Allah willing, said the prayer of one Moslem scholar, the dawning last week of Islam’s 15th century would mark the beginning of an era of “Islamic reawakening and unity . . after a century of painful servility.” Within hours that prayer had been answered more explosively than its offerer could ever have intended. First, several dozen men from an obscure fundamentalist sect armed with automatic rifles, guns, swords and daggers blasted their way into the Grand Mosque of Mecca, taking hostage at least 50 wor-
shippers and seeking to install one of their number as Mahdi (Messiah). Then 20,000 Pakistani rioters, inflamed by rumors that the mosque incident was the work of “Americans and Zionists,” stormed the United States embassy in Islamabad, killing two and trapping the rest of the staff in the basement as they gutted the building. Other mobs attacked British and U.S. diplomatic missions in two other cities.
Meanwhile in Tehran, hundreds of thousands of followers of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini were marching the streets near the U.S. embassy where students were beginning the third week of their hostage-taking, to mark the start of the holy month of Muharram*
*The largest anti-shah demonstration and the turning point in the revolution occurred a year ago at the beginning of Muharram, the month of mourning, which commemorates the martyrdom of Hadrat Husain (the prophet Mohammad's grandson) and all other Moslems who have died for their faith.
to mourn the dead of last year’s revolution against the shah, and demonstrate their defiance of the United States.
In fact, apart from a skirmish later at the U.S. consulate in Calcutta, the chain reaction mercifully stopped there. But it took Pakistan President Zia ul-Haq’s troops five hours to clear the embassy in Islamabad (300 staff and relatives were later flown home to the U.S.) and Saudi security forces in the end decided to starve the remaining snipers from the minarets of the mosque. They did manage to free the captives but some reports said the loss of life was considerable.
There was no relief, however, for the 49 Americans left in the hands of the Tehran students at the weekend after 13 of their colleagues and a further five
non-Americans had been set free. The Iranians made no bones about the fact that they would be put on trial as spies and executed if found guilty. And the U.S. response was to warn unequivocally that the safety of the hostages was the responsibility of the ayatollah and that the consequences of harm to any one of them would be “extremely grave.” Reinforcement of U.S. naval units off Iran and the calling of a meeting by President Jimmy Carter with the joint chiefs of staff on Saturday left little doubt about the direction in which the administration’s thoughts were turning.
And as the hostages’ third week in jeopardy ended, the White House could count on support for its stand that they must be set free from practically every country in the world. Canada, which had earlier condemned the Iranian action, was asking Commonwealth offi-
ciáis (meeting in London to discuss Zimbabwe Rhodesia) to take a common stand. Even Libya, which earlier had called for support of Iran at an Arab League meeting in Tunis, later said the students should free their prisoners, though it also said it would stand with Iran if the U.S. attacked. The Soviet Union, which denied accusations that it had encouraged the hostage-taking, called for restraint by both sides and, on the propaganda radio that beams directly to Iran, for the hostages’ release.
But neither threat nor diplomacy seemed to have the slightest effect on Khomeini, his foreign minister Abolhassan Bani-Sadr or the students. While Khomeini was calling on all Moslems and American blacks to “join us in this struggle between Islam and the infidel,” Bani-Sadr was pledging that Iranians would defend themselves to the last drop of blood and the students
said warnings of retaliation would only make them try the hostages sooner. At week’s end, too, Bani-Sadr underscored his country’s defiance by announcing that Iran would renounce its foreign debts—since they had been “borrowed by looters”—of more than $15 billion (abroad they were later put at about half that figure).
Throughout the week the exchanges were on a rising note of bitterness—and none of the edge was lost in the telling. Media hype was a factor and administration spokesmen were not immune. State department spokesman Hodding Carter at one point objected that reporters were still calling the hostagetakers “students.” He suggested as substitutes, “mob,” “jailers” or “gangsters.”
Again, as the 13 freed hostages were on their way home for an emotional Thanksgiving, White House spokesman Jody Powell was accusing their captors of brainwashing them. But that charge seemed to rest on the definition of the word brainwashing. The released hostages, while cautious for the sake of their colleagues, said that they had been reasonably treated, though tied up, and a spokesman for the Tehran students said the charge was “nonsense.” “We have given them plenty of books and we show them films,” he added.
Back in the U.S.,what many Iranian students were being shown was the door. Immigration service officials decreed that 700 of the total of 6,700 interviewed must leave. Some of the sting was lost, however, when the service admitted that there could be as many as 200,000 Iranians in the U.S. and that the only way they were ever going to be able to vet them was in the unlikely event that the Iranians volunteered themselves for the process.
Those who stayed nevertheless had to run the gauntlet of innumerable pinpricks—from a refusal by a Long Island gas station owner, backed by two shotguns, to fill the tanks of Iranians’ or Pakistanis’ cars to a run on Iranian flags for burning. In several states there were reports that Iranians had been pelted with garbage.
The reason for the crisis, meanwhile, was telling the perennial Barbara Walters that he had never wanted to come to the United States in the first place and could not wait to return to Mexico. It seemed a little late in the day to reveal the fact, especially as New York reports were shedding doubts on assertions that he need ever have come for treatment. The shah’s doctors added that he would probably be fit to go in two weeks. But that too, in the context of a situation getting rapidly out of hand, seemed likely to prove a case of wisdom after the event. David North from correspondents’ files
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