Operation Eagle Claw

The failed American hostage rescue attempt…

Jimmy Carter’s presidency will be forever marked by his failure to secure the release of Americans taken hostage in Tehran by more than three thousand militant students who stormed the U.S embassy on November 4th 1979, capturing sixty three American personnel and three more at the Iranian Foreign Ministry. Carter enraged the Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Khomeini by allowing the deposed Iranian leader Mohammed Pahlavi into the US for cancer treatment and two weeks later, the embassy was attacked.

Within two weeks thirteen women and Afro-Americans had been released leaving the remaining fifty three to spend the next five months agonizing over attempts to free them. Carter was under massive pressure to bring this to an end and by April 1980 with diplomatic efforts frozen, Carter gave the order for a military rescue attempt. In what would prove its undoing, the mission included the marines, air force, navy and army using helicopters and C-130 aircraft to land soldiers and refuel the helicopters which took the troops to their landing position in the mountains outside of Tehran. This first staging area was codenamed Desert One and of the eight helicopters sent three broke down before the second phase could be actioned and despite there still being enough helicopters and personnel to complete the mission, military leaders called on Carter to abort, which he granted.

As they left one of the helicopters crashed into a transport aircraft which contained both service personnel and fuel, the resulting explosion killed eight servicemen and destroyed the aircraft. It was a disaster for the Carter administration which announced the failed attempt at 1.00am the following day. The Iranians immediately split the hostages up across the country to prevent the Americans from trying again and despite Carter’s best efforts the Iranians kept hold of the Americans until minutes after Carter’s presidency officially ended and Ronald Reagan took office.

It was an ordeal which would last four hundred and forty four days, easily Carter’s biggest crisis of his tenure and what would mark the beginning of deep hostilities between the two countries which continues to this day. Carter’s relationship with the deposed Shah and subsequent ill-considered loyalty toward him signified the president’s lack of understanding of movements within the region at that time. As Iranian anti-royalty sentiment grew with increasing vitriol so Carter’s naivety increased the threat to US citizens living and working in Iran and the president became caught in the crossfire between pro-Shah allies such as Henry Kissinger and national security advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski and US diplomats in Tehran feeling the pressure of the hostility of the people they lived amongst.

Having finally realised the depth of Iranian hatred towards the Shah, Carter withdrew his initial offer of asylum but domestic pressure from the likes of Kissinger and more conservative elements within his own administration forced a reversal of his decision allowing the Shah to receive cancer treatment in America. Had Carter considered other options such as sending specialists to treat the deposed leader in a neutral country the hostage taking would probably never have happened and Carter’s subsequent legacy as a one-term ‘weak president’ avoided.

In his White House diaries Carter gives a somewhat vague description of the events, he says little in the way of regret for the servicemen who were killed and his account left me wanting: “I was exhausted when I finally got to bed, after calling Rosalynn in Texas to tell her to cancel her campaigning for tomorrow and come home. She was most disturbed because she had no way to know what was going on, but knew from my guarded comments on the phone that we had serious problems. Of course she expected the worst, like a war with Saudi Arabia, or something like that” 

At least Henry Kissinger made ‘a superb statement to me of full support and admiration’……

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