© Mahmoudreza Kalari/Sygma/Corbis
The Iranian Hostage Crisis, in which Iranian student revolutionaries held 52 Americans hostage for 444 days, was an unprecedented act of state-sanctioned terrorism and a profound humiliation for the United States. In many ways “Operation Eagle Claw,” the ludicrously ambitious plan to rescue the hostages, was the nadir of the whole affair. Intended to demonstrate U.S. strength and determination to Iran and the world, Eagle Claw — which occurred on this date in 1980 — was instead a spectacular failure.
The hostage crisis, lasting from November 4, 1979 to January 20, 1981, was part of the broader upheaval of the Islamic Revolution, in which millions of Iranians took to the streets to topple the U.S.-backed Shah Reza Pahlavi beginning in January 1978.
Facing massive protests and growing violence, the Shah fled the country on January 16, 1979; two weeks later Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the charismatic Shi’ite cleric and spiritual leader of the revolution, returned from exile in Paris to take over leadership of the revolution – and eventually the country.
Although Khomeini was widely revered as the main voice of dissent against the Shah, his followers were just one of many revolutionary factions united against the old regime, including many secular and moderate Islamist groups. Over the next two years, Khomeini’s radical Islamist followers – including a good number of Iranian college students – would help the ayatollah sideline the moderates and implement his vision of velayat-e faqih, the “guardianship of the Islamic clerics,” a doctrine essentially calling for a religious dictatorship.
There was a long history of U.S. intervention in Iran, often through covert means, and the CIA had acquired an almost mythical reputation there following its role in the overthrow of Mohammed Mossadegh, Iran’s last democratically-elected ruler, in 1953. In 1979 the Iranian revolutionaries assumed (probably correctly) that the U.S. wasn’t simply going to stand by while a key oil supplier and ally fell under the sway of a group of ruthless medieval theocrats. When the U.S. admitted the deposed Shah for cancer treatment, it confirmed their suspicions that the Americans must be plotting a counter-revolution.
Storming the Embassy
It was in this context that around 500 Iranian college students descended on the U.S. embassy on November 4, 1979, to seize dozens of American embassy workers in blatant violation of international agreements guaranteeing diplomatic immunity.
The college students vowed to hold the hostages until America handed over the Shah for trial (and almost certainly execution), freed up frozen Iranian assets, and generally stopped interfering in Iranian affairs. Crucially, Khomeini gave his blessing to the embassy takeover and refused to send in police to restore order, in part because it would help radicalize the revolutionary movement. Iran was now a rogue state.
Images of the blindfolded American embassy staff spurred outrage and calls for decisive action in the U.S. Four days after the hostage crisis began, Ted Koppel’s Nightline debuted on ABC to provide in-depth coverage of the events, and Walter Cronkite began ending every CBS News broadcast by announcing the number of days the embassy workers had been held hostage. Under enormous political pressure, on November 12, President Jimmy Carter ordered the Pentagon to begin drawing up plans for a daring – read: foolhardy – rescue mission codenamed “Operation Eagle Claw.”
No one can fault the operation for not being complex enough. Under the cover of darkness, eight navy helicopters were to fly from the U.S.S. Nimitz, based in the Arabian Sea, to “Desert One,” a secret staging area in central Iran picked by the CIA, where they were to meet up with U.S. Delta Forces aboard three C-130 transport planes flying in from Oman. Another three C-130 transport planes carrying 18,000 gallons of fuel for the helicopters were also supposed to land at Desert One. The eight Navy helicopters would then refuel and fly the Delta Forces to “Desert Two,” another spot about 50 miles south of Teheran, where they would conceal the helicopters and hide out during the day.
On the second night, the Delta Forces would board six trucks driven by Iranian CIA operatives, drive into downtown Teheran, storm the U.S. embassy, free the hostages, and transport everyone to a nearby soccer field, where they would be picked up by the Navy helicopters flying in from Desert Two. The Navy helicopters would then fly the freed hostages and Delta Forces to Manzariyeh airfield, about 60 miles southwest of Teheran, which was supposed to be secured in the interim by U.S. Army Rangers arriving aboard C-141s. Everyone would then board the C-141s for final extraction to Egypt (the helicopters would be abandoned and destroyed). Easy!
Well, not really: Eagle Claw only got as far as Desert One when disaster struck. On the night of April 24, 1980, a dust storm (haboob) forced one of the eight Navy helicopters to turn back, and another crash-landed after being disabled. The other six helicopters landed at Desert One, but another was lost to hydraulic problems. With just five helicopters operational, the commander on the scene decided to abort the mission – but that’s when the real trouble started.
As the U.S. aircraft prepared to evacuate, one of the helicopters crashed into a C-130 carrying fuel and troops, destroying both aircraft and killing eight U.S. personnel. In the ensuing panic, all the other helicopters were abandoned – but not destroyed – so the Iranians actually came out ahead by several helicopters (some of which are still in service in the Iranian Navy).
Operation Eagle Claw was a total debacle which embarrassed America in front of the entire world and probably contributed to Jimmy Carter’s defeat in the 1980 election. Coming less than a decade after America’s defeat in Vietnam, it seemed to confirm a widely held view that America was, in Richard Nixon’s famous phrase, a “pitiful giant” burdened with an incompetent military.
In fact, it would be fairer to say that Eagle Claw suffered from overly ambitious planning, the wrong hardware, and the absence of a “red team” to point out flaws and vulnerabilities during the planning process. And it wasn’t all bad news: the humiliation endured in Eagle Claw helped spur military reforms that had already begun under the Carter administration and then gathered speed under Reagan.
While no one would ever suspect it based on Eagle Claw, the U.S. military was in the process of leapfrogging over its competitors in technology, training, and tactics – a sweeping overhaul, still on-going, which has come to be called the Revolution in Military Affairs. The paradigm shift brought about by digital command, control, and communications, along with “smart” weapons, stealth technology, and other advances, would be showcased in the devastating U.S.-led war against Iraq in 1991.
Meanwhile Iran hardly escaped from the hostage crisis unscathed, having earned the lasting enmity of one of the world’s two superpowers. During the Iran-Iraq War from 1980-1988, the U.S. wreaked its vengeance by giving technical assistance to Iraqi forces, which helped them inflict half a million casualties on Iranian forces, and the U.S. Navy destroyed the Iranian Navy in Operation Praying Mantis in April 1988. Finally on July 3, 1988, the U.S.S. Vincennes shot down Iran Air Flight 655, killing all 290 people aboard; while the incident was probably an accident, Khomeini viewed it as deliberate and threw in the towel in the Iran-Iraq War shortly afterwards.