Figuring out what we've learned, from the hostage crisis to today
San Fransisco Gate, Sunday, April 3, 2005
One day last September, I went with friends to visit Imam Ruhollah Khomeini's shrine in the south of Tehran. The shrine was not as I expected it. Instead of a grand display, it was unfinished, dressed in bare concrete and blue tarps. There was no adoring crowd, just a sprinkling of people, mostly Afghan refugees and Iraqis. Images of Khomeini, some surrounded by wreaths of flowers, portrayed him more as a stern grandfather than the frightening ayatollah remembered from TV broadcasts of the Islamic revolution and hostage crisis of more than 25 years ago.
We took Tehran's subway back to the city, avoiding the "women only" subway car because my friend's husband had come with us. The "mixed" car was packed with young men (70 percent of Iran's population is younger than 30), but we two women in our scarves and long coats sat in a tiny bubble of space, while the male crowd braced themselves to avoid falling into us. Perhaps I was being paranoid, but the subway car seemed tense, the crowd focused on us with the heavy-breathing intensity of a few hundred lasers. This was Iran in a nutshell: the ostensibly strict social control, the restless youth (the result of so many women being encouraged to give birth to more soldiers for the long Iran-Iraq War), the chronically unemployed milling about, a simmering feeling that what you are seeing -- whether it's piety or protest -- is not what's really going on.
Later that afternoon, I walked to the former U.S. Embassy where 63 Americans were taken hostage by students. The building is now used by the Iranian military; the U.S. seal with its eagle has been conspicuously scraped off the gate. Because the U.S. has had no diplomatic or economic presence in Iran since 1979, the former embassy is where the Islamic Republic keeps the "Great Satan" of America alive. "Down with USA," read murals in English. Inside the building's gates, roses grow, giving the place the air of an enchanted castle. But it's not Sleeping Beauty who lies inside. More likely, it's the cryogenically preserved Wicked Witch -- America -- the enduring cause for the country's woes in the eyes of many Iranians, even as they giggle at the Hollywood sitcoms beamed down to their satellite TVs.
As one former Iranian revolutionary put it, beginning with the 1953 coup co-orchestrated by the CIA to reinstate Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, there were countless flubbed chances to avoid this particular Iran. "There were so many little snowflakes, and suddenly the snowball is falling and there is nothing you can do," he said, tossing his hands. "The U.S. made a lot of mistakes. We've really paid."
There is no easy narrative for the Iran hostage crisis, but David Harris' The Crisis: The President, the Prophet and the Shah -- 1979 and the Coming of Militant Islam (Little, Brown; 470 pages; $26.95) is an exciting read. Harris, a Bay Area journalist who writes for the New York Times and Rolling Stone, has turned a confusing chronology of the 444 days after a group of Iranian students took the employees of the U.S. embassy hostage into an emotionally gripping story. As in a good horror film, I found myself shouting, "No! Turn back now!" at the characters as they muddled through yet another decision, adding to the debacle. And what makes "The Crisis" seem so fresh so long after the fact is that the consequences continue to this day. "The Crisis felt like an end while it was happening, but it was also just the beginning," Harris comments in the introduction, "Here ... the opening battle of America's Islamic war was joined."
Harris approaches the story through the personalities of the three main actors -- Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, President Jimmy Carter and Ayatollah Khomeini, taking pains to make them sympathetic. Pointing out that all three were transformed by the deaths of their fathers, Harris shows each man defined as much by his inconsistency as by his idealism. He takes apart the cartoonish image of Khomeini to reveal a kid who played soccer badly and wrote poetry on long lonely walks through the countryside. The shah, dying bitterly of cancer in a hospital in New York, fears that the United States has bugged his hospital room, so he scratches messages to his friends on a pad: "If something happens, know that there was a plot."
Carter, who is often lazily characterized as "weak" in other books, is described here as a "tough son of a bitch," whose stubborn rationalism kept him searching for reasonable solutions to the crisis when a less charitable guy would have done something brutal. (Rosalynn, it turns out, was known in the administration as a "superhawk.")
What's striking about the hostage takeover and the response to it is how much was improvised on the spot -- and how quickly events accelerated once they started. As the Iranian students invaded the U.S. Embassy, expecting to occupy it for a day or two, a chador-clad woman carried a hand-lettered, misspelled sign: "Don't be afraid. We just want to set in." The screaming crowds of Iranians who took to the streets in support of the takeover caught even the students by surprise. No one had the upper hand: Factions within the half-formed new Iranian government fought over whether to release the hostages. By commending the takeover as a "second revolution," Khomeini consolidated his power when the moderate interim government resigned. And so the little "sit-in" profoundly shaped the way Iran is today.
Washington was almost comically unprepared. In the first days of the crisis, Vice President Walter Mondale asked the secretary of defense, "What the hell is an ayatollah anyway?"
American diplomats had no contacts at all in the new Iranian government. There was only one link between the students and the United States: Every afternoon a Farsi speaker at the State Department would call a phone at the former embassy and try to chat up whoever took the call. As Carter's White House planned the disastrous rescue attempt, the next unlikely link to the Iranian government was Hamilton Jordan, Carter's gregarious young chief of staff. Jordan's old drinking buddy, Panama Gen. Torrijos, set him up with an odd couple consisting of a French lawyer and an Argentine businessman who were authorized to negotiate on behalf of the Iranian foreign ministry. Next thing you know, Ham was on a plane to London, where he turned out to be a disarmingly adept amateur in international diplomacy.
But every step forward was followed by new setbacks and disasters until Ronald Reagan was inaugurated and Carter got word as he was leaving Washington in his limo that the hostages had been released.
Other stories of the revolution and hostage crisis have focused on the details of policy and politics, but Harris has chosen to tell it as a sweeping drama. Nearly a quarter of a century after the fact, "The Crisis" seems timeless, like those Greek tragedies that turn old war stories into commentaries on the human condition. Harris points out that both the United States and Iran "were left with governments they might never have had otherwise, headed in directions few had foreseen." And, as in a classic tragedy, both sides lost.
Afschineh Latifi was 10 during the Iranian Revolution. In her unpretentious memoir, Even After All This Time: A Story of Love, Revolution and Leaving Iran (Regan Books; 320 pages; $24.95), she shows how the smallest people were slammed by the snowballs of history. In an early photo, Afschineh, the child of a well-off military family, looks composed beyond her years, dressed in ornate traditional clothes. Later that year, her father, a colonel under the shah, was executed as an "immoral on earth." It was 1979. "From the point of view of a self-absorbed child, especially one who didn't want to deal with the loss of her father, this wasn't the real problem." With the kind of unsentimental candor that runs through the book, she writes, "The real problem was that we weren't having fun."
Latifi's mother managed to get her and her sister into a convent school in Austria. Unaware of their family's increasing poverty, and feeling extremely out of place in a world of nuns and weiner schnitzel, the girls (age 11 and 13) went on spending sprees with the money their mother had saved for their education. "Thus began our long, slow slide into corruption." Cowboy boots, tights, bulky sweaters, expensive furry boots, stickers, Barbie pencil cases, sometimes $100 worth of candy: In all they spent $15,000, and when their mother came to see them, they were penniless. Ever resourceful, their mother arranged to send them to relatives in the United States. And suddenly the Latifi girls found themselves living with a deeply depressed uncle on the wrong side of Norfolk, Va.
Their remaining childhood years were weird and lonely, and they raised themselves by sheer force of will. While calling their mother in Iran every Sunday, they imagined that Florence Henderson was their American mother. Latifi's older sister worked at the mall to buy a particularly ghastly off-the- shoulder prom dress. Then the sisters studied "American Bandstand" until they knew the dances. Even so, Latifi describes them as dutiful daughters, even "uber-virgins." They were rewarded when their mother and brothers finally joined them in the United States in 1987. By many measures, the family has been a wild success: The author and her younger brother are lawyers; her sister and other brother are doctors; they have a summer house in the Hamptons.
Any memoir written about the Iranian Revolution now occurs in a political context. With the United States muttering about "regime change" in Iran, a memoir runs the risk of fitting too neatly into the U.S. national vision of itself as a savior while Iranian womanhood is a virgin tied to the tracks. The best-seller "Lolita in Tehran" seems to suggest that Iranian women needed to be rescued from their tormentors (if not by the U.S. Special Forces, then at least by F. Scott Fitzgerald). Latifi's book is instead a testament to the power of her mother's doggedness and her sister's gumption.
Rather than advancing a political agenda, or even singing the praises of the American Dream, "Even After All This Time" reads as a delicate cautionary tale about the perils of stoicism. One day, while breaking up with her fiance, Latifi snaps, "If you think this is painful, you don't know me at all. When I was a little girl, my father was executed. This is nothing to me." At that instant, Latifi realizes she needs to face the pain she's hidden away. And with this tale, she once again rescues herself.
Rand's 500-page analysis The Muslim World After 9/11 (Rand; 525 pages; $40 paperback) should offer some hints of where the next crisis will be. The introduction offers a small checklist of "Sources of Islamic Radicalism," like one of those "Can This Marriage Be Saved?" quizzes they used to have in Redbook magazine. The answer, unfortunately, appears to be "no."
The Rand folks are pragmatists, and they trace Islamic radicalism to economics. "Much of the extremism we are concerned about derive(s) from -- and contribute(s) to -- economic and political failure." The authors of the study further break anti-American anger down into two types: the sort truly spurred by American policies, and the sort caused by Muslim nations themselves but that finds the United States a good target to vent at. Whatever the cause, the study assumes that anger at the United States is a given in the Muslim world.
Rand analysts write about the big picture, eschewing tasty gossip or psychological analysis. But the section on Iran reveals how little the United States knows today about the country's inner workings. An elaborate graph shows "Observed Political Groupings in Iran," while a few pages later a note mentions that the military seems to be acting without the knowledge of other parts of the government.
What's more, communications between the United States and Iran haven't improved much since the days of calling the phone at the embassy and seeing who would chat. And it's a situation unlikely to improve soon: The authors note that the U.S. government now has very few Farsi speakers.
And the missed opportunities -- the snowflakes -- seem to continue. Intriguingly, the report says that Iran feared that the United States would nourish the Shiite communities of Najaf and Karbala in Iraq to create a source of moral and religious authority to compete with Iran's Shiite state. But in August, United States forces stormed Najaf, and the authors add dryly, "Over the course of 2004 this (Iranian) fear has probably subsided." And even though Khomeini's grandson popped up in Iraq in 2003 fulminating against the Iranian government and "more or less invited the U.S. to bring about regime change in Iran," the authors believe that the United States doesn't know enough about Iran's social and political fabric to attempt such a thing. Elsewhere in the report, it's possible to glean a picture of what the post- hostage-crisis, post-Sept. 11 United States has become. It seems the country's economic and military presence is now leaving its diplomatic presence in the dust. Is it possible that we've forgotten the most important lessons of the Iranian hostage crisis? According to "The Muslim World After 9/11," that would seem to be the case. For its chapter on Central Asia, where the United States has extensive interests in oil and gas as well as a growing military presence to counter terrorism, the heading is "Apocalypse Soon or Eccentric Survival?" In West Africa, the authors say that U.S. intelligence and diplomatic capacities have "steadily atrophied" since Sept. 11, resulting in "a weakened grasp of evolving trends on the ground, creating acute vulnerabilities that can be quickly and decisively exploited." This is particularly worrisome because the United States is now involved in a $100 million military drive to fight terrorism in West Africa, and we import 15 percent of our crude oil from the region -- far more than we ever got from Iran. We want to be in West Africa, it appears, but we're not too interested in listening.
The authors' summary ends with a cautionary note: "The outcome of the 'war of ideas' under way throughout the Muslim world is likely to have great consequences for U.S. interests in the region, but it is also the most difficult for the United States to influence."
We have to find a way to understand the people who hate us, or we'll all suffer the same long-term forecast: snow.
Bay Area writer Lisa Margonelli is at work on a book about oil, to be published by Doubleday/Nan A. Talese.