The Twelfth Imam


Tehran, Iran

November 4, 1979

Charlie Harper was still five or six hundred yards from the compound, but he was alone; even if he could fight his way through the rapidly growing mob, he still had no plan to rescue those trapped inside.

He could hear gunfire. He could taste the acrid stench of thick, black smoke rising into the crisp, early morning air. He could feel the searing heat of the bonfires as American flags and tires and someone’s overturned car were being torched all around him. He could see the rage in the eyes of the young men—thousands of them, maybe tens of thousands, bearded, shouting, screaming, out of control—surrounding the embassy and threatening to overrun its grounds. He just had no idea what to do.

It was the twenty-six-year-old’s first assignment with the State Department. He was the most junior political officer in the country and had no field experience. He and his beautiful, spirited young bride, Claire, had been married only a year. They’d been in Tehran since September 1—barely two months. He didn’t even know the names of most of his colleagues behind the compound walls. But though he increasingly feared for their safety, he still refused to believe that he was personally in mortal danger.

How could he be? Charles David Harper loved Iran in a way that made little sense to him, much less to his bride. Growing up on the South Side of Chicago, he hadn’t known anyone from Iran. He’d never been here before. He’d never even been close. But inexplicably he had fallen in love with the Persian people somewhere along the way. He loved the complexity of this ancient, exotic culture. He loved the mysterious rhythm of modern Tehran, even filled as it was with religious extremists and militant secularists. And he especially loved the food—khoroshte fesenjoon was his latest favorite, a savory stew of roast lamb, pomegranates, and walnuts, which the Shirazis, their next-door neighbors—God bless them—had already made for him and Claire twice since they had arrived at this post.

The language of Iran had been a joy for Charlie to absorb and master. He’d picked up Farsi quickly as an undergraduate at Stanford. He’d sharpened it carefully in graduate school at Harvard. When he joined the State Department upon graduation, he’d been placed immediately on the fast track to become a Foreign Service officer, was rushed through basic diplomatic training, and was sent to Tehran for his first assignment. He’d been thrilled every step along the way. Thrilled with using Farsi every day. Thrilled with being thrown into a highly volatile political cauldron. Thrilled with trying to understand the dynamic of Khomeini’s revolution from the inside. And convinced that the sooner he could get his sea legs, the sooner he could truly help Washington understand and navigate the enormous social and cultural upheaval under way inside Iran.

The violent outbursts of the students, Charlie was convinced, were spasmodic. This one would pass like a summer thunderstorm, as all the others had. The dark clouds would pass. The sun would come out again. They just needed to be patient. As a couple. As a country.

Charlie glanced at his watch. It was barely six thirty in the morning. Since hearing on the radio back at his apartment the initial reports of trouble, he’d been running flat out for nearly nine blocks, but that was no longer possible—too many people and too little space. As he inched his way forward, he could see the top floors of the chancery, not far from Roosevelt Gate, the embassy’s main entrance, but he knew he’d never make it there from this side. He’d have to find another way inside—perhaps through the consulate offices in the compound’s northwest corner.

Winded, his soaked shirt sticking to his back, Charlie shifted gears. He began trying to move laterally through the mob. His relative youth, dark hair, and dark brown eyes—a gift from his mother’s Italian heritage—seemed to help him blend in somewhat, though he suddenly wished he had a beard. And a gun.

He could feel the situation steadily deteriorating. The Marines were nowhere to be seen. They were no longer guarding the main gate or even patrolling the fence, so far as he could tell. He assumed they had pulled back to defend the buildings on the compound—the chancery, the ambassador’s house, the house of the deputy chief of mission, the consulate, and the warehouse (aka, “Mushroom Inn”), along with various other offices and the motor pool. Charlie wasn’t a military man, but he