Into the Den of Spies

Mark Bowden, the author of "Among the Hostage-Takers," speaks about the Iran hostage crisis of 1979 and its architects' present-day struggles with the Islamic regime

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.

Terrence Henry

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.

While you were in Iran, did the government place any constraints on your talking to the hostage-takers?

Indirectly. Some of the people I wanted to talk to were in jail, so the government could prevent me from talking to them. Others who wanted to talk to me felt threatened, whether they had specifically been threatened or not I don't know, but at any rate a number of them backed out or "declined regretfully" my invitation to interview them. One of the individuals whom we intended to interview, a fairly well-known figure in the parliament there—Mohsen Mirdamadi —was attacked and beaten by a group of thugs the day before he was supposed to meet with us. I don't know if he was attacked because he was going to give us an interview, or because of his overall activities advocating reform in Iran, but it had the effect of making him unavailable to us.

When you spoke to the hostage-takers, were you surprised that some of them are critical of the very regime they originally helped bring to power in Iran?

No, I wasn't really surprised. But then again, I think real courage always surprises you when you see it. These are people who are—at great personal risk— speaking out against the regime. I'm fifty-three years old, so I'm really a contemporary of the young people who seized the embassy in 1979, and I can look back on things I did in my twenties that I don't think I'd do today. Certainly you can see now that the system that they hoped to create in Iran, the government that they all envisioned in their naiveté, was this sort of perfect Muslim society. But in fact what they have grown up to live in now is a horrible, totalitarian, religious, fascist society. Frankly, it doesn't surprise me that they hate it, but it does surprise me a little bit that they are courageous enough to oppose it.

Do you think they're walking a fine line by defending taking the American embassy then but criticizing the mullahs in power today?

Yes, I think that they are. The mullahs who were involved in the plan to take over the embassy were manufacturing this myth of American evil, omnipresence, and omnipotence in Iran. That has become one of the founding principles of the state, and it's really remarkable the extent to which Iran defines itself still—twenty-five years later—in opposition to the "Great Satan" of the United States. Clearly, anyone who would look back and speak critically of this "magnificent, founding event" in the history of Iran is running the risk of angering the regime and speaking heresy. Nevertheless, what you discover in Iran is that most people chafe under the dictates of the regime these days. My impression of the Iranians is that they're basically a freedom-loving people. I think they're just as unhappy being repressed by the mullahs as they were being repressed by the Shah.

The hostage-takers and their clerical leader, Khoeiniha, claim that Ayatollah Khomeini had no involvement in planning or approving the hostage-taking. What was Khomeini's role in the hostage crisis once it began?

Going into this, my impression of Khomeini, from pictures I'd seen of him and what we knew here in the States, is that he was a very decisive leader. But it turns out he wasn't, which was surprising to me. In particular where secular matters were concerned, he tended to be a vacillating figure. I think lower-level clerics authorized taking over the embassy knowing it would whip up a great deal of popular support, because anti-American sentiment was already rampant in Iran. So by presenting Khomeini with this fait accompli, with millions of people dancing in the streets, they made it impossible for him to support the provisional government, which had responsibility for protecting the American diplomats and ordering the Iranian students off the U.S. embassy grounds. So Khomeini ended up doing exactly what I think Khoeiniha and whoever else was involved expected him to do—capitulating to the students and basically supporting the takeover of the embassy. I think that in doing so Khomeini was kind of pushed into supporting the factions in Iran that wanted to create this religious theocracy, and I'm not convinced that that's what he envisioned at all.

Later on in the crisis, the students offered to turn the American hostages over to the Iranian government, and then changed their minds. Did Khomeini's indecisiveness come into play here? What effect did his vacillation have on the negotiations to free the hostages?

There was always a struggle in Iran over the hostages because there was an ongoing struggle over what kind of government the country was going to have. The hostages had become a very hot potato in Iran, and after a few months I think the students, who had never planned to hold the hostages for more than a day or two, were quite weary of the responsibility of maintaining this prison, and were eager to get on with their own lives. So there was an eagerness on their part to turn the hostages over to the government, which would then be in a position to at least negotiate with the United States. That would have happened fairly smoothly if not for the fact that there were factions in the government and around Khomeini who were still pushing for a hard-line, Islamic, anti-American stance, and they were opposed to striking any kind of a deal with the United States. They felt that by keeping the hostages in the hands of the students they avoided the possibility that some sort of compromise with the United States might be reached.

When the students seized the embassy, they seized thousands of classified documents, spanning decades, that they later published as the Den of Spies collection. They claimed these documents proved that the CIA was meddling extensively in Iran at the time and was planning to overthrow the Islamic Revolution. Having examined these files yourself, how much CIA spying was actually going on in Iran at the time? How did the students get their hands on the documents?

The students got the documents because the State Department had very sloppy procedures for getting rid of them, and in fact had hoarded them over the decades. So when the embassy was taken they essentially turned over to these invading students a treasure trove of secret documents relating the entire history, over a period of almost thirty years, of U.S. relations with Iran. A lot of the documents they seized were intact, and the ones that had been shredded were painstakingly pieced back together. The students used these documents to support their arguments that the CIA was this omnipotent and omnipresent force in Iran that was responsible for just about every obstacle to creating a new society and furthering the revolution. They blamed everything on the CIA, from rebellion in Kurdistan to hurricanes to train derailments; it was ridiculous. What you found in reality in the American embassy at that time was a CIA station that consisted of three officers—Tom Ahern, who had been in the country for about eight months; Bill Daugherty, who had only been in the country for a month or two, and who in fact had just been recruited as a CIA officer in January 1979 and was completely raw and inexperienced; and Malcolm Kalp, a CIA officer with more experience but who had only arrived in Tehran four days before the embassy was taken. This small contingent of CIA officers in the embassy was just beginning to figure out its way around Tehran. None of them spoke Farsi, none had large strings of agents they were running in the country. In fact, they knew next to nothing about what was happening in Iran and were totally incapable of influencing events. It's almost laughable to think that they were in a position to influence anything. The fact is that the CIA—counter to the myths perpetrated by the regime—had been a fairly unimportant force in Iran for many years, precisely because Iran had been a major American ally in the region, so there was really no energy being expended by the United States to spy on Iran. We basically—to our shame and ultimately our embarrassment—relied primarily on the Shah for any intelligence in Iran, and that intelligence was so poor that it led to one of the great failures of intelligence gathering in modern times, which was the failure to appreciate that the Shah was about to be overthrown. Washington was taken completely by surprise when the Shah left and the revolution took place. So there's no stronger example of how ineffective the CIA was in Iran than the fact that they didn't know they were about to lose the country to an Islamic revolution.

Do Iranians still accuse the CIA of meddling in their country today?

Absolutely. The country remains ridiculously fixated on the U.S., and actually defines itself in opposition to the United States, assuming still that the CIA is active under every bush and rock. Again, they blame everything on the CIA, including the takeover of the American embassy. The current popular theory is that the whole thing was actually engineered by the CIA to make Iran a pariah nation, which led to all of their troubles ever since.

You note that for the hostage-takers, the moment of taking the embassy put them at the center of the world's stage. Does the embassy takeover still instill pride in them, or do they see it as the beginning of a twenty-five-year curse that has cut them off from the world?

I think they see it as both, and where they fall on the political spectrum determines how strongly they feel about it one way or the other. The truth of it is that Iranians, like Americans, are patriots, and they resent the fact that, as they see it, the United States engineered, or helped engineer, the overthrow of a democratically elected government in 1953 and essentially imposed a king upon them by enthroning the Shah. I think the United States actually had a role in that but wasn't the prime mover. Nevertheless it was an insult to Iran, so there was a great deal of legitimate anger in these young revolutionary Iranians who took over the embassy in 1979. I think that any of the hostage-takers would have to look back on that time with some degree of fondness, and it would be hard for them to completely disown it. It was the most exciting period of their lives, even if the long-term impact was to damage their country.

How do the American hostages look back on their experience in Iran today?

I've spoken to most of them who are still alive, and there's a variety of ways that they feel, but they all feel bitter about the way they were treated and what happened to them in Iran. I have yet to find one who thinks there was any legitimate reason for them to be taken and held by these Iranians. They think they were dealt a tremendous injustice. Many of them are angry about the fact that the United States, in reaching the deal that ultimately led to their release, barred them from seeking any damages from Iran. At present those former hostages are pursuing a legal remedy to that in the U.S. courts, where they hope to get some sort of compensation from Iranian funds that were seized and held here in the United States after the embassy takeover. Some of the former hostages think that President Jimmy Carter should have reacted much more aggressively, even violently, to the takeover of the embassy. But most are grateful that he didn't, because they feel that if, for instance, the rescue attempt that Carter did try had gone through and made it to the embassy, some or maybe all of them wouldn't have made it out alive. So there are mixed feelings about the whole thing, but I think most of them feel a kind of gratitude toward Carter, even if they disagree with him politically, because he placed such a high importance on their safety and ultimately was able to get them back alive.

In what was once the U.S. embassy in Tehran, today there is what you describe as an "official shrine"—essentially a museum—for the hostage-taking. Do Iranians still visit the embassy much these days? Do they still demonstrate against America outside its walls?

They do, but my impression is that it's all orchestrated. There are still visitors to the Den of Spies, but they're basically bused in like school groups as part of a program to learn about the revolution. I didn't see any everyday Iranians standing in line who wanted to check out the exhibit; it was empty each time I went to see it. My understanding is that every year on the anniversary of the takeover, November 4, there is usually some kind of demonstration outside of the embassy walls, but that it's fairly perfunctory. A number of former hostage-takers I've talked to have told me that they're invited to come back annually and address the crowd outside the embassy in honor of the event, but they generally refuse to do so because they have mixed feelings, in some cases hard feelings, about what happened.

You say in your article that the hostage-taking was America's first real exposure to Islamic fundamentalism, an event that seems tame in contrast to the violent terrorism carried out today. Do you think the hostage crisis holds any lessons for fighting terrorism today?

I think it just points up the difficulty of dealing with terrorism and hostage-taking, because they create such a dilemma. One of the things that I am coming to realize more and more is the importance of the role that the press plays in giving them a weight they don't have in the real world. I think that the hostage crisis in 1979 was, in a way, prolonged by the hyperbolic press coverage here in the United States, which made such a huge issue out of it. It might not have lasted as long as it did or become such a charged and symbolic event if it hadn't been placed at the center stage of everyone's perception of the world at that point. So I think it was blown way out of proportion then, and I think we as journalists ought to think hard about how we report on these acts of terror today and at least weigh the public interest in deciding how much emphasis to give to something like a hostage-taking.

What kind of effect does the hostage crisis have on American-Iranian relations today?

I think it remains the single greatest obstacle to any kind of normal relationship between our two countries. Iran continues to define itself as the home of anti-Americanism in the world and its rhetoric is perfectly hateful and very provocative. I think the takeover of the American embassy in Tehran was a defining event in the relationship—or lack of one—between our two countries. So any effort to improve relations between our countries now would have to involve arriving at a better understanding of what was happening between our two countries in 1979.

In your last cover story for The Atlantic, you wrote about torture and interrogation, concluding the piece with your own realizations about the relative morality of such tactics in various situations. In this article, you don't shy away from including yourself, either—vocally protesting the poor care of the embassy by its Iranian guards today, telling one Iranian that he's "crackers" for thinking the CIA engineered the hostage-taking, and openly sharing some of the anger the American hostages felt toward their captors. How have you become so comfortable having your own thoughts and actions as part of the story?

One of the things that I enjoy about my work for The Atlantic and the books that I write is that they give me much more latitude to think through the issues that I'm writing about, and I feel that I owe it to readers to let them know what I think at a certain point. I was raised in the very strict tradition of newspaper journalism, where for many years I wrote stories that I totally removed myself from, generally avoiding reaching any kind of conclusion about things. I think that one of the things I find more challenging about the work I'm doing now is that I don't let myself off the hook like that anymore. I don't enter into a story with a preconceived notion and I don't have any kind of overarching ideology or political affiliation, but what I do try to do is approach whatever the subject matter is as a well-educated layman who has the time to really investigate what it is I'm writing about. And that gives me the opportunity to really think things through. I try not to be oppressive about that or even let it completely shape the story that I'm telling, but by the same token I don't avoid trying to convey what I think and what I feel at the various stages of writing.

What has been the response from readers to including yourself in your work?

Well, mostly I find that people respond to it very favorably. Whether they agree or disagree with me, they find it refreshing, I think, that I don't write as though I don't belong in the same world as everyone else. I react to things that I learn and experience in the same way anyone else does, and so far no one's threatened to lynch me for having an opinion.

Did you get any sense from those you talked to in Iran that the United States' difficulties in occupying Iraq have emboldened the Iranian government? Are they fearful of the U.S. as a superpower?

I think that they're not that fearful, because the fact that the United States has really gotten bogged down in Iraq reassures Iran that the Bush Administration is not about to invade. That would have been a fear if things had gone as smoothly as President Bush and some of his advisers had hoped initially. All Iranians are delighted to see Saddam Hussein removed from power, but I felt while I was in Iran that there were a number of different reactions to the American invasion of Iraq. On the one hand, the official policy of the Iranian government would favor the creation of a Shia-dominated religious state in the mode of Iran. So in that sense, they're looking to people like Ayatollah Sistani and Moqtada al-Sadr to pressure the United States into holding early elections that would lead to a Shia-dominated government. On the other hand, the average Iranian whom I spoke to was rooting for American success in Iraq, hoping that the Bush Administration can help Iraq set up a stable, Western-style democracy and by doing so create a great deal of pressure for reform in Iran. So ironically, some of conservative America's biggest supporters would be the Iranian men on the street who are rooting for American success in Iraq and Afghanistan.

How do you think Iranians feel about Bush being reelected?

I think the man on the street in Iran is delighted. Because, as I've said, I think they're rooting for an ultimate American success in Afghanistan and Iraq. And Bush is perceived as a very tough-minded, consistent leader in Iran, and that plays well in that part of the world. The official reaction, I'm sure, is one of dismay. The regime in Iran would probably much prefer to have dealt with John Kerry than George Bush, so I suspect that they're disappointed.

Much of the news about Iran today deals with its nascent nuclear-weapons program. Did the hostage-takers have anything to say about Iran's nuclear program? How do you feel about it?

I haven't discussed the nuclear situation with any of the hostage-takers. What I personally think is that Iran, like every country, is going to act in its own best interest. And frankly, even though I think it's terrible that Iran could have a nuclear weapon, if I put myself in the shoes of an Iranian, I can understand completely why they would want that and why it is something that would be to their benefit. For one thing, they're basically surrounded right now by countries they regard as enemies, most of whom are nuclear powers: the United States is occupying Afghanistan and Iraq; they have Pakistan on their border; and Israel is within striking distance. So I think they feel entitled to the same measure of deterrence that, say, the United States felt it needed during the Cold War. It's also a matter of national pride—I think they feel that if they have the technology and engineering capability to make nuclear weapons, then why shouldn't they be able to, if other countries all over the world have done so? I understand it for all those reasons, as well as an additional one: if they do develop a nuclear-weapons program it would be a tremendous bargaining chip for them in dealing with the United States and the Western world. If America and Europe are serious about wanting Iran to remain free of nuclear weapons, then they would presumably have to give up something important in order to make Iran abandon those efforts. And I do think it would be a bad thing for the United States and the Western world if Iran were to possess nuclear weapons. Not because I think that in the short run we're at any risk of the Iranian government using such a weapon in a first strike, but because I think that based on the way I see Iran there is political instability in the future of that country, and there are very clearly fanatical Islamic factions within Iran who are quite supportive of al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups who wouldn't hesitate to use these kinds of weapons. So I can foresee—without a great deal of stretching my imagination—Iran providing a nuclear device to a terrorist group who would use it against one of the "infidel" countries. I think it's a terrible problem, and one that the United States needs all the help it can get in addressing.

You said earlier that whatever kind of engagement comes up in the future between the U.S. and Iran, one of the first things that they would have to address up front is the hostage crisis. What would be the best way to deal with the hostage crisis in opening a relationship with Iran?

I think that the United States could take some steps to acknowledge how improper its involvement was in Iran in the early 1950s, when we effectively undermined a democratically elected government to install a monarchy. We basically did that to protect our interests in the country, which involved both geopolitics and oil. Acknowledging our historical wrongdoing in that region might go some way toward ameliorating the difficulties we still labor under with Iran. By the same token, Iran needs to acknowledge that the United States was not actively trying to overthrow the revolution in 1979; that the diplomats that they held hostage for more than a year were performing routine, everyday diplomacy; that seizing the embassy and holding the diplomatic mission hostage was a violation of every standard of international law; and that it was simply wrong. So I think that there's room for both sides in this discussion to acknowledge error and try to build something more respectful and more meaningful. If that can lead to ties between our two countries, that'd be a good thing. But I personally think the regime in Iran is a nightmare, and we can't be true to our democratic values and be in the least bit supportive of the theo-fascism that rules that country right now.