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Iran Marks Revolution Anniversary

RACHEL MARTIN, host:

Today in Iran, it is the last day of a period of celebration. According to reports, thousands packed a main square in Tehran today to listen to President Ahmadinejad speak to the people, as many chanted down with the US. February 11th is the end of a week-and-a-half of celebration known as 10-Day Dawn. On this day in 1979, the Iranian revolution effectively began when the secular Shah of Iran was overthrown. The army wouldn't back him anymore. And instead, the Ayatollah Khomeini rose to power. Ten months later, 52 American hostages were taken at the US embassy. The United States and Iran have not had official diplomatic relations since.

Author and journalist Mike - Mike. Mark Bowden. I was so nervous about saying your last name right, Mark, I got your first name wrong. He knows the intricate details of this period, and…

Mr. MARK BOWDEN (Author): It's such a hard name, you know?

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: I'm having problems this morning.

Mr. BOWDEN: And yet you pronounce Ahmadinejad.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: A girl's got to do what a girl's got to do. Mark Bowden wrote "Guests of the Ayatollah: The First Battle in America's War with Militant Islam." Thanks for being with us, Mark.

Mr. BOWDEN: You're welcome.

MARTIN: All right. Take us back to February 1st, 1979. Explain what the political climate was like, that the Shah - who was supported by the US - loses his grip on the country, and then what happened in the 10 days that followed.

Mr. BOWDEN: Well the - you know, no one is really ever sure exactly why a revolution happens, because, you know, any country - including our own - is always, you know, full of various kinds of discontent. And there was a lot of it in Iran. And, really, what happened was that everyone in Iran could unite against the Shah at a certain point. And so you had, you know, Iranians who were in favor of having a parliamentary democracy. You had Iranian communists and socialists and Islamist fundamentalists who all came together to oust the Shah. And it was about this time in that process that the Ayatollah Khomeini, who had been banished, exiled from Iran by the Shah, triumphantly returned. So what happened after the Shah fled was a period of struggle between these various factions to see who was going to shape the future of Iran.

MARTIN: So explain to me who the revolutionaries were, and also explain how this period helped shaped the current Iranian President.

Mr. BOWDEN: Well, the - one of the major factions that was responsible for the revolution were Islamist radicals. And Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was one of the leaders of the Islamist movement on college campuses. It was he and leaders of the other Islamist students from the five major universities in Tehran formed an organization that they called Strengthen the Unity, which was an umbrella group designed to coordinate the actions of Islamist radical students on all the various campuses. And it was done primarily because the Islamists were relatively small in number compared to the Tudeh Party, which was the Communist Party in Iran, which had a tremendous amount of support on college campuses. So just as in the United States when we went through a period of kind of social upheaval in the 1960's, students took the lead throughout the country - for better of for worse - the Islamic revolution in Iran was steered in large part by student groups at these various campuses. And, of course, they're the one who eventually targeted the American embassy.

MARTIN: And it's interesting. In your book you write how, at first, they really didn't expect that - these students who took over the embassy didn't really expect that this would last more than a year. They weren't really necessarily in it for that kind of length of time.

Mr. BOWDEN: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: Can you explain, though, why these students were able to essentially paralyze the United States, and we were unable to do something immediately?

Mr. BOWDEN: Well, it was very - you know, it's fairly easy to take over an embassy. They're not heavily guarded places, or at least they weren't then. Embassies or foreign missions serve in any country at the invitation of the host government. So at any point, if they're unwelcome, they can be asked to leave, and that happens frequently. So the students could take the embassy fairly quickly. And they did it in the spirit of, say, a sit in at a American University.

They were going to, like, raid the dean's office and sit in for two to three days. The reason it became a prolonged ordeal was that the seizure of the American embassy triggered - as the students hoped it might - the collapse of a provisional government in Iran. And it basically forced the hand of the mullahs in Iran to become more assertive and to basically steer the country into the Islamist style government that they have today. And so there was - I think the students who took the embassy were delighted, but also very surprised by the tremendous groundswell of support that they received both from below - with, you know, hundreds of thousands if not millions of people in streets - but also from the Ayatollah Khomeini, who initially denounced what they had done. But when he saw the popular response, he endorsed it. So now you had what was effectively a state-sponsored hostage taking, and the United States really didn't have anyone to negotiate with - at least initially.

MARTIN: We're talking with Mark Bowden. He is the author of "Guests of the Ayatollah: The First Battle in America's War with Militant Islam." So, as you write in the title, "America's Battle - War with Militant Islam," can you explain to me, what that event, the taking of the hostages still informs the way the US deals with Iran today.

Mr. BOWDEN: Well, it informs it directly because the student who forced the hands of the mullahs when they took the embassy are today the leaders of Iran. The supreme leader of Iran, Ali Khamenei, was directly involved in the hostage taking and, in fact, met a number of the hostages during the course when they were being held. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was one of the leaders of the student group that took the embassy. His cabinet, top ministries throughout the government of Iran, are headed by, in many cases, veterans of that event. So, it was - it became sort of a defining moment for the Iranian government, and the whole kind of myth that surrounds their preeminence and their legitimacy, I think, is rooted in that act.

MARTIN: Mark Bowden is also a correspondent for the Atlantic Monthly. He wrote a great piece in yesterday's Philadelphia Enquirer about hostages seeking damages from Iran. We'll link through to that at our NPR Web site. Hey, Mark, thanks for being with us.

Mr. BOWDEN: You're welcome. My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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