Population Statistic: Read. React. Repeat.
Friday, December 17, 2021

One down, one to go. Courtesy of Time Warner Book Group, the following is my brief review of David Harris’ “The Crisis : The President, the Prophet, and the Shah — 1979 and the Coming of Militant Islam”.

By way of background, not only did I run a teaser for this review yesterday, but last month, I also made note of an interesting tidbit about Ayatollah Khomeini’s name.

The present-day War on Terror inspires an impulse to examine the roots of Islamic animosity toward Washington and its Mideast policy. The natural starting point: The 1979-80 Iranian Hostage Crisis, a flashpoint event that crystalized public attitudes on both sides ever since.

But how useful is the Crisis as a case study to be applied to today’s dynamic? The parallels seem obvious, taking into consideration the broad outlines. But is what happened during those 444 days a quarter-century ago as apparent as it seemed to the public eye?

Harris’ “The Crisis” examines the extensive behind-the-scenes machinations that led to the hostage-taking, the negotiations to free the captives, and the drawn-out resolution. Every step of the way, the accounts and recollections provided by the likes of Hamilton Jordan, Abolhassan Bani Sadr and Robert Armao speak to just how complex the process was, and how much depended upon managing the situation instead of making futile attempts at guiding it.

Harris devotes a tremendous amount of background to how the political culture in Iran led to the Islamic Revolution. The hostage situation doesn’t occur until halfway through the book, underlining the importance of what led up to the Crisis.

Much of that prelude centered around the Shah of Iran, reviled in his country for running a repressive regime commonly assumed to be an American-backed client. The U.S. backing of the Shah, right up to the end, ensured an anti-American character to the Revolution; but the antecedents to the uprising illustrated ample opportunities for Washington to potentially forge ties with the post-Shah government (though not without collateral diplomatic damage). The Iranian fixation on the Shah wound up precipitating the hostage-taking, and his eventual fate, after a lengthy stint as an nomadic exile, accelerated an end to it.

Harris attempts to portray the Shah as an all-to0-human character, done in by his own shortcomings. At times, it’s overdone: The author continually strives for irony by referring to the Shah by his many honorifics (”King of Kings”, “Light of the Aryans”, and others) simultaneously, but despite the story of his continuing physical and political deterioration, the effect makes the Shah more of a mystical figure.

The Shah is only one of the three central characters in this book, the others being Jimmy Carter and Ayatollah Khomeini. Character studies on each mainly concentrated on their upbringings and rise to power, and were supposed to serve as context for their later behavior. While comprehensive, I’m not sure just how useful it was in interpreting the chief developments in the Crisis. In particular, the Ayatollah, potentially the most intriguing of the three, is the sketchiest study (doubtless due to the greater difficulty in getting an accurate account of his later years).

Somewhat surprisingly, very little focus is put upon the individual hostages themselves, or to their captors. A decent overview of the raid on the American Embassy in Tehran is provided, as well as how conditions were for a few specific hostages and specific hostage-takers. But in this book’s scope, they’re almost relegated to one of many sidebar stories, with the macro-political stories taking precedence. Personally, I preferred this approach, as I feel it got to the heart of the matter; but those expecting this book to deal more directly with the hostages could be disappointed.

What struck me most about Harris’ presentation of the facts was how The Muslim Students Following the Line of the Imam (the group responsible for the hostage standoff) managed to paralyze not one, but two governments. While the flummoxing of Washington was apparent to the world, the way the Students manipulated Iran’s Revolutionary government was more subtle. And yet it was this defiance of Tehran’s secular authorities that prevented an otherwise-attainable timely solution, and more than anything set the tone for the poisoned relations between the U.S. and Iran even today.

As an historical anatomy lesson, “The Crisis” is a very comprehensive work. Harris covered all the bases, from all sides, and paid due attention to how governments function in the face of seemingly unmanagable circumstances.

Where the book falls short is in the alleged attempt to link the Hostage Crisis to the beginnings of today’s militant Islam. It’s a weak attempt that’s given barely a couple of paragraphs’ worth of mention. I have a feeling that it was injected into the title simply to make the book seem less musty and more relevant to today’s events. In reality, the book stands well on its own as a history book, and Harris shouldn’t have to apologize for that.

“The Crisis” is a great recounting of a critical juncture in American history. The presentation has many aspects of a real-life political thriller, making it an engrossing read.

- Costa Tsiokos, Fri 12/17/2004 08:44:51 PM
Category: Book Review, History | Permalink |

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