If you remember the 1979 crisis when radical Iranian students seized the US embassy in Tehran and took more than 50 Americans hostage, you’ll read James Stejskal’s riveting new thriller with an increasing sense of foreboding. That’s especially if you also recall that the US military launched a rescue mission that came to a disastrous end in the desert south of Tehran. Ultimately, the American hostages – many of them diplomats – were held for 444 days, until the inauguration of a new American president, Ronald Reagan.
Given that author James Stejskal has created a smart and skilled members of Delta Force team as his characters, it’s interesting to anticipate how he handles the botched rescue. No revisionist history here. His description is an accurate picture of how it happened and, perhaps more important, why it happened. An overly complex strategy, contingency planning failures and sheer bad luck all played a part. Although Stejskal says the order to abort the mission came from the White House, President Carter was acting on the advice of his military leaders on the ground. For espionage lovers, the book offers an interesting counterpoint to the 2012 film Argo which focused on the rescue of six hostages via a fake sci-fi film shoot set up by the CIA. Appointment in Tehran takes a wider perspective, with several things going on simultaneously.
As real life simmers along in the background Master Sergeant Kim Beck and Staff Sergeant Paul Stavros have a lot of work to do. First, they undergo specific and intensive training in skills likely necessary for the rescue attempt: close quarter battle marksmanship, casing a target location, working as a team following a ‘rabbit’ through the city without being detected… Fascinating. It whets the appetite for what’s to come as all these skills will be used before the story ends.
Even though the Special Forces team are not part of the main rescue force, they have several critical jobs to do. The military wants eyes on the ground to covertly assess the situation at the two sites where Americans are being held – the embassy and the Iranian Foreign Minister’s office. The planners want to double-check the Iranians’ security and consider the logistics of extracting the hostages. It’s undercover work and needs to be done without raising suspicion. Iran isn’t just hostile, it would welcome a chance to embarrass US intelligence for operating in its territory.
The exploits of Delta Force are interspersed with chapters reporting discussions within the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the CIA and its clandestine branch, and so on, which reinforce the sense of realism of the story. Many of the higher-ups portrayed are based on real people. Their deliberations underscore the plan’s complexity, the gaps in coordination, and the blind spots that ego tries to fill.
And that’s not all. It seems that an army intelligence officer was part of a separate, ill-conceived operation in Iran involving a tactical nuclear weapon. The weapon was smuggled in to be used against the Soviets and hinder their ability to invade Iran’s neighbour, Afghanistan. That weapon is now sitting in Tehran, and the Americans want it back at all costs. Paul Stavros gets that assignment. Meanwhile, an American traitor in Europe is trying to get information on the nuke for the Soviets. Of course, they want it too. While this part of the story is purely fictional, the accuracy with which Stejskal portrays events you know are real adds to the credibility of the entire plot.
This becomes the Delta Force mission: backstopping the rescue efforts; extracting the three diplomats held at the foreign minister’s office; finding that nuclear device; and getting it out of the country. Any or all of this could go very badly in multiple ways.
Clearly, none of these tasks is easy, and Stejskal keeps ratcheting up the tension. Like his previous thriller involving many of the same characters, A Question of Time, this story is a pure adventure. But this is as much a political thriller as a military one, and you become a frustrated observer of the way bureaucracies tie themselves up in knots.
Stejskal was a US Army Special Forces member who had assignments worldwide. The technical and tactical expertise of service members at his rank stand him in good stead in creating a plausible and exciting story, as does his later work for the CIA. If you’re in the mood for an exciting and interesting read, this might do the trick!
For a different take on espionage in the Middle East, try How to Betray your Country by James Wolff.
CFL Rating: 4 Stars
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