In 1979, President Jimmy Carter was presented with two options to retrieve the hostages taken by Iranian militants. The first option was to impose strict economic sanctions against Iran, freeze Iranian assets and expel all Iranian students and diplomats and engage in ongoing negotiations. The second option was a small-scale military intervention in an attempt to rescue the remaining fifty-two American hostages held in Tehran, Iran. The Department of State and the White House Chief of Staff advocated for increased economic sanctions and diplomatic agreements with Iran. The Office of the Secretary of Defense, National Security Advisers, Central Intelligence Agency, and the Joint Chiefs of Staff advocated for the small-scale military intervention/incursion option. The small-scale military incursion option prevailed for two reasons. President Carter’s trusted advisors assured him the military incursion, while risky, would succeed. Carter’s reelection campaign was failing and was advised by his trusted advisers that a military incursion to rescue the hostages would ensure a successful reelection campaign.
The background section will detail the events leading up to the Iranian Revolution, the storming of the American Embassy and the hostage crisis and the disastrous military rescue incursion attempt. The executive branch division section will take each policy option to be examined more thoroughly. Each of the foreign policy actors involved in either decision will be clearly defined and under great scrutiny. A visual aid is provided to separate each foreign policy option and its supporting actors. The foreign policy outcome section will begin with what policy option had won in greater detail and what bureaucratic divisions had contributed to the decision for military incursion. There will be two political reasons explaining why these bureaucratic divisions won against other bureaucratic divisions. The final section is the conclusion where I will summarize the paper.
The year 1979 was a difficult year for President Jimmy Carter. The country of Iran was goaded into a revolution that would eventually alter the political landscape of the Middle East. To further understand the causes of the Revolution in Iran, one must take a brief glimpse into the history of Iran, starting with the Central Intelligence Agency assisted coup in 1953 to restore Shah Pahlavi back to power. Prior to the events in 1953, the United States ‘played a benevolent role in the great-power politics of Iran’ (Sick 7). Following the events of 1953, the United States played an integral albeit passive role in Reza Shah Pahlavi’s authoritarian government. The Iranian government enjoyed a relative level of peace for roughly a decade. The United States relationship with Iran was tentative; Iran maintained an active oil trade with the United States in exchange for western money and values. It was not until a religious cleric named Ruhollah Khomeini began to openly criticize the Iranian government, and more directly Pahlavi, to spark the flame for revolution.
Khomeini resented and denounced the Shah’s willingness to ‘westernize’ and shirk Iran’s more traditional Islamic values. Khomeini’s fiery reproach of Reza Shah Pahlavi’s government had drawn a swift, violent response from the king. Pahlavi, then obsessed with military security, dispatched his elite police force to disband the growing mob only to have the disbandment turn to bloodshed. Khomeini was arrested several times and eventually expelled into exile from Iran into Iraq. The events that occurred in 1963 would serve as a dress rehearsal for future sedition. As time passed, Pahlavi’s power and his health began to wane. Sentiment towards the ailing king began to grow hostile. Years of living in decadence and opulence introduced by western money began to take its toll on the Iranian people. Revolt was in the air.
Reza Shah Pahlavi was dying of cancer. As his world around him began to crumble. He sought temporary asylum in the United States while he actively pursued treatment for his cancer. After extreme reluctance and coercion from his National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski and Secretary of State Cyrus Vance, President Carter granted him access to the U.S. (Riedel 103). This had been the final straw for the Iranian people. On November 4th, 1979, thousands of radical Iranian students stormed the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, taking the Embassy by force and with it over 60 American hostages. The uprising took the world, and the U.S., by surprise
Sanctions were imposed, assets frozen, emissaries sent and negotiations negotiated. Six months passed with no resolution. After negotiations with the Iranian Prime Minister proved fruitless, President Carter authorized a brazen rescue mission utilizing U.S. Army Special Forces. Code named Operation Eagle Claw, the mission was intended to send the Special Forces in helicopters into Iran undetected, storm the Embassy and rescue as many hostages with minimal U.S. civilian and military casualties. The mission was executed but never left the first checkpoint. Eight soldier’s lives were lost and four more were critically injured due to a sudden dust storm created by one of the helicopters, causing it to crash into a C-130 airplane and exploding. The mission was a spectacular failure and would eventually seal Carter’s fate in his bid for reelection. Ronald Reagan was elected in a landslide victory and on Reagan’s inauguration day, the remaining hostages were released unharmed after four hundred forty-four days of captivity.
Executive Branch Division
According to McDermott, President Carter had five basic options to consider in order to have the hostages released and terminate the diplomatic stalemate (242). Of those five, President Carter and his advisors seriously considered only two. Of those remaining three options, Secretary of State Cyrus Vance supported the option of ‘do nothing’ and in time the crisis would end by itself. The second option was to mine the harbors and utilize any means necessary to restrain and reduce commerce. The third option would be a full military incursion and an all out attack against Iran. The second and third options were deemed too ‘risky’ both politically and militarily. Including the risk of the inability of not retrieving the hostages, mining the harbor and/or directly attacking Iran could influence the interim Iranian government to seek assistance from the Soviet Union (244-245).
|Foreign Policy Option||Executive Actors|
|Increase economic sanctions, diplomatic agreements; ‘wait-and-see’ approach||Department of State, Executive Office of the President*|
|Small-scale military incursion||Office of the Secretary of Defense, National Security Adviser(s), Central Intelligence Agency, Joint Chiefs of Staff, Executive Office of the President|
*The head of the Executive Office of the President, Hamilton Jordan, would eventually advocate for a military incursion in hopes to both retrieve the hostages and assist Carter’s reelection campaign which faired poorly.
President Carter was a humanitarian president. Be it that he was a humanitarian, he would prefer to pursue peace and not war. “By the spring of 1980 Carter had tried every peaceful means he could think of to obtain the release of the hostages. He had stopped importing Iranian oil, broken off diplomatic relations…sent a variety of third parties and intermediaries to Tehran…” (Houghton 2). Carter initially pursued avenues of diplomatic negotiation, of economic sanctions and of the approach that he should perhaps wait out the disintegrating political climate in Iran. It was clear that Carter beheld the hostage’s well being deep within his day-to-day actions. Carter had originally sided with his Secretary of State Cyrus Vance. Vance was a strong proponent for a passive ‘do nothing’ executive response in hopes that the Iranian situation would resolve itself. Vance’s ‘wait and see’ proposal was briefly pursued though quickly abandoned by Carter as Carter determined that nothing could be accomplished.
Carter sought to strengthen his position by following Vance’s advocating of sanctions and open lines of communication with Iran through Algerian translators. The sanctions imposed were meant to bring pressure to European allies to follow the United States’ lead (McDermott 243). Carter had even dispatched his Chief of Staff, Hamilton Jordan, to assist with the negotiations with Iran through Algerian translators. The mirage of diplomacy, that negotiation and sanction would prevail, soon began to fade away into the desert sands and with it, Carter’s reelection prospects.
As time crawled on with the hostages no closer to liberation, Carter’s popularity and confidence in his foreign policy skills began to decline. “[I]t seems that the President cannot rely on his own image or popularity to stimulate support for military actions. For such initiatives, the President must call upon the public’s basic sense of patriotism in order to generate support” (Conover 263) Hamilton Jordan was crucial to Carter’s reelection campaign and was well aware of Carter’s downward spiral. Carter had not faired well in the New York and Connecticut primaries against his primary Democratic opponent Edward Kennedy. While Carter enjoyed an initial increase in his polling numbers after announcing a breakthrough in the negotiations, his popularity began to slip below that of his Republican opponent Ronald Reagan. Vance’s sanction proposals were met with resistance from the European allies. Vance’s failure to rally the allies began a break in the relation between the Secretary of State and the President. “…The real shift in Carter’s policy allegiance from Vance to [Zbigniew] Brzezinski came after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in late 1979” (McDermott 248). A complete breakdown in negotiations on April 1st, 1980 led Carter to pursue the other seriously considered option: a military rescue mission. McDermott argues that the main perspectives that were examined are those espoused by Secretary of State Cyrus Vance, National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski, and [presidential assistant] Hamilton Jordan. In the end, Secretary of State Cyrus Vance resigned his position over this episode. Vance did so because he believed that the mission could not work and should be pursued because it was too dangerous (245).
Foreign Policy Outcome
It would come that two options were seriously considered. Each option was carefully revised according to variability of risk both politically and militarily. The Department of State and the Secretary of State Cyrus Vance advocated for a passive response to the Iranian uprising. Carter had sent Chief of Staff Hamilton Jordan to assist with the mediations. When this passivity failed, the Office of the Secretary of Defense, more specifically the Secretary of Defense Harold Brown and Carter’s own National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski strongly advocated for a bold and decisive resolution to the conflict. Hamilton Jordan’s efforts to rally America behind Carter’s reelection campaign began to sputter as the hostage crisis crawled on with no end in sight.
As previously stated, Carter’s reliance on Vance’s methods and efforts to encourage European nations to join in on the sanctions had begun to falter. A sharp divide between Carter and Vance began with Vance’s inability to assemble European nations to sanction Iran and culminated in the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan. Carter’s slippage in the polls instigated a strong response from Hamilton Jordan that something must be done to recover his campaign. Carter decided to pursue a rescue mission much to the disappointment of Vance but to the satisfaction of Jordan and National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski.
The rescue plan was strongly instigated by Brzezinski and facilitated through the Joint Chiefs of Staff with guidance and insight from the Central Intelligence Agency. Brzezinski assured Carter that such an audacious and complicated plan would be successful and restore U.S. prominence in the world. A successful mission would effectively ‘kill two birds with one stone’ in the sense of restoring that prominence to Carter and the U.S. while minimizing hostage and soldier casualties. “Carter would regret not listening to his own counsel” (Riedel 103). A haphazard, complicated plan was concocted by the CIA and the Joint Chiefs with assistance by the Office of the Secretary of Defense and authorized by Carter upon the negotiation failures on April 1st. On April 24th, the mission was executed but failed in a dramatic fashion, not because of Iranian intervention but a freak chain of events that led to the death of 8 American Special Forces and injured 4 more (Lu Fong 6). A successful mission would have rescued the hostages and elevate Carter far and beyond his political opponents. A successful mission would have reestablished the U.S.’s strong military prowess to the world. A failed mission would be disastrous to all parties involved, and failed it did. However, Radvanyi argues, “Operation Eagle Claw may not have resulted in the rescue of the American hostages, but it was not a total failure…Many of the recommendations prescribed by the Holloway Report were implemented subsequent operations in Grenada and Panama, with much better results in the handling of (operations security) and command and control” (38). Eagle Claw was a costly lesson learned.
A revolution to reset Iran to traditional Islamic values took the U.S. by surprise. Militant Iranian students led by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini took hostage American citizens. President Jimmy Carter weighed his options to rescue the hostages and seriously considered two; the Department of State and to an extent the Executive Office of the President advocated for a peaceful resolution through economic sanctions and sustained negotiations with Iran. The Office of the Secretary of Defense, National Security Advisers, Central Intelligence Agency, and Joint Chiefs of Staff and eventually the Executive Office of the President advocated for a stronger response in the form of a small military incursion to rescue the hostages. Carter chose the latter due to political pressures applied by Chief of Staff Hamilton Jordan in hopes of recovering his faltering reelection campaign. National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski influenced Carter to choose the latter as it would have reinforced the United States’ prestige. The failed rescue attempt only ensured Carter’s failure to be reelected and the United States’ reputation was tarnished. Only after Carter left office did the hostages earn their freedom from Iranian captivity despite Carter attempting viable politically and militarily risky options. Freedom came at an implicit price and cost Carter a presidency and the United States a much desired return to grace.