Excerpt: 'Guests of the Ayatollah' by Mark Bowden

Mark Bowden, who wrote "Black Hawk Down" about America's ill-fated military action in Somalia, has a new book about the 1979 Iran hostage crisis called "Guests of the Ayatollah."

During the crisis, 52 Americans were held captive in Iran for 444 days. Originally, there were 66, but women and African-Americans were let go.

Bowden says he was personally fascinated with the crisis because it began on the same day he started as a Philadelphia Inquirer reporter. As a rookie, however, he was assigned that day to a small local story, but the hostage crisis has remained a personal interest ever since.

Below is an excerpt from the book

Scott was placed in a new room with different roommates, which he found a vast improvement, and soon afterwards was summoned to an unusual session with Ayatollah Ali Khameinei, one of the state's most powerful clerics (and the eventual successor to the Imam as Supreme Leader). In his capacity as military liaison, Scott had met Khamenei almost a year earlier. The ayatollah was in charge of Iran's military, and the colonel had sought him out to discuss outstanding defense contracts. As the colonel saw it, no matter how hateful its bluster, Iran had an overwhelming interest in opening such discussions because there were still billions of dollars of Iranian money deposited in trusts to pay off military purchases, money that was still earning interest in American banks. It was not unusual for payouts from these accounts to total $750 million per quarter. Evidently ignorant of the trust fund, Khamenei initially told Scott that he was wasting his time; Iran was not interested in doing business with the United States any more under any circumstances, and that any outstanding debts would not be paid.

"So, let me get this straight," Scott had said. "If after all the contracts are paid out the fund still has a few hundred million dollars in it, we should just donate it to the U.S. Treasury?"

At that point the Ayatollah got interested. This was the work Scott that had been doing when taken hostage. It turned out that if Iran wanted to keep its Air Force flying, they had to continue doing business with the United States. In the weeks before the takeover, Scott had arranged for the first official purchase by revolutionary Iran from the U.S. military, a ten million dollar order of tires for their fleet of F-14s and C-5A transports. All that now seemed like it had happened in a different world.

But in the months since he had last seen Khamenei, Iran's geopolitical position had grown more precarious. Saddam Hussein had become increasingly belligerent along its western border, and just weeks before had executed a revered Shia leader. Ever since, Iran had been both mourning and girding for war. So it came as no surprise to Scott that Khamenei's interest in American parts would be stronger than ever. He had come looking for the American colonel who had sold him aircraft tires. Delivery of that order had been frozen, along with the rest of Iran's considerable assets in the United States, since the takeover of the embassy.

Sitting cross-legged on the rug, puffing on a pipe, wearing a fat gold Rolex on his wrist, Khamenei asked the colonel, "If we were to release all of you now, without any conditions, how long would it be before you could begin to supply us again with spare parts for our military forces?"

"You're asking the wrong man," said Scott. "I have had no contact with either my government or the American people since I became a hostage. I've been kept in the dark by your people. …"

"But you have served in your army for many years; what do you think? How long would it take?"

"Frankly, my guess is that it will be a long time before you get any cooperation on spare parts from America, after what you have done and continue to do to us."

Khamenei insisted that neither Scott nor any of the other hostages had been harmed; they were being "protected," he said, and then explained how the Unites States had just sent commandos to Iran in a failed attempt to assassinate them. Scott quickly scrutinized this remark through a well-honed rhetorical filter – what Iran called an "assassination squad" would have to have been … yes, a rescue force! So there had been a rescue attempt! Scott now understood why they had all been so suddenly moved. He told the ayatollah that he doubted American troops would have been sent to kill him and the others. If Carter was that cavalier about their fate, he would have leveled Tehran months ago. Khamenei insisted.

"You are lucky to be alive, don't you know that?" he said, annoyed. When the ayatollah departed he left instructions that the prisoners' diets be improved, but despite this concern all three men fell ill with dysentery. On July 12th, still weak from the illness, Scott, Don Sharer, and CIA communicator Sam Gillette were driven back to Tehran and locked in Komiteh prison. A single light bulb dangled from the ceiling of a room about fifteen foot square, furnished with three Styrofoam mattresses, three wooden chairs, and a table. Their guard turned out to be Ahmad, the squat, balding man who in the Mushroom Inn had taken such pleasure in tormenting them. He told them that they were being placed in prison for their own safety.

"You know about the mission that was sent to kill you?" Ahmad asked. They said they had heard the whole bullshit story, and then complained about being locked in a prison, reminding the guard of the repeated assurances that they were not "prisoners," but "guests."

"This is not a prison," said Ahmad. "It is only a place to keep hostages."