Operation Eagle Claw was the failed attempt by President Jimmy Carter
to rescue American hostages from Iran in 1980, the dawn of the modern age. It directly contributed to Ronald Reagan
's victory in the US elections that were held later that year. Although Operation Eagle Claw is often forgotten nowadays, we are still living with its legacy. The curious mixture of tragedy and comedy set the tone for a decade of turmoil in the Middle East, and seemed to symbolise Jimmy Carter's presidence in a nutshell. It was the icing on top of Jimmy Carter's nutshell.
Let us travel back in time to the late 1970s. Things were different then. Iran was ruled by a man called the Shah of Iran. He was a friend of the Western powers, and bought lots of weapons from them, i.e. us. His people were unhappy with his rule, and after a year of revolt, the the Shah of Iran was deposed by Islamic fundamentalists, in January 1979. He promptly retired to the US. The new government of Iran wanted the US to return the Shah, presumably so that he and his personal fortune could be divided up. Jimmy Carter said no, and the US government claimed that he was undergoing medical treatment. Thus, in November 1979, the US Embassy in Tehran was overrun by militant Iranian students, who took sixty-six Americans hostage. A few of them were released shortly afterwards, but most were not. Then as now, international law frowns upon the storming of a foreign embassy. An attack on an embassy is tantamount to an attack on a nation.
But in this case it was not quite tantamount. President Carter was placed in a sticky situation. He did not wish to return the Shah, partially out of national pride, partially because he was concerned about the Shah's fate, and partially because, if the CIA could quickly overthrow the Islamic revolutionaries, the Shah might then be reinstated as a pro-Western leader, and everything would be as it was. The Carter government had never been strong on foreign policy, alternately annoying the Soviet Union over laudible-but-touchy human rights issues, or, in the case of SALT II, seeming to please them rather too much for the comfort of Republicans. On the international stage, it appeared comical that the US could be angered by Iran, a country which was, as far as most people in the US and UK were concerned, an anonymous Arab nation that had not been in the news for decades. Until the revolution Iran had not been involved in Gamel Nasser's pan-Arabism, and had neither attacked Israel nor been attacked by Israel, or any other nearby nation. Now Iran had been overtaken by students, and some mysterious "mullahs".
Carter ruled out a large military strike against Iran - a lot of Iranians would have died, and there would still be no guarantee that the hostages would be returned alive. On Christmas Day, 1979, the Soviets invaded nearby Afghanistan, a country which was also undergoing an Islamic revolution of its own. Afghanistan's revolution was supported by the West, with arms and equipment that would later be used in acts of terrorism against it. A few years later Rambo and James Bond would ally themselves with these revolutionaries, because they were good revolutionaries, whereas Chuck Norris and Charlie Sheen would fight against similar revolutionaries who were bad revolutionaries. From Carter's perspective, the risk involved in having a substantial part of the Russian army engaged in a shooting war on the same tectonic plate as a large part of the American army was too great.
There was an alternative. In 1976 Israel had conducted a long-range hostage rescue operation at Entebbe Airport, in Uganda. The operation was a big success, and had been turned into several movies and television films in the years that followed. Perhaps the US could launch a similar operation into Iran. In the wake of Entebbe, and a series of terrorist outrages of the 1970s, several Western nations had started up their own anti-terrorist forces. Britain had the SAS, which was frequently in danger of being disbanded, and would shortly cement its future at Princes Gate in the heart of London. The Germans had GSG9, which had drawn blood against the same terrorists behind the Entebbe hijack. The US had Delta Force, which had not yet seen action.
Operation Eagle Claw. I do not know who picked the name. Perhaps there was an official name, an anonymous name, that was used instead, and Eagle Claw is a subsequent invention. The plan involved landing a group of C-130 Hercules transport aeroplanes in a secluded spot in the Iranian desert, which would be called DESERT ONE. The makeshift base would be used as a staging area for eight RH-53D Sea Stallion transport helicopters, which were to fly from USS Nimitz, stationed in the Gulf, to the desert base, and then on to the vicinity of Tehran. Delta Force was then expected to make contact with local agents, and lie low for a day, launching the assault the next night. At which point a mixture of firepower, pluck, and US air power would free the hostages, lead them to a nearby airport, suppress the Iranian defences, and hopefully avoid killing any Iranian civilians. It was a formidably complicated plan, more akin to the Apollo Project than a military operation. The Israeli plan at Entebbe was complex but easy enough for one man to grasp in his mind; Eagle Claw was spread out between several branches of the armed forces, and it was very hush-hush.
The plan was put into operation in April 1980. The C-130 aircraft landed at the desert base, which was located next to a remote road. According to intelligence reports, the road was very rarely used, but, as the transports landed, a bus filled with Iranian peasants hove into view. After detaining the passengers, the US soldiers spotted a fuel truck which proceeded to drive directly through the American checkpoints; perhaps they were petrol smugglers, perhaps they thought that the solders were Iranian police. The troops opened fire, and the fuel truck exploded in an extremely conspicuous ball of flame. Despite this, the smugglers escaped in a second, smaller truck which was following behind. No matter.
Meanwhile, the eight transport helicopters were approaching the site through a dense sandstorm. They were flying at low level in order to evade Iranian radar, and had to cover a distance of over 400 miles. At night. The plan called for the mission to be aborted if less than six transport helicopters were operational - fewer than that, and there would not be enough to evacuate the hostages and any casualties that arose. In short order, two helicopters broke down in the sandstorm and aborted. Six made it to the desert base, but one developed a hydraulic problem, and in any case the pilots were too exhausted to carry on. Operation Eagle Claw was called off.
Had that been the end of it, Operation Eagle Claw would be an example of an overcomplicated plan coming to grief thanks to Murphy's Law, and in any case it could simply have been remounted the following day, or abandoned with no great loss of face. But there was an accident. In order to refuel, some of the landed helicopters had to exchange positions; as they were manoeuvring, the storm increased in intensity, and one helicopter was blown onto a transport aircraft. In the resulting crash and fire, eight American servicemen were killed. The desert base was abandoned, the wreckage left where it burned. There was no time and no way to retrieve the bodies of the dead; the fire was too intense. The remaining personnel evacuated in the C-130s, leaving the helicopters behind.
The following morning, Iranian soldiers arrived to find the smouldering remains of a fuel tanker truck, five intact, abandoned RH-53D Sea Stallion helicopters, the burnt-out wreckage of a transport aircraft and a further helicopter, and eight sets of charred bones. America's evening meal was accompanied by television news footage of Iranian officials waving the bones in triumph. The naps and intelligence reports left behind in the helicopters killed several US agents within Iran, leading immediately to their deaths, offscreen.
Jimmy Carter did not win the 1980 election. The hostages were eventually released in January 1981, just as Ronald Reagan took office. It later turned out that the US government had agreed to supply Iran with weapons in exchange for the hostages. It was the Iran Contra scandal. Iran quickly needed all the weapons it could get, from anyone and anywhere, because Saddam Hussein's Iraq invaded Iran in September 1980. Saddam reasoned that the Iranian revolution had left Iran unable to defend himself. The Iran-Iraq War continued until 1988, at which point it stopped. I have read a few articles here and there about the Iran-Iraq War, and I do not believe there is much more to say other than that it started, it continued, and then it stopped. The war left Iraq short of cash. Saddam Hussein was angry that the West would not write off his debts, and so Iraq invaded Kuwait and liberated great numbers of Mercedes limousines and Lamborghini off-roaders. Contrary to Saddam's expectations, the West drove him out of Kuwait, and the rest is modern history.
Unnoticed amongst all of this, the Shah of Iran died, aged 61, in July 1980.