A debacle, indeed: revisiting the Iran embassy hostage rescue attempt
This piece from the Atlantic Monthly Online, "The Desert One Debacle," about the Carter administration's attempt to rescue the embassy hostages in Iran in 1980, is a sobering read.
I vaguely remember the incident--just one in a long line of frustrations connected with that sorry spectacle. But the details--which I'd never read before--are a case of "whatever could go wrong, did go wrong;" from vicious sandstorms, to the utterly improbable coincidence of the planes' initially encountering a truck and a civilian passenger bus as they landed in the desert, to a fatal airplane crash. Debacle, indeed; the planes never even came near Tehran.
Perhaps it's a good thing they didn't. From the evidence in the piece, the loss of life would likely have been even greater had they done so. It's very difficult to believe that this mission ever had any chance of succeeding. Not only was the weather problem in the desert underestimated, and the assault force relatively small (one hundred thirty two men maximum, with some planes expected to encounter technical difficulties and drop out), but here was the game plan for controlling crowds around the embassy:
Another presidential directive concerned the use of nonlethal riot-control agents. Given that the shah’s occasionally violent riot control during the revolution was now Exhibit A in Iran’s human-rights case against the former regime and America, Carter wanted to avoid killing Iranians, so he had insisted that if a hostile crowd formed during the raid, Delta should attempt to control it without shooting people. Burruss considered this ridiculous. He and his men were going to assault a guarded compound in the middle of a city of more than 5 million people, most of them presumed to be aggressively hostile. It was unbelievably risky; everyone on the mission knew there was a very good chance they would not get home alive. Wade Ishmoto, a Delta captain who worked with the unit’s intelligence division, had joked, “The only difference between this and the Alamo is that Davy Crockett didn’t have to fight his way in.”
At any rate, it didn't come to that. After flying through vicious sandstorms, landing in the desert, and encountering a Mercedes passenger bus filled with ordinary Iranians (who were promptly searched by the Americans and prepared to be flown out of Iran for the duration of the mission), the rescue attempt was aborted because too many aircraft had been rendered inoperative.
Then, as the evacuation of the planes was underway, one of the helicopters crashed into a transport plane on the ground, causing a conflagration and the death of eight members of the assault force. From the description of the scene, it's a wonder the death toll wasn't higher.
Reading about the hostage crisis brings back gut-wrenchingly bad memories: the endless negotiating, the arrogant posturing of the hostage-takers, the seeming impotence of our government. It's easy to recall that it was long; at the time, it seemed nearly endless, but the actual length was astounding: 444 days. The incident was one of the reasons Carter lost the Presidency (and rightly so), suffering the final ignominy of the hostages' release on Ronald Reagan's Inauguration Day.
In retrospect--and perhaps even at the time--the entire hostage crisis was a debacle, not just the rescue attempt. The consensus is that Carter's mishandling of the situation caused the US to be perceived as weak and vulnerable.
This recent Salon article contains a telling vignette on the subject, from the Iran of 2004:
So it was that I stood impatiently before the window to check out while the [hotel] receptionist took his sweet time to retrieve my American passport from the cubby behind him. He held it for a long, strange moment before he slid it my way. Wistfully, he said: "How I wish I had a passport like that." Off we were, talking about the election. The receptionist hoped President George W. Bush would defeat Sen. John Kerry. He hated the Democrats, he professed. It wasn't my first encounter with this Iranian enthusiasm for the Republican Party, as unfathomable as it was widespread. Under the Republican President Dwight Eisenhower, after all, the United States toppled Iran's popular nationalist prime minister, Mohammad Mossadegh, in 1953, consolidating power in the hands of the brutal and despised shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. Under the Democratic President Bill Clinton, the United States finally apologized for engineering those events. I asked the receptionist to explain. "Jimmy Carter," he replied with disgust. "He could have stopped this Islamic Revolution, and he didn't." When it comes to Iran, where revolutionaries identified Carter with every bad turn the United States had ever visited on their or any other third-world country, and where Americans would come to associate him with haplessness and defeat, somehow everything the president from Plains, Ga., did would always be wrong. His presidency, already a fragile vessel, shattered on the shoals of the Iranian hostage crisis -- those 444 days at the end of his single term when the staff of the American embassy in Tehran was held captive by militant students. From then on, he would forever be linked in the American mind with the humiliation of seeing one's countrymen blindfolded, helpless, surrounded by angry mobs of Shiites -- believers in a religion most Americans only dimly apprehended, revolutionaries who hated the United States for having supported a regime most Americans were barely conscious existed. And now, 26 years later, this Iranian hotel worker in a single gesture renounced his country's revolution and laid it at the feet of the very president whose likeness Iranian revolutionaries burned in effigy as they massed outside the seized embassy compound.