The Crisis: The President, the Prophet, and the Shah - 1979 and the Coming of Militant Islam.
by David Harris
New York: Little, Brown, and Company, 2004. 470 pp. $26.95.
Reviewed by Patrick Clawson
Middle East Quarterly
There is a natural fascination with what may be happening behind the scenes, and that certainly extends to what secret diplomacy may have been underway to resolve such an urgent crisis as that of the 1979 seizure of the hostages at the U.S. embassy in Tehran. Harris, formerly a contributing editor at the New York Times Magazine and Rolling Stone, provides much interesting material about the various diplomatic initiatives. He is strongest in writing about the middle of the crisis, rather than the early days or the final resolution, which have been the subject of several detailed (and more authoritative) accounts as well as much conspiratorial nonsense. Harris gives particularly interesting accounts of the role of Iranian foreign minister Sadegh Ghotbzadeh, who wrongly thought he knew what would persuade Iran's revolutionary leaders to let the hostages go; he ended up under arrest and was executed for his role in a plot to overthrow the government. Harris also highlights the role of private citizen Henry Kissinger as an intermediary with Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi.
But The Crisis suffers from some serious problems. Harris provides no indication of his sources for particular statements. And in his afterward about his sources, he acknowledges that some quotes come "from multiple sources, which I have bound together inside a single set of quotation marks." He lists an impressive set of interviews, including many in Iran, as well as extensive use of primary source materials. But he also acknowledges "a special debt to the work of Gary Sick, William Shawcross, Pierre Salinger, and Amir Taheri"—three of whom have written books full of unsubstantiated innuendo that rely heavily on fabricated sources.
Furthermore, Harris's title misleads. He barely discusses the origins of militant Islam as a political movement. His account is not so much about the three main actors cited in the title—President Jimmy Carter, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, and the shah—as about the maneuverings of their top aides. The failure to deliver what the title implies is particularly important when one reflects upon how little result there was from the secret diplomacy on which Harris concentrates. In fact, the hostages were taken so that Iran's revolutionaries could isolate their erstwhile allies in the Westernized wing of the anti-shah movement and consolidate Iran's anti-American orientation; once that purpose had been accomplished, the hostages were released. The diplomatic maneuverings did more to prolong the crisis, by suggesting that the United States was too timid to react strongly, than to end it.
 Warren Christopher, ed., American Hostages in Iran: The Conduct of a Crisis (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1985); for the Iranian account, Massoumeh Ebtekar, Takeover in Tehran: The Inside Story of the 1979 U.S. Embassy Capture (Vancouver, B.C.: Talonbooks, 2000).
Related Topics: Iran, Radical Islam, US policy | Patrick Clawson | Summer 2005 MEQ
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