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Recalling the Iran Hostage Crisis

This past week marked the 26th anniversary of the failed rescue attempt of hostages held at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran for 444 days. We talks with journalist Mark Bowden, author of Guests of the Ayatollah: The First Battle in America's War with Militant Islam.

43:18

Other segments from the episode on May 1, 2006

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, May 1, 2006: Interview with Mark Bowden; Review of DVD box sets of "Mister Peepers," "The Merv Griffin show" and "Six feet under."

Transcript

DATE May 1, 2006 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
NETWORK NPR
PROGRAM Fresh Air

Interview: Mark Bowden discusses the Iranian hostage crisis and
his new book "Guests of the Ayatollah"
TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

My guest Mark Bowden describes the Iranian hostage crisis as the first battle
in America's war with militant Islam. His new book, "Guests of the
Ayatollah," is about the 444-day crisis. It began on November 4th, 1979, when
Iranian students stormed the US Embassy in Tehran, protesting the US decision
to allow the exiled shah to come to America for medical treatment. The
students took 66 Americans hostage and held most of them for the duration of
the crisis. Bowden tells the story from several perspective, including the
students, the hostages, the Carter White House and the military forces
involved with the failed attempt to rescue the hostages. Mark Bowden is best
known as the author of "Black Hawk Down." He reported for the Philadelphia
Enquirer for 20 years and is a national correspondent for The Atlantic
Monthly. This month's cover story is Bowden's article about the failed rescue
attempt.

Mark Bowden, welcome back to FRESH AIR. I want to focus on what was quite a
turning point in the story of the hostage crisis, which is the failed rescue
mission. At what point did President Carter decide to try a rescue mission?

Mr. MARK BOWDEN: It wasn't until March of 1980, which was--what?--five
months after the embassy was taken and the hostages were kidnapped. He was
extraordinarily patient, I think, in his handling of this episode. And I
think that, you know, there was a basic question involved when the embassy was
taken and the Americans were taken hostage about how the United States should
respond. Should the lives of those American diplomats in Tehran be the
highest priority, their safety? Or is the importance of protecting American
missions around the world, protecting the integrity of the United States
internationally, should that be the highest priority? And should the hostages
be somewhat expendable in the interest of asserting American influence and
power?

And I think Carter, in my opinion, to his credit, felt from the beginning that
there should be no difference between those two missions. That the safety of
the hostages was as important to him as preserving the integrity of the United
States missions around the world. And I think, you know, a different
president might have made a different choice, but that's what I think
prolonged the handling of the crisis. He tried every diplomatic means at his
disposal: through the UN, through allies, back-channel negotiations with
members of the provisional government or--I call it the provisional
government. It was the government that they had in place before they set up a
permanent one. All of which kept failing. Basically, the mullahs kept
pulling the rug out from under whatever deal they struck. Until finally
Carter, by the end of March, was just beaten down by it. And he had been
humiliated a number of times. And he just was fed up.

GROSS: When Carter decided to try a rescue mission, he called in Charlie
Beckwith, who is the founder of Delta Force, which was pretty new. It was
about a year-old or something?

Mr. BOWDEN: Actually, coincidentally, Delta Force had just been through its
certification exercise, which was a big display that they put on for leaders

of the Pentagon and congressional leaders to sort of demonstrate their
capabilities on the same day that the embassy was taken on November 4th of
1979. So they literally were just sort of cooling off after finishing this
big exercise when they were informed to start planning a possible rescue
mission to Tehran.

GROSS: So what was the ground rules that President Carter wanted for this
rescue mission? And what were the ground rules that Charlie Beckwith, the
head of Delta Force, wanted?

Mr. BOWDEN: Well, Beckwith, I think, would have been of the opinion that he
wanted to be able to do whatever was necessary to make it successful. Carter,
obviously, as president, had broader concerns. I mean, there were the dangers
of igniting a larger war in the Middle East. You know, you could project all
sorts of scenarios of a rescue force getting trapped in the city of Tehran
and, you know, waking up in the morning--Americans would wake up and turn on
their TV sets and there would be a small rescue force surrounded and trapped
in the city of Tehran, surrounded by millions of angry Iranians. And, you
know, so there were all sorts of possible terrible broader scenarios with
this. And so Carter was first and foremost very reluctant to attempt it
because it was very risky and there was the possibility of it becoming
something much worse. But also, you know, wanted to do it in such a way that
it didn't make the situation worse.

GROSS: He was also worried about killing Iranians. He didn't want Delta
Force to use any kind of lethal force if there was a riot, if there was a kind
of...

Mr. BOWDEN: Right.

GROSS: ...citizen uprising against the rescue attempt.

Mr. BOWDEN: In fact, you know, one of his instructions was that he insisted
that the men on Delta Force carry riot control devices with them--tear gas,
you know, rubber bullets, something of that order--so that their first
response, if there was a large crowd in the streets that they encountered,
would not be to open fire on them but to sort of control the crowd. This, of
course, was just ludicrous because Delta Force guys, you're talking about a
group of 130 men who are going to insert themselves into a city of about five
million hostile people, try and rescue these hostages. If they got caught or
surrounded by a crowd, the very idea that this small group is somehow going to
be able to control the crowd, I mean, their feeling was, `We need to get out
of there as fast as we possibly can. And if we have to shoot some people to
do it, then that's what we're going to do.'

GROSS: Would you give us just a kind of sketch of what the mission was
supposed to look like, the rescue mission?

Mr. BOWDEN: Well, the rescue force was going to fly initially to a rallying
point in the desert a couple hundred miles outside of Tehran, land, transfer
the the Delta Force, the Delta operators onto helicopters. The helicopters
were going to refuel at that point in the desert. Then the helicopters
carrying the rescue force was going to fly to a hide site before sunrise the
following day. They were going to hide throughout that day, the helicopters
and the men. Then they were going to load up on trucks, Delta Force, drive
through the city at night, raid the embassy grounds, get the hostages, blow a
hole in the wall of the embassy grounds, take them across the street to a
soccer stadium, strong point, the soccer stadium, and start flying the
helicopters in to evacuate them.

At the same time that the embassy was being assaulted, a battalion of Rangers
was going to take a small airport outside of Tehran, which was not heavily
guarded, seize the airport so that large fixed-winged aircraft could fly in
and land, load up all the hostages, all the rescue operators and fly them all
out of the country.

GROSS: An incredibly ambitious undertaking.

Mr. BOWDEN: Seriously. I mean, when you consider that in any military
operation, you have to figure that things are going to go wrong, anything with
these many moving parts, everything had to be coordinated perfectly. It was
pretty clear that it had a very small chance of success.

GROSS: And things went wrong right from the start. The transport plane
landed in the desert and what happened?

Mr. BOWDEN: Things always go wrong in military missions. And in this case,
you know, they had scouted out the landing site, which was just a patch of
empty desert with a kind of a dirt road angling through it and had determined
that there were almost no traffic on this road, that maybe once or twice a
month, you know, a vehicle came down that road. Well, the first plane landed
on the first night of the mission, and before it even hit the ground they saw
two trucks driving down the road. And so they had to wait for those trucks to
get out of the way. They landed. Rangers on the transport plane had to take
off after the trucks in order to apprehend those people for fear that they
would alert the authorities that a big American plane just landed in the
desert. And as they were doing that, a busload of Iranian tourists drive
right up through the middle of their staging area. So, I mean, it was just
ridiculously improbable.

GROSS: They fired on the trucks?

Mr. BOWDEN: They did. They gave chase to the trucks. There were two of
them. It was a pickup truck and a larger truck. When they couldn't catch
them, they fired a missile--I guess it was a handheld missile device--that hit
the truck which turned out to be carrying fuel. So that truck went up,
created a huge bonfire in the middle of the desert. One of the men on that
truck got out of it and jumped into the pickup, which took off and they never
did catch that one.

GROSS: And what happened to the bus of passengers, the tourists?

Mr. BOWDEN: The passengers, you know, their bus was stopped. The men shot
into the engine block to stall the bus. They herded all the passengers off
the bus, radioed back to headquarters and the communications went all the way
back to the White House to determine, `What do we do with these Iranians?' And
so Carter actually made the decision that they were going to load all the
Iranian passengers on that bus back on the plane and fly them out of Iran,
hold them during the following day when the men were hiding and then
conducting the rescue mission. And when the mission was complete and the
fixed-wing aircraft came back in to carry out the hostages and the rescued,
and then they would bring the Iranians back to that airport and let them all
go.

GROSS: And then at the same time, you have like a fleet of--what?--eight
helicopters who are flying through the skies, and there turns out to be like a
sandstorm in the sky.

Mr. BOWDEN: Right.

GROSS: It's a phenomenon, I guess, in that part of the world. Phenomenon
that it sounds like they weren't prepared for.

Mr. BOWDEN: They weren't. They call them an "haboob." And it is--basically
the sand in the Iranian desert is a very fine powder, and sometimes you get
these vertical columns of air pressure that will pull up, basically create a
vertical cloud of dust. It's such fine dust that it's not a problem for
planes. And it would be very rare for helicopters to be traveling, you know,
hundreds of miles across the Iranian desert. So, really, it's an issue that
hadn't come up all that much. The pilots on the fixed-wing aircraft that flew
in initially flew right through the two haboobs, and it was just to them a
curiosity. But the helicopters, when they got in the middle of it, suddenly
they couldn't see. They couldn't see each other. They couldn't see the
ground. They couldn't see the mountains in front of them. It was smothering
the engines. The heat rose inside of the aircraft. The pilots were flying
with night-vision goggles, which tend to make a person dizzy anyway. And so
suddenly, you know, they're now fighting against almost zero visibility. It
became a real trial, not to mention beating up the machinery of the
helicopter, this fine dust getting into all the gears and everything else. So
it proved to be the undoing of the mission, actually.

GROSS: Yeah. So what was the fate of the helicopters?

Mr. BOWDEN: Well, initially there were eight helicopters. One of the
helicopters, the rotor was hit by something that cracked it. And that's a
terminal failure for a helicopter. If you continue to fly with a crack in the
rotor, it could fly apart and you would crash. So they set that helicopter
down, got off, got on one of the other helicopters, and that one caught back
up in formation. So now there are only seven.

One of the helicopters was not damaged, but it was having such trouble
navigating, it was such an uncomfortable situation, there was fear that the
equipment was going to give out. They made the decision to turn back.
Basically, as those helicopters are moving further and further into Iran, they
reach a point of no return where either they have to press on and make it to
the rendezvous point or they have to turn around and go back, because if they
go further, they're not going to have enough fuel to get back to the aircraft
carrier. So as one of the seven remaining helicopters approached that cutoff
point, they made the decision, one for which they will always be criticized by
other members of the mission, to turn back. And so that left just six.

Six would have been enough, but because probably of the beating these
helicopters took flying through these clouds, when those six helicopters made
it to the rendezvous point, one of them had suffered such severe damage that
the pilot decided that it couldn't go on. And so he made the decision as the
captain of that vessel that they couldn't fly it.

That gave them only five helicopters, which was by their prearranged chart,
that was an automatic abort.

GROSS: And then there was a plane crash, just adding to the catastrophic
nature of this mission.

Mr. BOWDEN: Right. The first word that came back to the White House was
very disappointing that they had decided to abort and they were going to come
back out, but it wasn't catastrophic. And Carter, in fact, even said to his
advisers in the White House how happy he was that at least no one had gotten
hurt and was also, I'm sure, aware that it was something that they could come
back and try again.

But in preparing the aircraft to evacuate and fly back out of Iran, one of the
helicopters collided with one of the transport planes, blew up into flames,
eight men were killed. Debris from the exploding aircraft sent pieces of
metal. There was a lot of ammunition on that plane. When it blew up,
ammunition was cooking off, so it riddled the other aircraft with bullets and
bits and pieces of metal. It's really a wonder that no one else other than
those who were burned on the plane were hurt. But that made the whole effort
a complete catastrophe at that point.

GROSS: And there was certainly no way of keeping this event a secret.

Mr. BOWDEN: No more.

GROSS: It was kind of amazing that they got out after that.

Mr. BOWDEN: Yeah. I mean, they regrouped very quickly. It just goes to
show you how successfully they had achieved surprise, because the Iranians, in
fact, didn't even find out about what had happened in the desert until Carter
made the announcement in Washington. And he made the announcement right away,
alerting the Iranians in the world to this catastrophe in the desert. And, in
fact, in Iran, you know, they characterize, they made an effort to
characterize what had happened as an invasion of Iran, that the United States
had tried to invade the country. When, in fact, Carter made clear in his
statement that this was strictly a rescue mission, that there were strict
instructions not to harm Iranians unless it was absolutely necessary. No
Iranians had been hurt, because he wanted to make sure that it was understood
exactly what the nature of this mission was.

GROSS: My guest is Mark Bowden. His new book, "Guests of the Ayatollah," is
about the Iranian hostage crisis. We'll talk more after a break. This is
FRESH AIR.

(Announcements)

GROSS: My guest is Mark Bowden. His new book, "Guests of the Ayatollah," is
about the Iranian hostage crisis. When we left off, we were talking about the
failed military mission to rescue the American hostages. President Carter's
national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski supported the rescue mission,
but Secretary of State Cyrus Vance did not. He felt we should pursue
negotiations instead.

What was it like in the White House when they found out that the mission had
failed and that, you know, people were killed? What were the conversations
like deciding how to break the news, who should break the news, what language
should be used?

Mr. BOWDEN: It was obviously funereal in the White House. I think, you
know, the mission had been a complete catastrophe. It was a huge roll of the
dice and so they knew, obviously, going in what a big risk they were taking.
But they also knew both militarily and in terms of the fate of the hostages
that it had potential to be, you know, wonderful success and also sort of a
real coup. I mean, to just be able to reach in--this terrible dilemma, which
had afflicted the country for months and months--and just solve the problem,
like cut the knot. And it proved to be too good to be true.

And so apart from the military losses and the real problem with what was going
to happen now to the hostages was the political fallout. Everyone knew, you
know, Carter had already increasingly been seen as an ineffectual president,
an impotent president, as someone who is incapable of dealing with this
crisis. And now, you know, this terrible tragedy meant that Hamilton Jordan
felt at that moment that that was it for the next term. This was an election
year so there was, I think, a recognition that this was just a political
disaster from which they would probably not recover.

And I think that most of the conversation--and I don't know enough to know
what all of it would have been, but I believe their primary concern was the
fate of the hostages at that point because the Iranians had threatened all
along that they would begin executing the hostages if any military action was
taken.

So I think that the planning that went into the statement that was made was to
make it very clear how limited this military thrust had been, how it had not
hurt any Iranians. That the only people killed were the Americans on it. So
it was humiliating to present it in that way, but it was done because--in
hopes of forestalling revenge against the hostages.

GROSS: There's one sentence in the book where you describe how Hamilton
Jordan, who was then White House chief of staff, upon hearing the news of the
failure of the rescue mission, goes into the president's bathroom and throws
up. And in that one sentence, you kind of have a doorway into the kind of
anxiety that people in the White House must have been feeling about this
high-risk mission.

Mr. BOWDEN: I mean--and Jordan, who in addition to being the chief of staff,
was managing Carter's re-election campaign, and I think, you know, for him the
full nature of the catastrophe hit home very hard. I mean, his hopes were
really dashed. And he had been someone who had advised Carter that it was
time to do something and had felt strongly that as risky as this mission was
that it was really their only alternative at that point. So I think he
really, you know, felt fully the brunt of a disaster.

It's interesting that Brzezinski, who was always a bit more of a hard liner in
these things than the other people around Carter, had advised the president
before undertaking the mission to prepare military strikes on Iran in the
event of its failure, because then the United States could say that the United
States has struck Iran, you know, because of this hostage problem. The
country is being punished for its behavior. And, you know, we lost some men
in the desert as part of a rescue mission so that--I mean, that's a class
example of spinning things so that it would be a small failure in what could
be portrayed as a larger success. And Carter had not agreed to do that. I
mean, he basically was putting all of his eggs in this rescue effort.

GROSS: Now, another thing that went wrong in this mission was that many of
the secret documents outlining the mission and the thinking behind the mission
were left with the abandoned helicopters.

Mr. BOWDEN: Right.

GROSS: And were they discovered by the Iranians?

Mr. BOWDEN: They were. And they were eventually published by the Iranians.
And, in fact, in retrospect, it's probably a good thing that they were because
the Iranians, you know, were doing their best in the days after this failed
mission to portray what happened as this massive American invasion of their
country. And the existence of the actual mission plan, which had been left
behind in the confusion and chaos of Desert One after the explosion, made it
clear to the Iranians exactly what was being attempted. And it made it very
difficult for them to continue to portray it as something more than it
actually was.

GROSS: Mark Bowden will be back in the second half of the show. His new book
is called "Guests of the Ayatollah."

I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Announcements)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR.

I'm Terry Gross back with Mark Bowden. He's best known for his book "Black
Hawk Down." His new book, "Guests of the Ayatollah," is about the Iranian
hostage crisis, which he describes as the first battle in America's war with
militant Islam. When we left off, we were talking about the failed military
mission to rescue the hostages.

After the failed rescue attempt, things could have gone terribly wrong. I
mean, the hostages could have been executed. Iran could have thought of this
as an attack against them and try to take some kind of other retaliatory
action against the United States. But, eventually, there was a negotiated
settlement, and the hostages were released.

Mr. BOWDEN: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: Why did the negotiations pick up after the failed rescue attempt?

Mr. BOWDEN: Well, actually, Terry, what happened was--and I describe it in
the book almost as though the rescue mission lanced a boil. I mean, this
challenge to the United States, seizing its embassy, holding its diplomats
hostage, the threats of trial and execution, all the accusations toward the
United States, this sort of humiliating process which had dragged on for
months, just seemed to mount and mount and mount through, you know, the early
months of 1980. You know, there was, I think, an increasing feeling in this
country that the United States had to do something.

The media had a big hand in portraying this as the most critical issue in the
world. And, you know, the White House, you know, was portrayed as being
obsessed by it. And, you know, I really think that the press had a big role
in building up the importance of this episode in Tehran. Until it got to the
point where it seemed like something had to happen. And I think that the
rescue mission was the `something that happened.' And when it failed, it took
the pressure off in a odd way. And when the--I think two things happened:
the mission failed and the Iranians backed down from their threat to begin
killing the hostages in retaliation. And when those two things didn't happen,
I think both sides just sort of retreated to their corners for a period of
months. It got so, in this country, in the United States, the publicity about
the hostage crisis faded so much from the news that the hostage families were
taking out billboards to remind people that there were still Americans being
held hostage in Iran.

Diplomatic efforts had been tried again and again, had repeatedly failed. The
Ayatollah Khomeini had said that the issue of the hostages would be resolved
by the Majlis, the Iranian parliament, which would not meet until sometime in
June or July. So there was literally nothing to be done.

There was certainly no possibility of another rescue attempt. For one thing,
you know, the Iranians woke up--the students who were holding the
hostages--woke up to the obvious miscalculation of keeping them all in the
same place. And so they dispersed the hostages all over the country, which
made any attempt to rescue them completely impractical.

What ultimately led to diplomatic solution were a number of things. Probably
the most important was the war with Iraq. Saddam Hussein invaded Iran, and
suddenly Iran needed desperately military supplies, and most of their armed
forces, if not all of it, had been supplied by the United States. So they
needed parts. They needed equipment. They needed training. You know, there
were all sorts of things that they desperately had to have, and the United
States was really the only place they could get it.

GROSS: So when both sides agreed to actually resume negotiations, who did the
Carter White House negotiate with?

Mr. BOWDEN: The initial contact was made by a man named Zadag Tabat Tabaii,
who had been a minister in the provisional government. He was related by
marriage to the Ayatollah Khomeini. Tabat Tabaii was a very secular guy, a
very pragmatic politician. And he could see how important it was going to be
for Iran to resolve this problem. So he talked to the ayatollah's son, who
was his brother-in-law, and said, `I think I can help solve this hostage
problem,' and made contacts through the German foreign ministry with the White
House. And that's how the negotiations started.

GROSS: And what was the final settlement? What did we give?

Mr. BOWDEN: Ultimately, the United States gave Iran back the things it had
seized in retaliation for the takeover of the embassy. And it gave it a
couple of other things. It indemnified Iran from lawsuits by the hostages and
their families for the ordeal that they had been put through. But,
essentially, it involved a transfer of money.

GROSS: When the Iranians--how much money?

Mr. BOWDEN: It ended up being about $6 billion.

GROSS: Uh-huh.

Mr. BOWDEN: And that's money that the shah had deposited in the United
States to pay for all these military contracts that didn't go away, you know.
Once the revolution happened, there was still this money in American bank
accounts. There's actually a funny story about one of the hostages, Chuck
Scott, who was an Army colonel, who went to meet the man who is now the
supreme leader of Iran, Khomeini, and told him that he wanted to reopen
negotiations about the military contracts. And Khomeini in the full, you
know, feeling of the revolution said, `We don't need to talk to the United
States anymore. There's nothing for us to talk about.' Scott said, `Well, OK,
we'll take the $10 billion that you have deposited in American banks and just
put it in the American Treasury then.' And so, I mean, the reality was that
they had to deal with the United States in order to get back what was really
theirs.

GROSS: The Iranians didn't want to release the hostages while President
Carter was in the White House. Right after Reagan is sworn in and Carter
flies out of Washington, word comes in hostages have been released. And the
newly elected President Reagan, newly sworn president, gets to make that
announcement, whereas Carter gets to mention it when he returns to Plains,
Georgia.

Mr. BOWDEN: Right.

GROSS: What impression do you think that that gave the American public about
who was really responsible for the release of the hostages?

Mr. BOWDEN: I think, you know, it led to the suspicion that Reagan and
Reagan's people had somehow been involved, which they were not. And I think
that even--you know, the Iranians made the decision to release the hostages
when Carter was out of office a final insult to him. The deal had been struck
weeks earlier, and they could easily have been released.

And Carter, I think, right up until sitting on the inaugural stand that day,
had hopes that the release would be done, and he would be able to fly to
Weisbaden and greet the hostages as his final act as president. After all,
this is the thing that had destroyed his presidency.

GROSS: My guest is Mark Bowden. His new book, "Guests of the Ayatollah," is
about the Iranian hostage crisis. We'll talk more after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.

(Announcements)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Mark Bowden. He is best known
for his book "Black Hawk Down." His new book is called "Guests of the
Ayatollah: The First Battle in America's War with Militant Islam." And it's
all about the Iranian hostage crisis from every angle.

In your book, you're kind of critical of the world community. You think that,
you know, other Western nations could have done more, could have done
something to help the United States during the hostage crisis. What do you
think they could have done?

Mr. BOWDEN: Well, I think concerted international pressure was the only
realistic option for freeing the hostages. And I see, you know, the seizure
of an embassy as an insult not just against the United States but against the
international community. The UN exists as a body dedicated to the importance
of diplomacy. And if diplomats can be held hostage, it pretty much destroys
any possibility of normal formal intercourse going on between nations. So, I
mean, here was a body dedicated to the concept of diplomacy essentially
turning its back. I mean, they did issue pronouncements condemning it, but
they took no action. And I think that they should have.

GROSS: You're more interested in story telling than in political analysis,
but I still want to ask you, having done this really in-depth investigation
into the Iranian hostage crisis, what you think now of how President Carter
handled this?

Mr. BOWDEN: I think that he handled it very, very well, personally. I think
it was an impossible position for a president to be in. I think those who
believe he should have responded more aggressively right when it happened
failed to understand the limitations of the options available to him. I think
that it's also important to look back at the circumstances and the broader
context of that period: the Cold War, the fact that the Soviet Union was
still a very significant threat, in fact, invaded Afghanistan during the
course of this crisis; the potential for igniting a nuclear war, which was, I
think, a very real fear at the time. I think when you take all of those
things into consideration, President Carter was put into a position that very
few people could have found a--no one could have found an easy answer to.
It's always possible that if he had issued the ultimatum that the Iranians
would have backed down, but given the fervor of their emotions as a country at
that moment, I kind of doubt it.

GROSS: You know, your book is subtitled "The First Battle in America's War
with Militant Islam." Do you think that the Carter White House or that the
leaders of the military saw it that way, had any idea that this was the first
in what was going to be a long battle with militant Islam?

Mr. BOWDEN: I don't think so. I think that that only came into focus,
certainly for me, after 9/11. I mean, I knew prior to the attacks on this
country by al-Qaeda, that the United States was heading towards a
confrontation with Islamic fundamentalism around the world. But I think when
this happened in 1979, and even in the years afterwards, it was seen as a kind
of aberrant event. You know, Iran had gone a little crazy, you know, with its
revolution. And I don't think very many people saw that this was really the
first strike in what has become an international movement against the United
States and the Western world.

GROSS: What role, if any, as far as you can tell from your research, did the
current Iranian president, Ahmadinejad, have in the Iranian hostage crisis?

Mr. BOWDEN: Well, Ahmadinejad was a very prominent radical student during
the revolutionary period. And he was a right winger, a fundamentalist, an
Islamist fundamentalist. And he, along with four other students, had formed
an organization called Strengthen the Unity, which was an effort to unite the
various Muslim student factions at Tehran's universities into a single entity,
because they were contending, really, for the future of Iran with communists,
nationalists, socialists, secular groups who had a lot of influence. This
group Strengthen the Unity, which consisted of five students, came up with the
idea of seizing the embassy.

Ahmadinejad initially, for tactical reasons, argued against taking the
American Embassy. He thought that taking the Soviet Embassy would be a
smarter move. He was outvoted and he had said since that he retained the
opposition to the takeover of the embassy until the Ayatollah Khomeini
endorsed it, which happened on the day of the takeover. So by my figuring, he
opposed the takeover of the American Embassy for about two or three days and
was one of the key players in everything that happened after the embassy was
seized.

GROSS: So we have somebody who was a key figure in the Iranian hostage crisis
now heading Iran as Iran enters its nuclear age?

Mr. BOWDEN: Yes. And I see a very strong parallel to what was going on in
1979 and what's happening today, because in 1979 the future of Iran as an
Islamist state was not, by any means, secure. There were very strong secular
political figures in that country who wanted to form something more of a
democracy. The seizure of the American Embassy essentially created this big
foreign threat. It turns out, I think, it was an imaginary foreign threat.
But it rallied the popular support behind the mullahs. And essentially the
most important consequence of the takeover of the American Embassy was in
Iran, and it leveraged the mullahs into power, again by identifying this
terrible foreign threat and by uniting people behind the mullahs who were seen
as the people who could deal with it or were willing to deal with it.

This is exactly what's happening today. You have Ahmadinejad now the elected
president of Iran. Now, he was elected only after candidates who were not
acceptable to the mullahs were eliminated from the ballot. But he has
successfully seized upon this nuclear issue, again picking a fight with the
United States of America, because it's a very popular one in Iran. Most
Iranians, even those who are not terribly enthusiastic about the mullahs and
the current regime, feel that Iran has every right to have nuclear energy or
even nuclear weapons. And, in fact, they live in a part of the world where
they are threatened on all sides by nuclear power. So it's a popular issue,
and I think he's riding the mullahs back into a measure of popularity that
they have lost.

GROSS: Do you see any other parallels between the Iranian hostage crisis and
what's happening today?

Mr. BOWDEN: Well, I think that the United States is similarly in a bind
because, you know, while the Bush administration has made a point of saying
that military options are still on the table, I don't really think there are
too many practical military options available to the president, other than
short of basically going to war against Iran, which I don't believe anyone
believes would be a good idea. So, in that sense, I believe that Ahmadinejad
and the ruling regime in Iran has very shrewdly chosen an issue where they can
sort of build national pride, rally national pride behind the mullahs, and
there's very little that the United States can do.

The other part of it is the United States, once again, will have to depend on
the international community and the UN to apply any real pressure to Iran.
And given what happened 25 years ago, I, frankly, am skeptical that any of
that will come to bear.

GROSS: Is there any one thing you can point to in the story of the Iranian
hostage crisis that you see completely differently now that you've done the
research for your book than you did before?

Mr. BOWDEN: I can definitely see much better than I ever could how and why
the Iranian students did what they did. I think that having lived through
that episode and read about it and watched reporting on television, I think
probably the most I got out of it--and probably a lot of it is my fault for
not having done enough work on it but--was that there was just these people in

Iran were kind of crazy, that there was just this spasm of irrational behavior
out of Iran. And, in fact, if you look at the history of American involvement
in Iran, if you look at even just the lifetimes of the students who were
involved in the takeover of the embassy, they had very good reasons to fear
the United States. And it turns out, in my opinion, the fears that they had
were unfounded. But I don't fault them for suspecting the United States of
trying to destroy the revolution, of suspecting the diplomats in that embassy
of having been spies and having been plotting. I do think that at a certain
point it should have dawned on them that that was not true. But I don't think
that what they did was in any way irrational.

GROSS: Because the United States had overthrown the first democratically
elected leader of Iran...

Mr. BOWDEN: Right.

GROSS: ...not too long before the hostage crisis.

Mr. BOWDEN: Right. I mean, and the justification for that would have been
sort of Cold War logic, you know, that it was more important to the United
States that we retain a strong ally in Iran, that we have access to oil in
Iran. These were overriding national security interests. And so, you know,
the freedom and the independence of the people of Iran got very short shrift
in that calculation. And I think what was done was wrong, in retrospect. I
think it parallels the behavior of the United States throughout that part of
the world during the Cold War. And in this war against Islamic
fundamentalism, we are reaping seeds that we sowed, you know, 25, 30 years ago
when our only priority was this contest against the Soviet Union.

The caution there, I think, to us as a country ought to be to realize the
importance of respecting the individuality of a nation, the--you know, the
moral imperative of their independence. And, you know, I certainly think that
anytime the United States is involved in overthrowing an elected government in
order to put a king on the throne is something that I would just instinctively
be against, regardless of what the political--exact political calculus was at
that moment.

GROSS: Well, Mark Bowden, thank you very much for talking with us.

Mr. BOWDEN: You're welcome.

GROSS: Mark Bowden's new book is called "Guests of the Ayatollah." You can
read his article about the failed rescue attempt in the current edition of the
Atlantic magazine, where he's a national correspondent.

Coming up, TV critic David Bianculli reviews DVD boxed sets of three TV shows
from three different eras.

This is FRESH AIR.

(Announcements)

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Reviews: TV critic David Bianculli describes boxed DVD sets of
"Mister Peepers," "The Merv Griffin Show" and "Six Feet Under"
TERRY GROSS, host:

Our TV critic David Bianculli watches a lot of TV, of course, and lately more
and more DVDs. He likes the way DVDs enable you to see the span of television
from its beginning to today.

Mr. DAVID BIANCULLI: Every time I stack up a new batch of DVD boxed sets to
watch and review, I'm amazed by what a perfect way to watch TV this is. But
the longer the TV series on DVD are out there--and remember, it's only been
about eight years--the more astounding the selection gets. So what I'm doing
today is highlighting three boxed sets from three completely different eras of
television: One is a sitcom from the dawn of TV time; another collects
excerpts from talk-show interviews spanning the 1960s through the 1980s; and
one is pretty much brand-new, the final season of a fabulous drama series from
HBO. Individually, they're entertaining, instructive and valuable.
Collectively, they're a tour through the history and evolution of television.
Three different genres stretching the boundaries of a still stretching medium.

The oldest oldie goldie is "Mister Peepers," a show that ran on NBC from 1952
to 1956. It starred Wally Cox as a high school science teacher, and fellow
cast members included Marion Lorne who later played Aunt Clara on "Bewitched,"
as well as Jack Warden, and in his first major TV role, Tony Randall. The
show "Mister Peepers," like its star, was quiet and unassuming. It was
performed lived and exists only on Kinescope, the process by which live
performances were recorded using a camera aimed at a TV monitor while the show
was in progresss.

The images and the sound are grainy and scratchy, but it's a wonder they exist
at all. The first 26 episodes from the UCLA film and TV archive have been
released in a four-DVD set from S'More Entertainment. To fans of old TV, this
is like finding a fish fossil with legs. These have never been released on
DVD or VHS before. Here's the opening of a typical 1952 show, with Cox at his
school desk trying but failing to swat a fly as he greets the TV audience.

(Soundbite of "Mister Peepers")

Unidentified Announcer: "Mister Peepers," starring Wally Cox.

(Soundbite of fly buzzing)

Mr. WALLY COX: (As Robinson Peepers) Oh, hello, everybody. I'm Robinson
Peepers. I'm the general science teacher here at Jefferson Junior High. This
is my science classroom where I work. I've been here for eight weeks now. My
salary is $43 a week.

(End of soundbite)

Mr. BIANCULLI: The second DVD set pulls interviews from "The Merv Griffin
Show," which aired in syndication off and on between 1965 and 1986. Here's
the way he introduces his 1985 interview with Orson Welles, who had just
celebrated his 70th birthday. Welles, Merv explained, had been on the show 40
times, always with the same rules. There were no pre-interviews because he
wanted the conversations to be spontaneous. And there was to be no talking
about the past, ever. No questions about "Citizen Kane" or his wife Rita
Hayworth or anything else that wasn't looking forward.

(Soundbite of "The Merv Griffin Show")

Mr. MERV GRIFFIN: And so came this interview on a certain night, when he
walked into our studio and asked to see me. I never saw Orson Welles before
our interviews or after. Occasionally a luncheon, but not on the day of the
show. I came down, and there was Orson standing at my dressing room door.
And he said, `Merv, tonight I feel very expansive. All those little gossipy
questions you want to ask me about Marlene and Rita and, you know, the making
of "Citizen Kane," ask them tonight. I'd like to answer them.'

Well, I was stunned because that's what I always wanted to talk to him about.
And thus the tape you're about to see. The tragedy of this tape you're about
to see is that two hours after he did this interview, he died.

Here's Orson Welles on his very last appearance anywhere.

(End of soundbite)

Mr. BIANCULLI: If that doesn't make you want to hear the interview, you have
no curiosity whatsoever.

Finally, there's the fifth season package of HBO's "Six Feet Under." What I
love about this show more than anything else is the way it ended. Its finale
was one of the all-time best endings of a TV show. And in this collection,
series creator Alan Ball, who wrote and directed that expanded last episode,
offers an audio commentary that explains it all. The clip I'm about to play,
in case you don't want to hear it, is the very start of that brilliant closing
sequence when Lauren Ambrose, as Clair, drives away in her hybrid car, leaving
her family behind as she quite literally drives towards her future.

Here is the way Alan Ball speaks about it as the scene is rolling.

(Soundbite of "Six Feet Under" boxed set)

Mr. ALAN BALL: Lauren is being good driving a hybrid car, and putting Ted's
deeply unhip mix, which, of course, is incredibly hip. I wanted to keep them
out of focus in this scene right there, as they're waving on the porch,
because they are--they're already receding in memory just like him in this--in
the rear-view mirror.

(Soundbite of crying)

Mr. BALL: I can't remember who in the writers room came up early up in the
season with the idea of seeing everyone's death, but I remember when I heard
that I was like, `Yeah. That's--I mean, what--of course.'

(Soundbite of music)

(End of soundbite)

Mr. BIANCULLI: These audio commentary tracks are like a graduate course in
TV production and in TV appreciation. If you love "Six Feet Under," you have
to get this HBO video release. But if you never saw the show, don't dare
start here. Start with season one and work your way back up. Or if you want,
work your way way back to Merv Griffin and to "Mister Peepers." There's plenty
of good old TV to go around for everybody.

GROSS: David Bianculli is TV critic for the New York Daily News.

(Credits)

GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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