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Operation Eagle Claw: Action Plan and Significance


The United States government always does whatever it takes to rescue its citizens from the dangerous hands of terrorists. Over the past, the government has launched several rescue missions to salvage captured Americans from terrorists or any perilous groups. Although some of the operations failed, most of them were successful. The American government does not “negotiate” with terrorists and does everything within its power to prevent terror attacks on its soil. The government has devised new tactics to attack its enemies throughout history based on lessons learned from failed missions such as, for instance, the “Operation Eagle Claw”. The mission was subject to poor battle preparation and adverse weather conditions at Iran’s operation’s venue. Albeit the mission’s failure, the military improved its operations to date based on the experiences during “Operation Eagle Claw”. Consequently, the U.S has remained significant in the global fight against terrorism. Although the “Operation Eagle Claw” failed due to unpreparedness and adverse weather conditions in Iran, it remained significant in transforming the American military operations.

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Definition and Sources

Operation Definition

The United States embassy in Tehran, Iran, remains significant in American battle history. Incited by hatred and radicalization, about three thousand militant students stormed the embassy on November 4th 1979 seizing 90 hostages including Americans (Amin, 2021). The attacks were incited by president Jimmy Carter’s allowance of the deposed Iranian ruler, Mohamed Pahlavi, into the United States (Nightingale, 2020). The then-new Iranian leader, Ayatollah Khomeini, demanded Shah’s return to Iran and the end of the United States’ influence on Iran. After a long period of negotiations, Iran released thirteen hostages. The adversaries kept the remaining fifty-two hostages until 1980, five months later, after failed negotiations (Nightingale, 2020). American military refined a potential rescue mission through vigilante troop and war equipment selection. “Operation Eagle Claw” was launched on April 16th, 1980 (Williamson, 2020). The U.S military drafted an infiltration plan to rescue Americans from the harsh Iranian government.

Research Sources

In Operation Eagle Claw: The ramifications of political divisions in U.S. decision-making during the Iranian hostage crisis of 1979-1981 Mary Bowman provides a debrief of the operation and its political ramifications between President Jimmy Carter and his political advisors. The article discusses how the then dovish Secretary of State Cyrus Vance and the hawkish National Security Advisor, Zbigniew Brzezinski, coldly welcomed the idea (2016). Albeit the confrontations against the rescue mission, president Carter allowed the operation that eventually failed. The operation became disastrous to Jimmy Carter’s 1980 presidential bid. Although the article precisely dissects the political environment of the battle, the author fails to cover the rationale of President Carter’s decisions sufficiently.

Nightingale’s Phoenix Rising: From the Ashes of Desert One to the Rebirth of U.S. Special Operations, critically analyses “Operation Eagle Claw” and its impact on the U.S. Special operations. Nightingale, the then-junior member of the Joint Task Force, recounts the events before the rescue mission and the American military’s lessons from the failed mission (2020). The book further tells the formation of the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations/Low-Intensity Conflict (SO/LIC) and the United States Special Operations Command (USSOCOM). Although Nightingale’s book presents real-life experience, the book fails to recount the specific details of the negotiations between the American government and the Iranian adversaries.

Williamson’s book, The disastrous bid to end the Iranian hostage crises, tells the full story of “Operation Eagle Claw”. The book uses maps, exceptional commissioned bird’s-eye views, and battle scenes, helping understand the terrain of the battlefield and weather conditions that culminated in the abortion of the mission (Williamson, 2020). However, the book fails to recount the Iranian political situation that led to the hostage crises and encumbered the negotiations.

Operation Setting

Events Leading to “Operation Eagle Claw”

The U.S government has a long history of fighting militia groups and undemocratic governments that threaten the Americans. The Iranian and the U.S government clashed over control of massive oil reserves in Iran. The clash between the two countries outrageously deteriorated the two countries’ relations. Consequently, the Iranian Revolution groups were enraged caused tensions in Iran between 1978 and 1979. A bloodless coup d’état was organized, deposing Shah Pahlavi in January 1979 (Nightingale, 2020). A famous Islamic cleric, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, took over and promised the Iranians freedom. The war guerillas occupied the U.S embassy few day after the coup d’état (Williamson, 2020). The attack left two Iranians dead as Khomeini demanded the American government reduce its presence in Iran. To meet Khomeini’s demands, the American government reduced its embassy staff from 1400 to 70 (Nightingale, 2020). The new militant Iranian government detororiated the American-Iran relationship.

Amidst the tense Iranian and U.S relationship, the U.S government favored the deposed Shah. The Islamic revolutionaries were angered, leading to an attack on the U.S embassy on November 4th 1979 (Nightingale, 2020). A group of Iranian students, Khomeini’s diehards, convened outside the U.S embassy. The group broke into the embassy’s gate, intending to conduct a peaceful demonstration that went sour (Bowman, 2016). The students held the U.S diplomats and embassy’s staff hostage. American businesspeople, marines, reporters, three CIA, and government contractors were among the victims (Nightingale, 2020). Khomeini released thirteen hostages, women, blacks and African Americans, on the premise that they were also victims of America’s oppression (Williamson, 2020). The remaining fifty-two hostages were subjected to harsh treatment, including bounding, gagging, and being forced to pose for cameras.

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The former U.S President, Jimmy Carter, sent a delegation to Iran to negotiate for the hostages’ release. However, the delegation was denied entry onto Iranian soil (Williamson, 2020). The president resorted to a rescue mission that failed, albeit with a cold reception from his key advisors. The Iranian government moved the hostages in secret locations and resisted any diplomatic conversation with the United States in light of the failed mission.

Aims of the Principal Adversaries

The principal adversaries during the operation were the new Iranian ruler and the Islamic extremists who were against the American government involvement in Iranian affairs. The Islamic revolutions in Iran were enraged by their then leader Shah Mohamed Reza Pahlavi, who worked closely with the former U.S President Jimmy Carter. The adversaries wanted the U.S government off the Iranian affairs (Nightingale, 2020). Furthermore, they wanted the U.S government to disallow Shah in the United States seeking medical attention (Bowman, 2016). The American government did not meet the demands of its adversaries, leading to the launch of “Operation Eagle Claw”.

Strategic Overview

“Operation Eagle Claw” is one of the many fights the American government has undertaken against terrorism. The American government is a firm believer in human rights and was constantly involved in negotiating with the Iranian ruler to release the American hostages. In light of the failed negotiations, the government, through President Jimmy Carter, resorted to a rescue mission. The mission’s objective was to safely rescue the American hostages and fly them home (Williamson, 2020). However, the operation failed due to poor military preparations and extreme weather conditions in Iran.

Area of Operation’s Terrain and Weather

Iran is an arid region frequented by weather conditions such as the haboob. Haboob, weather front, is an intense dust storm that occurs regularly in dry areas. The weather front associated with violent winds most affected the operation’s failure (Williamson, 2020). The Air Weather Service (AWS) provided insufficient Iran environmental data that obstructed the safe landing of the helicopters during the operation. The Airforce agency could not detect and predict the Iranian dust phenomenon using satellite data (Nightingale, 2020). The desert terrain full of dust and unstable landing ground affected the landing of the C-130s (Williamson, 2020). The adverse pressure associated with dust affected the C-130s’ hydraulic systems and impacted the pilots’ visibilities during the landing off of the helicopters in Iran.

Comparison, Principal Antagonists

The American military had the advantage of intelligence weapons of the time. The army sent a CIA Twin Otter aircraft and a USAF Combat Controller to help the helicopters land (Williamson, 2020). Iran had no advanced communication systems and could not detect the presence of the U.S militaries in the territory. Due to darkness and adverse weather conditions, the C-130 and RH-53 burst into flames. The militaries were ordered to evacuate and destroy the flamed helicopter but failed. Although “Operation Eagle Claw” was aborted midway, the Iranian government had gotten wind of the landing U.S C-130s. The failure to destroy the aircraft left five RH-53D intact and top-secret plans that fell in the hands of the Iranian government (Nightingale, 2020). The Iran had the intelligence advantage and almost captured the American agents waiting for in-country to help the Delta operators (Williamson, 2020). The operation was disorganized and lacked sufficient preparation that led to its failure.

The Operation’s Action Plan

The operation’s initial plan was to infiltrate Iran using trucks from Turkish territory. However, the plan was cancelled due to potential high numbers of causalities and political reasons. Therefore, the scheme involved using eight helicopters, twelve USAF planes, and several operators in Tehran (Williamson, 2020). The military planned to infiltrate the operators into Iran a night before the actual operation and get them to Tehran and bring them home after the action. Three MC-130s were to drop the Delta Force men, Combat Controllers, and truck drivers at a bare spot in Iran (Nightingale, 2020). Three E-130’s would then follow the Combat Talons to fuel the Marine RH-53’s. The refueled helicopters would then fly the militaries to Tehran outskirts, where they would meet the in-waiting agents to take them to safe houses awaiting the rescue mission (Williamson, 2020). The helicopters were to hide in-country and wait for the Delta operators call.

On the second night, one hundred U.S Army Ranger troops would be flown in-country and assault the field as the hostages the helicopter flew hostages. The hostages would be passed to Manzariyeh Airfield, where they would wait for C-141’s and be flown outside the country (Williamson, 2020). The helicopters would be destroyed upon accomplishing the mission. Despite the clear and well-planned mission, the first helicopters experienced adverse weather conditions and mechanical challenges (Nightingales, 2020). Five out of the bare minimum of six helicopters required to execute the rescue were functional, leading to mission abortion.

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Significance of the Operation

The operation led to the death of eight U.S. service men, and subsequent political differences among the presidential aspirants. The Americans felt that Jimmy Carter’s government had portrayed them as weak before the global community. Consequently, Carter lost his presidential bid in 1980 to Reagan who won by landslide (Nightingale, 2020). An investigation into the operation’s failure established several causes of loss. Lack of coordination among the military services led to inadequate and compartmentalized training (Williamson, 2020). The U.S government adopted several measures to prevent future occurrences of the same and punish Iran at the same time.

The U.S military adopted the “joint doctrine”, which has led to its success between the late 20th and 21st centuries. Through the doctrine, different agencies work in collaboration against American adversaries. The formation of SO/LIC and the USSOCOM led to improved military activities such as direct action, special reconnaissance, and foreign internal defence (Williamson, 2020). The American government refused to purchase Iranian oil and freeze billions of dollars of Iranian assess in America (Williamson, 2020). Furthermore, the U.S. government vigorously engaged in international diplomacy campaigns ageist Iran (Williamson, 2020). Having been pushed to the wall, the Iranian government released the hostages on 20th January 1981 (Nightingale, 2020). Although the military rescue mission failed, the crisis led to advancement of U.S. military operations and international diplomacy.


“Operation Eagle Claw” is one of the most significant operation failures that transformed the U.S military operations. The rescue mission had an objective of rescuing 52 hostages at the U.S embassy in Iran, Tehran, in 1980. The enraged Iranian revolutionaries had captured the Americans, demanding that the American government stop interfering with the Iranian operations. After failed negotiations, the government resorted to a rescue mission that failed. However, the mission helped transform the U.S military by adopting the “joint doctrine” and counterterrorism forces. The “joint doctrine” has enhanced inter-agencies operations that have been successful. The formation of the SO/LIC and USSOCOM has helped the United States fight against terrorism and ensures safety for all Americans. Although “Operation Eagle Claw” was associated with many political conspiracy theories, the operation has remained significant since it transformed the U.S military system.


Amin, H. Y. (2021). The General’s Stork. The Nordic Journal of Aesthetics, 30(61-62), 14-35. Web.

Bowman, M. (2016). Operation Eagle Claw: The ramifications of political divisions in U.S. decision-making during the Iranian hostage crisis of 1979-1981. Web.

Nightingale, K. (2020). Phoenix Rising: From the Ashes of Desert One to the Rebirth of U.S. Special Operations. Parameters, 51(1), 167-168. Casemate Publishers.

Williamson, J. (2020). Operation Eagle Claw 1980: The disastrous bid to end the Iran hostage crisis. Bloomsbury Publishing.

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