeh Ebtekar, the Minister of the Environment. (If the smoggy skies of Tehran are any indication, Ebtekar has done her job with a notable lack of success.) They are Iran's premier power couple. As one might expect, both regard the embassy takeover as an unadulterated success. They promptly agreed to see me separately when I visited Iran in December.
I found Hashemi in an office several flights up from a noisy, bustling street in downtown Tehran. It was a chilly, wet, dreary day, and he served the customary small glasses of tea and chatted animatedly in front of a big color map of the world. Over the years Hashemi has grown thick and wide, with great round cheeks, a goatee framing large, pouting lips, and a wild spray of bushy gray hair. 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," Hashemi told me. "We wanted it to be a hostage-taking without any kind of harshness and scuffle, unique in history, a hostage-taking that represented a nation and its concerns, and that is what we are proud of."
Hashemi's key role in the takeover turned out to have been a good career move. Early in 1979 he was a college student majoring in film at Tehran Polytechnic University, but after the Shah's ouster he had abandoned his studies to devote himself full-time to the revolution—joining not only Asgharzadeh's student group but also a far more violent band of militants inside the Revolutionary Guards, who had become the enforcers of the mullahocracy. After the hostage crisis ended, with the release of the Americans, Hashemi and several of the other Revolutionary Guard participants went on to found the new regime's Ministry of Intelligence and Security. Today it is the country's much feared and omnipresent central spy agency, which answers not to the President or the Majlis but to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. In the years after the embassy takeover Hashemi's ministry conducted the vicious purges that broke the back of domestic opposition to mullah rule, and hunted down and assassinated enemies of the revolution overseas.
As one of the ringleaders of the embassy takeover, Hashemi recruited Ebtekar to join the gerogan-girha in the early hours of the crisis. He knew that, having lived in a suburb of Philadelphia as a child, she spoke fluent English. Ebtekar became the best known of the gerogan-girha, because, with her American-accented English, she was the natural choice to be the group's mouthpiece. 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 propagandizing. 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. Another former hostage, Michael Metrinko, one of the embassy's political officers, summed up his feelings about Ebtekar this way: "If she were on fire on the street, I wouldn't piss on her to put it out."
Ebtekar has written a book called Takeover in Tehran, which is the best explanation I've read of what motivated her and the other gerogan-girha, and which colorfully evokes the naive, heady romanticism of the era. The book, which has been published in Iran and in other countries around the world, is available in English in the United States, thanks to a Canadian publisher.
"Did you know that no American publisher would publish my book?" Ebtekar asked me, when we met in a conference room in the Ministry of the Environment's headquarters. A chronic didact, she was wrapped from head to toe in the same manner as the Sisters of Mercy who taught me in grammar school. She blamed her failure to find an American publisher squarely on U.S. government censorship.
"We approached fifty major American publishers through a well-respected literary agent in New York," she said. All of them rejected it.
"There are publishers in the United States who specialize in publishing tracts against the United States government," I said.
"Not big publishers," she said.
"No, they're not," I replied. "Big publishing houses tend to buy books that they think will sell well enough to make a profit. I suspect they didn't think yours would."
Ebtekar wasn't buying it. As a member in good standing of the Iranian government for many years, she found perfect sense in the notion of government censorship. Revisiting the embassy takeover, she reverted to the old lecturing, holier-than-thou manner about which I had heard so much from the hostages, and which anyone would find annoying.
"If the real truth had been reported, things would have gone differently," Ebtekar said, adding that if the U.S. government had not kept "the real story" from the American public, the gerogan-girha's decision to imprison the American diplomats, office workers, and Marines and threaten them with trial and execution would have been supported in the United States. She was just getting warmed up. "Because if you go back to the basics, if you go back to the principles, if you go back to the Declaration of Independence of America, the Constitution, what the students were speaking about were common values, values that are appreciated by people in America, in Iran, in Europe." I began to feel a sudden kinship with Michael Metrinko.
Just days after this conversation, during a stopover in London on my way home, I turned on the TV in my hotel room and was startled to see Ebtekar's tightly wrapped face. She was being interviewed by a CNN announcer on a split screen with Iran's newly anointed Nobel Peace Prize winner, Shirin Ebadi, a lawyer, a feminist, and a human-rights activist. Ebtekar was talking about how proud everyone in Iran was of Ebadi, even though Ebadi is widely known as a determined critic of the regime—indeed, her award was a symbolic blow against the government's repressive policies.
Under Iran's theologically inspired laws, women are not allowed to travel without permission from their husbands. The CNN announcer asked the Iranian Vice President how she could defend such a system.
If Ebtekar squirmed, it was only for a split second. She smiled and smoothly segued into a windy recitation of the gains women had made under Iran's Islamic regime.
Several days before, 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. It seems that he and his wife were 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. He boldly predicted that soon there would be a significant thaw in relations between Iran and the Western world, including the United States. The resort project seemed to rest in large part on that dubious proposition. 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 returned to Iran in August, 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 United States for their troubles. They were not the only gerogan-girha true believers who had fallen on hard times. When I tried to reach Hussein Sheikh al-Islam, the chief interrogator and the man that the former CIA station chief Tom Ahern (among others) remembers beating him with a rubber hose, I was informed by al-Islam's brother that he refused to speak to an American writer—for two reasons. The first, his brother said, was that he believes an American could never understand the "mysticisms" of the gerogan-giri. The second was that al-Islam blames the United States for thwarting his ambition to become a prominent Iranian diplomat. It seems that the only country that would accept him was Syria, historically a partner in terrorism with Iran.
On my last day in Tehran I visited the Den of Spies one more time. I was accompanied by David Keane, a filmmaker who is shooting a documentary in tandem with my reporting about the hostage crisis. 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 southeast 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. Yes, we had an appointment. Yes, we had papers—Ramin held up an imposing document with multiple important-looking signatures. One of the guards rang up a superior to announce our arrival, and we sat down to wait for an escort inside.
We sat for hours before a mid-level official in the management of the compound arrived at the guardhouse. A worried-looking man in an open-collared pale-blue shirt, 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.
"It's an exhibit," I argued. "The whole idea is for people to see it. If we film it, millions of people will."
On our visit in December we had overcome initial resistance to allowing us into the exhibit with a small reshveh, or tip (literally translated, "success fee"), at which point we were given a bang-up tour. But David had had no video camera that day. We suggested that Ramin offer another reshveh. No, Ramin said, management of the compound had turned over since our last visit, and the officials now in charge were new to the job and too nervous to bend the rules. Blue Shirt disappeared, and we waited another hour before he came back with exciting news: we would be allowed to film inside the exhibit hall, but David would have to use the officials' own video camera. This prompted further discussion. What kind of camera did they have? Would it be compatible with the digital cassettes David used in his camera? Blue Shirt left to investigate, and returned to report sadly that they could not find their camera. "You will have to hire a camera," he said.
"But I have a camera!" David shouted, holding up his Sony model. "You can inspect it if you like."
Even the Revolutionary Guards behind the counter felt our frustration, and they joined in the argument. "What's the big deal?" one said. "Let them take pictures with their camera."
Blue Shirt was insistent: no, the camera would have to be rented.
Later, just as a search party was about to head off to find a camera-rental shop, another administrator came running out with the announcement that the official camera had at last been located. So after a long day of waiting, David and I were finally escorted into the compound. We passed through a small pine grove, walked past the old white two-story ambassador's residence, where most of the hostages had spent their first days in captivity, and then were led into a small new administrative building in the back of the compound, where tennis courts had once been. After all the back-and-forth the official camera turned out to be a Sony—exactly the same model that David was carrying. We exchanged a round of handshakes and thank-yous with our hosts and set off for the embassy building exhibit to begin taping.
We had gone about ten steps when Blue Shirt came running back out. "No," he cried. "It has been decided that you can only take still pictures—no moving pictures."
That was when we gave up. We had already taken still pictures, on our earlier visit. As we made our way out of the compound, crossing the sidewalk onto Taleghani Avenue 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 Ramin in Farsi, smiling and gesturing toward 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 apologize on behalf of their country."
Ramin grinned as the soldiers huddled around him, grabbing at him in a friendly way. "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 the 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, "Okay, George W. Bush!"
So things have not worked out quite as the gerogan-girha planned. They have arrived in a new century with the varying perspectives of middle age. The righteous and successful see every step on their path as a correct one, and the righteous but disappointed still have an old enemy to blame. Those with misgivings concede the missteps of their youth, which they regret but cannot fully disown. They failed to create the world they dreamed of, but that is an old story. Some now accept the blame, or at least a big responsibility, for things they would like to change.
Still, even among those who now despair over the long-term consequences of the hostage crisis, I noticed a lift in mood when they talked about those stirring, intense, and dangerous days. No matter how it turned out for them, whether it made them proud or bitter, whether they feel they deserve international praise or scorn, for one long year they had the world's most powerful nation by the throat. At the center of the world's stage, for better or for worse, they danced a joyful and defiant dance.