Special Edition Iran – Part VII, The Hostage Crisis and Operation Eagle Claw

By Jay Holmes

As an intelligence operative, I need a good foundation in history to do my job. After all, if we don’t understand what happened in the past, we can’t understand what is happening today or why. This series outlines Iran’s past as we move toward an analysis of that country’s current nuclear capability and what it means to the West. (See Part IPart IIPart IIIPart IVPart V, and Part VI.)

Today, we look at the Hostage Crisis and Operation Eagle Claw.

Invasion of US Embassy in Iran, image from cia.gov

On November 4, 1979, Ayatollah Khomeini’s thugs invaded the US Embassy in Tehran and kidnapped 52 Americans. Rather than attack Iran, President Carter authorized the Pentagon to order US Army Special Forces Delta Force, commanded by Colonel Charles “Chargin’ Charlie” Beckwith, to plan and train for a hostage rescue mission known as Operation Eagle Claw.

Delta Intelligence Officer, Captain Wade “Ish” Ishimoto, began long hours working with multiple agencies outside of the Army to construct an accurate picture of the situation in the Embassy. Ishimoto and Beckwith shared relaxing breaks together from their work by burning up ammo at the firing range. These guys didn’t intend to miss. Given any chance, they wouldn’t.

Wade “Ish” Ishimoto

The CIA was willing and ready to implement a wide variety of operations against the Ayatollah, and American CIA members volunteered in droves for clandestine operations in Iran. President Carter approved little activity against Iran.

“Old Hands” and “Youngsters” alike were deeply frustrated by the White House’s unwillingness to engage in HUMINT operations and covert action in Iran and other locations. However, the CIA and military intelligence agencies still gained some valuable HUMINT (human intelligence), and the US 5th Fleet in the Indian Ocean was reinforced.

November 20, 1979

Iran released 13 US hostages.

April 24, 1980

Operation Eagle Claw commenced. Helicopters launched from the USS Nimitz for a low level, nighttime flight into Iran. It would be a long flight to “Desert One” where they would refuel from fuel brought in by a C-130. The pilots, flying below Iranian Air Defense at 100 feet, faced a heavy sand storm.

The helicopters and pilots were worn down from hours of flying through wind-blown sand. Two helicopters broke down on the flight to the refueling stop. After a third helicopter collided with a C-130 at the fueling stop, causing the deaths of eight members of the mission, Delta was left with three helicopters.

The agreed upon minimum was six birds to reach Tehran. The President ordered the abortion of the mission. Beckwith was in agony, but he accepted that there was no rational way to continue the mission. Delta and their accompanying Army Rangers withdrew from Iran. Out of the failed mission came an eventual major reorganization of US Special Forces teams with direct funding and permanent infrastructure for the support of their missions.

President Jimmy Carter, image from public domain

The continuation of the Iranian Hostage Crisis played a part in President Carter’s defeat in his re-election bid. We should remember that, in spite of what other criticisms we might make of President Carter, he insisted on taking the full blame for the failure of Operation Eagle Claw. In other times, on other occasions, other, less honorable men in the Oval Office have behaved very differently.

July 11, 1980

One American Hostage was released.

September 22, 1980

A not very fast but reasonably savage tribe from the Northwest (the Iraqi Army) invaded Iran.

Iran had been organizing a Shia resistance against the Sunni minority Ba’ath government of Saddam Hussein in Iraq. The Iranians wanted Iraq’s oil, but Iran was in economic chaos thanks to Khomeini and his undereducated, over-empowered Mullahs. Saddam and the Ba’ath party wanted Iran and its oil, but the geographical obstacles were considerable. The mountains of northwestern Iran once again play a part in its defense.

The Iraqi Army, equipped with older, inferior Russian equipment, was unable to move fast enough, and Iran mustered an effective defense. A bloody stalemate ensued.

The Iranians announced that the “Hand of God” had stopped the Iraqi invasion. What more likely saved them was the meddling hand of the militarily inadequate Saddam Hussein in the planning and conduct of the war.

June 1981

In a wild and reckless move, Iranian President Abulhassan Banisadr dared to question the absolute authority of the Ayatollah. Khomeini tossed him from office. A defecting Iranian Air Force pilot smuggled Banisadr out of the country and he fled to France. His closest friends and supporters were executed. Banisadr remains under heavy guard in France today.

January 20, 1981

President Reagan was inaugurated. Khomeini ordered the release of the remaining US hostages.


Iran financed and founded “Hezbollah” in Lebanon. Hezbollah is a radical Shia group dedicated to the destruction of Israel and the conversion of Lebanon to a Shia Islamic state.


Iraq used chemical weapons against Iranian soldiers and civilians, as well as their own Kurdish citizens.

October 23, 1983

Iran used Hezbollah suicide bombers to attack the US Marine barracks in Lebanon. Two hundred, twenty American Marines, 18 US Sailors, three US Army soldiers, 60 French servicemen, and six civilians were killed in the attack.

It is now public information that the NSA intercepted the order issued from the Iranian government to their chief terrorist in Beirut to attack the Embassy. The NSA failed to pass on the information to the Pentagon or the White House in time to prevent the attack.


The Iran Contra scandal. As the war with Iraq continued, the US attempted to broker weapons deals with Iran in exchange for the release of kidnapped Americans. Profits from the sales went (unseen by most, but not all, Congressmen) to support anti-communist contras in Nicaragua and bordering nations. Americans in the jungles and occasionally in the air of Central America were fighting a war on a shoe string, but that’s a tale for another day.

July 3, 1988

The Ticonderoga class cruiser USS Vincennes shot down an Iranian Airliner with two hundred, ninety passengers and crew. The airliner deviated from the normal route and seemed to be descending toward the Vincennes. At that point in history, the people at Vincennes had no technological way of identifying the aircraft as an airliner full of passengers.

July 18, 1988

Iran agreed to a UN Peace Treaty ending the war between Iran and Iraq. Depending on who you ask, the war cost Iraq nearly 400,000 deaths, and cost Iran close to 1,000,000.

Victims of Saddam’s chemical weapons in Halabja, 1988. Photo by Zaxo at Wikimedia.**

February 14, 1989

In yet another of his many political blunders, the aging and never very rational Ayatollah Khomeini declared a “fatwa” against UK author Salman Rushdie for publishing The Satanic Verses. The “fatwa” meant that any Islamic could murder Rushdie and get extra virgins in heaven for doing so.

June 3 1989

Khomeini finally did something useful for Iran and the Iranian people. He died. The actual date is disputed. TV cameras transmitted live scenes from his funeral. A mob of zealots tore open his coffin and ripped his body apart in attempts to obtain sacred relics from the dead mullah.

June 4, 1989

President Khamenei was appointed as new Supreme Religious Leader. Islamic clerics around the world were shocked by his selection. They claimed that his religious training was very limited, like the rest of his education. His main qualification for the job seemed to be that he was Khomeini’s favorite “gopher” during his exile. Over time, Khamenei would prove to be as incompetent as his critics claimed he was.

Ayatollah Khamenei, a.k.a. Supreme Leader 2.0. Image by http://www.sajed.ir at Wikimedia.

August 1989

Ali Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani was sworn in as the new president. Rafsanjani made slightly conciliatory remarks concerning the “Great Satan.” The USA released the last half billion of frozen Iranian assets from US banks.

June 21, 1990

An earthquake in Iran killed 40,000 people. 700 villages were destroyed. Five hundred thousand people were left homeless.

Iran remained neutral during the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait and during Operation Desert Storm, the allied invasion of Iraq.


The US imposed economic sanctions on Iran for seeking to develop nuclear weapons.

In our next article, we will examine the long nuclear weapons argument between the international community and Iran up to the current time.

**Note from Piper Bayard: I don’t normally choose such graphic photos, and this is one of the least graphic from this attack, but the use of chemical weapons by Iraq was so brutal and devastating to the Iranians and the Kurds that I felt, in the interest of truth, it would be negligent of me to omit it. There is the widespread belief in America that Saddam never had chemical WMD’s. Clearly, this is not the case.


8 comments on “Special Edition Iran – Part VII, The Hostage Crisis and Operation Eagle Claw

  1. Good write up Holmes. It’s funny that I can remember much of this happening, but I couldn’t put dates to the events. Thanks.


  2. tomwisk says:

    Holmes you explained a convoluted situation. I lived through it and the events that followed showed that we don’t have the b***s to kick a** when necessary. Your timeline also showed that we elect dummies. I have no idea why we listen to political rhetoric. With 2016 coming up I’m awaiting your views on how the candidates shake out. Of course if your duties preclude this Ms. Bayard is welcome to opine.

    • Jay Holmes says:

      Hi Tomwisk. As for 2016 elections I likely will have little to say. This is quite odd but I am better at predicting foreign elections than I am at predicting US elections. Of course I have the best record in countries where the votes don’t matter in the slightest. For example, it was easy enough to predict Putin’s last victory.

      It’s not that I don’t think that our elections are important. I do. I vote every time. Piper and I decided a long time ago that we should give our readers refuge from political propaganda during election cycles. We get so tired of being bombarded with bogus election analysis and other political propaganda so we thought that a “quiet space” would be nice for our readers. I live in fear of ever loosing my mind and acting like a Chris Mathews or a Bob Schieffer during an election cycle. My children are well-armed, and they have instructions to euthanize me if I ever fall to such disgraceful depths of depravity.

  3. Great post – I never knew too much in detail about that mission, though I remember when it blew up – I was in high school and it made headline news even in NZ. Irrespective of what really happened, there is no question in my mind that the failure of the rescue operation was a PR disaster for the US. When the whole Cold War, Iranian revolution and Shah’s exile was ruthlessly lampooned a few years later by the British in ‘Whoops – Apocalypse’ (ITV 1982) – that mission got a roasting (mind you, so did everything else).

    • Jay Holmes says:

      Hi Matthew. The mission was lampooned here, as well. Unfortunately, many of the clear available lessons were disregarded by some of our political weasels.

  4. Dave says:

    Fantastic piece. Looking forward to the rest.

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