By Hossein Amini*
When revolutionary university students occupied the American embassy in Tehran on November 4th, 1979, in an attempt to protest hostile US policies against Iranians, President Jimmy Carter tried to intervene by sending in troops who carried with them weapons capable of wiping Iran off the map in an act of war(1). The failure of this operation was a blow for the Carter administration, as it was well planned and organized (2). The irony is that during this so called ‘rescue operation’, the US army took 44 Iranian citizens hostage on Iranian soil (3)—a crucial event that you won’t find in the Argo screenplay.
Of the many grievances held by the students who stormed the US embassy, in particular was the attempt of the American government to overthrow the democratically-elected government of Prime Minister Mosaddeq, which had been staged from the same embassy. "You have no right to complain, because you took our whole country hostage in 1953.", said one of the students to Bruce Laingen, chief US diplomat in Iran at the time (4). Iranians were concerned about another US coup attempt hatched from the American embassy against their fledgling government in 1979 and wanted to prevent it (5).
According to experts, Carter’s failure in convincing Iran to release the 52 American prisoners held by the Iranian revolutionaries was the main reason he lost the upcoming presidential election the following year. Iranian revolutionary students demanded from Carter the return of the former Shah, Reza Pahlavi, in order to face a fair trial for his crimes committed against the Iranian nation, crimes he committed with unconditional support from the United States of America(6).
For six long months the Carter administration refused to hand over the former Shah or take any concrete measures that would allow them to come to terms with Iran. On April 11, 1980, Carter went to his cabinet and announced the following statement, “Gentlemen, I want you to know that I am seriously considering an attempt to rescue the hostages.” (7) His means to an end was a fatal military operation on Iranian soil, a breach of international law. He ordered the “Operation Eagle Claw” also known as “Operation Evening Light” or “Operation Rice Bowl” (8).
The US military spent a minimum of five months to plan the operation in a way that would win Carter’s approval. According to one think-tank member involved in the operation, during those five months, “the aircrews trained at Eglin AFB, in Florida, at Hurlburt Field, in Florida, and at Andersen Air Base in Guam, practicing refueling at low airspeed and low altitude using night vision goggles, in "blackout" procedures with the radio and radar out, and only partial inertial navigation systems” (9).
On 24 April 1980, the US national command authorities executed the proposed military operation to free the prisoners (10). Operation Eagle Claw called for “three USAF MC-130s to carry a 132-strong top secret and highly trained all-purpose unit from Masirah Island near Oman in the Persian Gulf to a remote spot 200 miles southeast of Tehran, with a code-named Desert One” (11).
“The planned operation was to begin with the flight of eight Sea Stallion helicopters from the aircraft carrier USS Nimitz and six C-130 (Hercules) transport aircraft to their refueling point in Desert One, a secret Iranian landing strip” (12).
One of the parameters for the mission to be carried out was a minimum of six operational helicopters. However, within only four hours, two helicopters aborted due to mechanical failure. The rest of the aircraft were delayed as the weather conditions demanded, and one of them went out of operation due to a hydraulic leak (13).
The operation was doomed for failure when a strong dust storm facilitated the path towards a total debacle for the Carter administration. After the three helicopters dropped out of the mission, Helicopter Number Six underwent rotor blade failures and had to be abandoned. Helicopter Number Five entered a blinding dust-storm and had less than twenty-five minutes to clear conditions and less than an hour from Desert One, they had no option but to reverse course and return to the mother ship. Helicopter Number Two had reached Desert One, but due to hydraulic leaks the craft was crippled for the rest of the mission (14).
At this point, the operation was cancelled due to many events which rendered the operation under-equipped. In order to return, one of the C-130 planes and one helicopter needed refueling. The helicopter began its attempt to “hover taxi” (to fly low and slow for a short distance), at this position the blades caused more sand to bluster which confused the pilot, causing him to crash into the airplane which was in line for refueling. Both aircrafts exploded. Eight men died, thus five helicopters were left behind as the remaining personnel managed to return to nearby airfields.
Operation Eagle Claw not only failed to secure the prisoners, but it was also a major defeat, always remembered with ignominy and embarrassment, a debacle which practically reiterated the notion of America being “a pitiful helpless giant” as Richard Nixon had once rendered the so-called ‘most powerful nation’ (15).
In the aftermath of this failed operation, Imam Khomeini condemned Carter for his military intervention in Iran, and pointed to the fact that it was,”God who foiled this plot” (16).
"They deployed their spies inside the country. They prepared the ground. They spoke to different mercenaries. They considered different places for their operation. They attacked our country with their helicopters and airplanes. The plan was to regroup in Tabas, go to Tehran, rescue the hostages and take them to America. But the famous event happened in Tabas, and Allah the Exalted destroyed their prestige. Their airplanes and helicopters caught fire, and they were forced to return to America from Tabas," said Ayatollah Khamenei at a meeting with students on November 3, 2010.
*Hossein Amini has an MA degree in Media & Communication (Iran Broadcasting University). He served as IRIB anchor and has a good understanding of Middle Eastern politics.
1. Walker, Hunter. JIMMY CARTER: 'I Could Have Wiped Iran Off The Map'. BusinessInsider. [Online] 10 01, 2014. [Cited: 10 03, 2015.] http://www.businessinsider.com/jimmy-carter-i-could-have-wiped-iran-off-the-map-2014-10?IR=T.
2. AP. Jimmy Carter: Iran hostage rescue should have worked . UsaToday. [Online] 09 17, 2010. [Cited: 10 03, 2015.] http://usatoday30.usatoday.com/news/washington/2010-09-17-iran-hostages-jimmy-carter_N.htm.
3. Stone, Steve. Afgahn Heat: Special Forces. s.l. : Digital Dream Publishing, 2014. p. 26: https://books.google.com/books?id=j5ydBgAAQBAJ&pg=PA26&dq.
4. Peterson, Scott. Let the Swords Encircle Me: Iran-A Journey Behind the Headlines. New York : Simon and Schuster, 2010. p. 53: https://books.google.com/books?id=BSn7ms3kdsoC&pg=PA53&lpg.
5. Huyser, Robert E. Mission to Tehran. New York : Harper & Row, 1986 . 0060390530.
6. Concannon, Diana M. Kidnapping: An Investigator’s Guide. Amsterdam : Elsevier/Academic Press, 2008. p. 135: https://books.google.fr/books?id=-KdueQed_sgC&pg=PA135&lpg.
7. The Desert One Debacle. The Atlantic. [Online] May 2006. [Cited: September 29, 2015.] http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2006/05/the-desert-one-debacle/304803/.
8. OPERATION EVENING LIGHT. Project Gutenburg Self-Publishing Press. [Online] [Cited: September 29, 2015.] http://self.gutenberg.org/articles/operation_evening_light.
9. Bekah Clark. Tanker veterans share Operation Eagle Claw experience during 'Living Legends' speaker series. U.S. Air Mobility Command. [Online] October 26, 2009. [Cited: September 29, 2015.] http://www.amc.af.mil/news/story.asp?id=123174343.
10. Operation Eagle Claw / Evening Light. Global Security. [Online] [Cited: September 29, 2015.] http://www.globalsecurity.org/military/ops/eagle_claw.htm.
11. Griswold, Terry and Giangreco, D. M. Delta: America's Elite Counterterrorist Force. St. Paul, MN : Zenith Imprint, 2005. p. 15: https://books.google.fr/books?id=tgPPJd0BcA0C&pg=PA15&lpg.
12. Operation Eagle Claw, 1980: A Case Study In Crisis Management and Military Planning. Fong, LTA Chua Lu. 2, s.l. : Journal of The Syngapore Armed Forces, 2002, Vol. 28.
13. Op. Cit. Operation Eagle Claw / Evening Light 2015
14. Richard Nixon Address to the Nation on the Situation in Southeast Asia. The American Presidency Project. [Online] April 30, 1970. [Cited: September 29, 2015.] http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/?pid=2490.
15. Khomeini, Ayatollah. The failure of the US Army in Tabas . en.imam-khomeini.ir. [Online] 04 26, 2014. [Cited: 10 05, 2015.] http://en.imam-khomeini.ir/en/NewsPrint.aspx?ID=7819.
16. Operation Eagle Claw. U.S. Force Historial Support Division. [Online] September 8, 2015. http://www.afhso.af.mil/topics/factsheets/factsheet.asp?id=19809.