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Imprisoned by violence, then and now

Guests of the Ayatollah: The First Battle in America's War With Militant Islam
By Mark Bowden
Atlantic Monthly, 680 pp., illustrated, $26

Before there was Osama bin Laden, America's nominee for the Muslim spot in the pantheon of religious nuts would have been the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini of Iran. Those of a certain age will never forget (because Walter Cronkite kept nightly count for us) 444, the sadly symmetrical number of days that 52 Americans were held hostage after student-led mobs stormed the American Embassy in Tehran in November 1979.

``The Iran hostage crisis was for most Americans their first encounter with Islamo-fascism and, as such, can be seen as the first battle in that ongoing world conflict," writes Mark Bowden in ``Guest s of the Ayatollah," an exhaustive account of the crisis. Bowden, who made his name writing ``Black Hawk Down," showcases his reporting talent in this doorstop of a book; he has re -created in gripping detail a 27-year-old event.

He notes that the hostages' suffering has come to seem almost banal compared with the beheadings and 9/11 murders committed by today's terrorists. Yet his anecdotes -- of beatings, of the Americans' gnawing fear that death might be imminent -- dispel any notion of a cushy captivity.

To Americans, Khomeini was the demonic puppeteer pulling the hostage-takers' strings. Bowden demurs: The students who planned the attack on the embassy kept their plans from the imam in case he would disapprove. Indeed, when informed of the students' takeover, Khomeini ordered Iranian authorities to ``go and kick them out." Only after he understood that Iranians supported the students did Khomeini, ``a maddeningly vacillating man," back their action.

After the hostages were freed, one of them , Michael Metrinko , endured a gantlet of medical examinations and debriefings by US officials in Germany. Friends offered to take him for some R&R through the country, but the bureaucrats weren't finished with him and told him he couldn't go. Metrinko stopped them dead by asking, ``Am I a prisoner?" He got to go on his German tour.

Others weren't so lucky. Hostage Joe Hall had longed for his wife during his imprisonment. But when he got home, the two discovered they had grown apart and divorced.

Bowden acknowledges Iran's ``legitimate grievances" against the United States. The shah of Iran, the US ally imposed by a CIA coup and deposed by Khomeini's Islamic revolution, terrorized and murdered dissidents. The legal and civilized response would have been to expel the Americans from the country. That would not have suited the students' purpose; they wanted to thwart what they believed was an imminent US effort, supported by spies among the hostages, to restore the shah to power. There was no such plan, and Bowden reports that the few Americans who were spies were pretty poor ones.

Given our current standoff with Iran, there is sad wisdom in the words of Ibrahim Asgharzadeh , a key planner in the takeover who today regards it as a mistake that embittered relations between the countries to this day. He told Bowden, ``All this is like a dysfunctional cycle which needs to be stopped at some point."

Rich Barlow is a freelance writer from Cambridge.

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