Operation Eagle Claw: An Imperial Sacrifice


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On November 4, 1979, Iranian revolutionaries stormed the U.S. embassy in Tehran and seized 66 U.S. citizens. In exchange for these hostages, the captors demanded the U.S. government extradite Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the exiled Iranian shah (king) and U.S. client, who was in New York for cancer treatment. The captors also wanted U.S. officials to hand over the treasure Pahlavi had hidden in U.S. banks and apologize for imperialist meddling in Iranian affairs, including the 1953 CIA coup.

To resolve the “hostage crisis,” as it was known in the USA, President Jimmy Carter opted for negotiations rather than military violence. But whenever U.S. and Iranian diplomats reached an agreement, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini denounced it. (At Khomeini’s order, the captors did release 13 hostages after two weeks.)

In February 1980, an unexpected solution appeared. Iranian foreign minister Sadegh Ghotbzadeh told Carter’s chief of staff, Hamilton Jordan, that the hostages would be released if the CIA murdered Pahlavi (who was then in Panama)—perhaps a lethal injection in a quiet hospital room. Jordan rejected the proposal out of hand and made a note to tell Carter about it in person.

Carter approved a more complicated solution: Operation Eagle Claw. On April 24, 1980, U.S. special forces commenced a two-day rescue mission. The intricate plan called for secret airborne invasion, complicated refueling maneuvers, ground assault on several buildings, and a fighting withdrawal.

With so many moving parts, the operation had little room for error. U.S. officials  considered it likely that as many as 20 hostages and even more U.S. soldiers would die in the rescue attempt, and possibly hundreds of Iranian soldiers, police, and civilians—quite a human sacrifice to extract the other 33 captives. 

Two rather obvious questions arise: 

1) Why did Carter launch an action that would likely cost more U.S. lives than the number rescued?

For military state insiders, the primary concern was maintaining threat power, which they call “credibility.” A Foreign Affairs article claimed that the “overthrow of the Shah has dealt a serious blow” to “American credibility in the Middle East.” A Washington Quarterly article argued that the suffering of the hostages was of less concern than “the change in the perception of the United States.” 

Credibility—often couched as “national honor” or “national security”—requires making an example, through punishment, of anyone who challenges imperial authority. The hostage takers and their backers were enjoying impunity—that’s why it was called a “crisis.”

In arguing for a rescue attempt, National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski convinced Carter that “we have to think beyond the fate of the fifty Americans and consider the deleterious effects of a protracted stalemate, growing public frustration, and international humiliation of the U.S.” Brzezinski also called for “a simultaneous retaliatory strike” against Iran as a “purely punitive action”—honor and credibility—if the mission failed to bring home the hostages.

Secretary of State Cyrus Vance was less callous. He opposed the rescue plan as too dangerous, especially for the hostages, and believed—correctly, as it turned out—that diplomacy would eventually secure their release. He resigned in protest after Carter and Brzezinski gave final approval to the mission without consulting him.

Carter’s press secretary, Jody Powell, told Secretary of Defense Harold Brown, “If we can bring our people out of there, it will do more good for this country than anything that has happened in twenty years.” Was Powell suggesting that rescuing hostages would do more good than did the nonviolent movements against racism, sexism, and war? More good than civil rights legislation and nuclear arms agreements? Yes, of course, because by “country” Powell meant the military state.

Carlton Savory, chief medical officer on Operation Eagle Claw, later explained that it was “a complicated plan with a lot of risk involved” but also a chance to “boost the military again” after the shame of the Vietnam War. He described the hostage conflict as “black and white, good and evil.”

Many U.S. citizens view international relations through a lens of Domination Theology. In simplest terms, the USA represents God’s chosen people. The U.S. military state is God’s earthly agent crusading against Evil. Propagandists play upon these deeply held assumptions to justify U.S. attempts at global domination. 

In Domination Theology rhetoric, “strength” means the willingness of U.S. officials to use force, especially deadly violence, to get their way. It follows that concession and compromise—the failure of U.S. officials to dominate —signify “weakness.” The extended captivity of U.S. civilians in Tehran represented significant weakness. You don’t patiently negotiate with Evil, you confront and destroy it.

Walter Cronkite, the popular newsman, had taken to signing off his evening broadcast with a running total: “And that’s the way it is, Thursday, April 3rd, 1980, the 152nd day of captivity for the American hostages in Iran.” The dates changed, but the subtext remained the same: The 152nd day of the once-mighty USA—after failures in Cuba and Vietnam, OPEC-induced stagflation, and Soviet advances in Afghanistan—being humiliated by yet another inferior and wicked country. I recall that someone placed rubber images of the scowling ayatollah in the bathroom urinals at my high school.

Obsessive media coverage of the hostage story, criticism from political rivals, and public perception in an election year all informed the timing of Carter’s decision. With national honor and credibility at stake, he appeared weak, especially whenever Khomeini sabotaged the negotiated agreements. Politically speaking, Carter could no longer afford to be patient; he needed to be strong. A successful rescue operation would guarantee his reelection, he believed, and failure would assure his defeat.

Operation Eagle Claw, then, was less about saving lives, more about reasserting imperial power overseas and, at home, strengthening popular approval of both the military state and its current leadership.

2) Why were so many U.S. and Iranian lives expendable, while covertly euthanizing Pahlavi, a deposed and dying monarch, was simply out of the question? 

The answer is probably some combination of the following conceits commonly found in U.S. policymaking: 

U.S. combat casualties are, by definition, the unfortunate but necessary and heroic cost of confronting Evil, and enemy lives are irrelevant. War is good. 

The randomness, anonymity, and mutuality of battlefield slaughter make it seem less sinister than the intimate targeting of a specific, unarmed individual. Murder is bad.

Exiled U.S. allies, no matter how criminal, must be protected to maintain the loyalty of current allies. (Unless a scapegoat is needed.) 

As an extremely wealthy, Westernized, light-skinned male, international authority figure, and personal acquaintance of numerous U.S. powerbrokers, including Carter, Richard Nixon, Henry Kissinger, and David Rockefeller, Pahlavi’s life was especially sacred and precious. Some people are closer to God.

To better perceive this sanctity gap, consider the following atrocities: A) The U.S. Navy shooting down an Iranian airliner, murdering 290 people (1988). B) A suicide bomber slaughtering 241 U.S. military personnel in Lebanon (1983). C) The second Fallujah massacre in Iraq, which left approximately 800 noncombatants and 1,500 combatants dead, including 95 U.S. troops (2004). D) The assassination of President John Kennedy (1963)? In U.S. society, which is considered the most important, tragic, sinister, and scandalous?

Fortunately, Operation Eagle Claw was a self-inflicted failure—fortunately, that is, if we weigh actual corpses versus potential corpses and value all human lives equally. A powerful sandstorm and various mechanical failures ended the rescue operation almost before it began. As the stymied intruders prepared to evacuate from the Iranian wilderness, a helicopter collided with a parked airplane, causing an intense fire.

The U.S. military lost eight human beings—less than expected. U.S. soldiers fired a rocket at a passing truck, injuring the driver and killing his passenger. So nine human lives, each one much like yours, sacrificed to the imperatives of imperial politics. Another 44 Iranians, from a passing bus, were briefly held prisoner, and no doubt traumatized, at gunpoint. The 53 hostages in Tehran were neither killed nor rescued, and the crisis continued, dooming Carter to electoral defeat in November.

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