On this day in 1980, an ill-fated military operation aimed at rescuing American hostages being held in Tehran ended with eight U.S. servicemen dead and no hostages rescued. With the Iran hostage crisis stretching into its sixth month and diplomatic appeals to the revolutionary Iranian government proving fruitless, President Jimmy Carter agreed to launch a military mission to free them.
During the operation, three of eight helicopters failed. Under the pre-arranged rules of engagement, the mission was consequently canceled at the staging area in Iran. During the withdrawal, one of the retreating helicopters collided with one of six C-130 transport planes, killing eight soldiers, and injuring five. The next day, Carter held a news conference at which he took responsibility for the military debacle.
The hostages were not freed for another 270 days.
The crisis began on Nov. 4, 1979, when militant Iranian students, angered by a White House decision to allow the ousted shah of Iran to travel to the United States for medical treatment, seized the American Embassy in Tehran. The Ayatollah Khomeini, Iran’s political and religious leader, assumed control over the hostage situation. He released non-U.S. captives and female and minority Americans, citing these groups as among the people purportedly oppressed by the U.S. government. The remaining 52 captives remained in custody.
Secretary of State Cyrus Vance, fearing that the operation would not work and, moreover, that it would endanger the lives of the incarcerated diplomats, told Carter he would resign, regardless of whether the mission succeeded or not. Vance was also outraged by a decision, promulgated by his White House rival, Zbigniew Brzezinski, the national security adviser, to bomb Tehran as an act of revenge if the rescue went ahead as planned, but ended in complete failure and the deaths of all the Americans on the scene.
Most analysts concur that inadequate planning, a flawed command structure, the lack of suitable pilot training and poor weather conditions in the Iranian desert all combined to doom the operation. Some political observers have speculated that a successful mission, had it come off, could have enhanced Carter’s political standing sufficiently to propel him to a second term. In the event, Carter proved unable to resolve the crisis, either militarily or diplomatically.
Three months later, the former shah died of cancer in Egypt, but the crisis lingered. In November, Carter lost the presidential election to Republican Ronald Reagan. Soon thereafter, with the assistance of Algerian intermediaries, successful negotiations began between the United States and Iran. On the day of Reagan’s inauguration, Jan. 20, 1981, the United States freed nearly $8 billion in frozen Iranian assets. The 52 hostages, having spent 444 days in captivity, were safely released. The next day, Carter flew to West Germany to greet these U.S. government staffers, for whom he took personal responsibility, on their eventual way home.