For decades, Americans have argued for and against an attack on the Islamic Republic
Nov. 4, 1979, marked a turning point in the relationship between the United States and Iran. Less than a year after the Iranian Revolution deposed the last shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, militant students — acting on their own — occupied the American embassy, taking 52 Americans hostages.
Iran’s new leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, endorsed their action and the infamous 444-day hostage ensued, compromising any chance that the new Islamic regime and the United States could formulate some kind of new post-Shah partnership.
Since that time, the image of a militant Iran bent on the destruction of the United States and the West has become ingrained in the minds of many Americans. Indeed, U.S. officials in power today were youths when the hostage crisis began and therefore have no real memory of Iran as a major ally under the Shah.
In retrospect, it’s almost seems remarkable that in the 1970s. the largest American expatriate community in the world was in Iran, numbering 52,000, many of them military contractors.
The revolution and the hostage crisis ended all this. Almost overnight Iran went from being a major ally and client into an adversary. Throughout the 444-day hostage crisis, Americans contemplated attacking or even invading Iran to rescue the hostages and punish Khomeini.
In December 1979 Elmo Zumwalt and Worth Bagley, respectively the retired U.S. chief and deputy chief of naval operations, co-wrote a piece in The Los Angeles Times in which they argued that “military options do exist in the Iranian crisis.”
The authors, pointing to the lack of any significant U.S. military presence in the Persian Gulf at that time, recommended that Washington could use aircraft to drop mines near Kharg Island in the Persian Gulf – from where Iran exports the bulk of its oil – along with other ports in order to blockade the country and apply economic pressure on Khomeini.
The United States could then offer to remove all the mines in exchange for the release of the hostages.
“Privately, it could be made clear to Khomeini that if he killed hostages in retaliation to such mining, the United States could attack Iranian facilities on land,” Zumwalt and Bagley wrote. The attack would leave Khomeini “vulnerable to loss of territory to Iraq and to Kurdish nationalists.”
A second option they suggest concerned actively seizing an Iranian port or airfield to “create a base for subsequent introduction of American land-based aircraft, ground forces and air defenses.” Such a “lodgment would give the capability for ground and air excursions further into Iran and the seizure of oil fields.”
This option, they anticipated “would endanger the hostages more than mining,” since it would doubtlessly result in the killing of Iranians. Nevertheless, they reasoned such an option was feasible since “the beachhead would also become an explicit and visible trade-off for the hostages’ safe release.”
The authors also addressed the elephant in the room at that time — the Soviet Union. Zumwalt and Bagley acknowledged that the Soviets might invade Iran in the event of an American operation targeting Khomeini.
Remarkably, the retired naval officers still argued that simultaneous American and Soviet attacks on Iran would not lead to a military confrontation between the superpowers. If Washington implemented the mining proposal, “the Soviets would have no U.S. armed presence within Iranian land borders on which to justify intervention.”
Also, a beachhead in southwest Iran would have seen American troops “positioned at extreme ranges from Soviets borders with Iran,” Zumwalt and Bagley argued. Washington could justify the beachhead by declaring beforehand that U.S. troops “were there as a temporary lodgment to reinforce diplomacy.”
In August 1980 columnist and investigative journalist Jack Anderson reported on a top-secret U.S. plan “to invade and hold portions of Iran” beginning in mid-October 1980. Anderson claimed the goals of the planned operation included rescuing the hostages, exacting retribution on Tehran and helping Pres. Jimmy Carter win reelection in that year’s election.
The fact that the invasion plan would not go forward unless Carter gave it the go-ahead meant that “the president can deny, at least technically, that he now plans to invade Iran,” Anderson wrote. “But he cannot truthfully deny that such a plan is in the works and that he has expressed the intention to go ahead with it.”
Anderson wrote that he wouldn’t divulge everything he knew about this alleged secret plan, since that could give the Soviets “an insight into our methods.” The White House denied Anderson’s claims.
When British journalist David Frost famously interviewed the Shah in exile in Panama in January 1980, he asked him if some kind of American military presence in the wider Persian Gulf region could somehow change the situation in Iran.
The Shah estimated it would take “760,000 first-class troops.” Frost asked why a far smaller detachment of 100 or 1,000 couldn’t make any difference. “No, the day of a gunboat is over,” the Shah replied.
The United States, of course, did not invade Iran and Carter lost the 1980 election to Ronald Reagan. Aside from the botched Operation Eagle Claw – an ill-fated rescue attempt of the hostages using naval helicopters in late April 1980, which ended in a disastrous crash in the desert that killed eight U.S. servicemen – the U.S. military never undertook any operation on Iranian soil.
At top — USS Vincennes. U.S. Navy photo. Above — Soviet tanks mass for the invasion of Afghanistan
Americans found themselves in a dilemma. Might the Soviets exploit the chaos in Iran and invade, just as it did in neighboring Afghanistan in December 1979?
“It would be very unfortunate and we wouldn’t want to, but obviously we would have to help that country,” a National Security Council official told The Los Angeles Times in January 1980, aptly underscoring the problem such a development would have posed for Washington.
In February 1980, UPI columnist Dick West wrote a satirical column in which he conveyed feelings of confusion with Americans over which country to hate most at the time, Iran or the Soviet Union. The columnist posited a fictional conversation between himself and a U.S. government “enmity expert.”
West begins by expressing deep disdain for Iran, arguing that since detente he simply can’t muster as much indignation for the Soviets as he previously had done earlier in the Cold War. The enmity expert cited the then-recent Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, which compelled the author to revise his feelings toward Moscow.
However, when the enmity expert points to the prospect of a Soviet invasion of Iran the author, conveying the contemporary feeling of the time, doesn’t necessarily see that as a bad thing. “No country that threatens Iran can be all bad,” he reasoned. “If Khomeini is overthrown by Soviet troops, he will be getting what he jolly well deserves.”
When the enmity expert responds by cautioning him from allowing his hostility toward Iran “to temper your sense of outrage over the renewal of Soviet aggression” the author counters by positing a scenario in which the Soviets invade Iran, depose Khomeini and release the American hostages in the process.
“Then how would you feel?” he asks. The enmity expert urges Americans to consider “reordering priorities” and keeping “our options open.”
Americans, in general, had mixed feelings about the prospect of a Soviet invasion of Iran. The Daily Item newspaper in Pennsylvania asked people their thoughts about the likelihood of an invasion.
“I don’t really see what they would have to gain by it,” responded Norman Grove, a builder. “The United States would have everything to gain from it because we would have a perfect excuse to go into Iran and do whatever we wanted to.”
Tina Sheaffer, a college student, believed the opposite. “I think if we take any further actions against Iran … the Soviets will probably invade Iran,” she reasoned.
One editorial in Illinois’ Gibson City Courier, also published that April, asked, “Could there be more behind Iranian scene?’ The op-ed cited a series of reports in the 1970s indicating the Soviets possessed a bigger army than the Americans did.
Since the United States likely wouldn’t have sought nor won a fight against the Soviets over Iran, the author pondered if it was possible that Washington had somehow “arranged” the hostage crisis in order to deter any possible Soviet invasion. “Extensive” media attention resulting from the crisis limited the Soviets’ options, the op-ed claimed.
“If anyone had a right to invade the revolutionary government, it would have to be the United States,” the author reasoned. “The outcome would be that the Russians would not attack Iran and the Persian Gulf would remain secure for a time.”
In September 1980 Anderson reported that the U.S. National Security Agency had intercepted cables from the KGB to the Kremlin about the potential of a U.S. invasion of Iran in October 1979, which KGB cables dubbed the “October coup.”
Anderson cited experts saying this was either in response to a potential American invasion or the Soviets were more cunningly inventing an American invasion plan as a pretext “for an Afghanistan-style aggression” against Iran.
In fact, Moscow did reinforce its troops along the Iranian border, even relocating nuclear howitzers from Eastern Europe along with SA-11 Gadfy surface-to-air missile systems, which had just entered service.
“Experts doubt that the Soviets would deploy most of their SA-11s to their southern borders – weakening the defenses against China and NATO – unless they seriously expected a military confrontation in Iran,” Anderson wrote.
But the defensive nature of the hardware the Soviets deployed indicated that they were more likely “preparing for counterattack rather than an invasion of their own.”
The New York Times reported in 1986 that the Soviet redeployments in 1980 were a major catalyst in the Pentagon’s creation of the so-called Rapid Deployment Force, a loose grouping of fast-moving ships, planes and paratroopers. U.S. Central Command, which would eventually oversee the U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, grew out of the Rapid Deployment Force concept.
The earlier Soviet invasion of Afghanistan also pushed Carter to announce the “Carter Doctrine” in his State of the Union address in January 1980, the same month the Shah fled Iran.
“An attempt by any outside force to gain control of the Persian Gulf region will be regarded as an assault on the vital interests of the United States of America, and such an assault will be repelled by any means necessary, including military force,” Carter said.
Demonstrators hold up portraits of Khomeini during the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Photo via Wikipedia
However, the president’s actions in early 1980 actually conveyed weakness. He dispatched 12 F-15 Eagle fighters to Saudi Arabia in an attempt to reassure Riyadh following the Shah’s departure. The move embarrassingly backfired when the Pentagon revealed the jets weren’t actually armed. The subsequent failure of the Eagle Claw rescue attempt reinforced this image of weakness.
The Economist in March 1980 theorized that the Soviet Union might attack Iran in a bid to seize its oil fields while Washington and Tehran were locked in a standoff and Washington’s position in the region was significantly weaker than Moscow’s was. The Soviet presence in Afghanistan placed Soviet forces close to Iran’s major oil fields.
An op-ed in The Cincinnati Enquirer in April 1980 claimed that once American intelligence got wind of an imminent Soviet invasion, U.S. airborne troops would secure Iran’s oil in a preemptive intervention. “The Soviets then would know what might be the full implications of what they were about to do,” said one unnamed Washington source the article cited.
When the Soviet mouthpiece Pravda claimed the United States was preparing to invade Iran in January 1981, the Carter administration, at the time in final negotiations to release the hostages, staunchly denied it. As Reagan took the oath of office, Tehran released the hostages.
It’s not completely unlikely the Soviets really believed the United States would invade. Henry Trofimenk, the department chief of Moscow’s U.S.-Canada Institute, told a Swedish daily in July 1983 that fears of a U.S. invasion of Iran motivated the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan.
“We feared the United States would invade Iran, that was the true reason [we invaded Afghanistan],” Trofimenk claimed. “The U.S. had concentrated enormous forces in the Arabic Sea [sic] and the Indian Ocean,” he added, pointing out that the students took the Americans hostage in early November 1979 and the Soviets invaded Afghanistan the following month.
A secret 106-page Pentagon blueprint, first disclosed by the press in 1983, outlined how a world war could break out as a result of a Soviet invasion of Iran. While the document explicitly states that it “is not a prediction of future events nor a guide for the employment of forces,” it nevertheless showed how seriously the Pentagon was considering the fallout from Soviet action in Iran.
In the scenario, the Red Army invades Iran with 24 divisions. Saudi Arabia allows U.S. troops to deploy to the kingdom. Dogfights break out between the U.S. and Soviet air forces. Then the Soviets pour 90 divisions into Central Europe as NATO and the Warsaw Pact go to war. To make matters worse, North Korea then seizes the opportunity to attack South Korea.
Incidentally, the 1984 apocalyptic movie Threads depicts a nuclear war beginning between the United States and the Soviet Union after the Soviets invade Iran.
On Sep. 22, 1980, Iraq launched its ill-fated invasion of Iran’s oil-rich, Arab-majority Khuzestan province. The war lasted for most of the 1980s and killed millions. Nearly a year before the actual invasion, a brief border clash fueled rumors of an Iraqi attack.
Journalists Rowland Evans and Robert Novak, reporting from the Iran-Iraq border in December 1979, confirmed that there was no war yet, but there was “ready evidence of Iraq’s military confidence and power.”
In fact, the Iraqis at that time overestimated their military capabilities. The two journalists interviewed officials who claimed that the once-powerful Iranian army was in shambles — that most of the remaining units were still loyal to the Shah and wouldn’t fight for Khomeini. The officials were wrong. Iran fiercely opposed the Iraqi invasion in 1980.
Given the prevalent ill-feelings toward Iran generated by the hostage crisis, Americans had mixed feelings regarding the Iraqi invasion and the subsequent Iran-Iraq War.
“It’s a pity they both can’t lose,” Henry Kissinger infamously said of that war. “We wish them both the best of luck,” Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin reportedly quipped upon the war’s onset. One American columnist, musing over which side constituted the lesser evil, even equated it to choosing between cancer and AIDS.
In an editorial for The Los Angeles Times in December 1979, Ernest Conine responded to the initial rumors of the Iraqi invasion by musing if Americans should welcome such a development. Conine listed reasons why Khomeini’s regime was deplorable and a rightful enemy of the United States, but then cautioned his reader against supporting Iraq as a lesser evil.
The disintegration of Iran “is the last thing that Americans should want.”
Were Iranian minorities, such as Kurds and Azeris, to exploit the turmoil caused by an Iraqi invasion to secede. “the Soviet Union, not the West, would gain” Conine wrote, pointing out that the Soviets supported Kurdish and Azeri separatist movements in Iran in the aftermath of World War II.
The Truman administration successfully compelled the Soviets to withdraw, preserving Iran’s unity in the process. Conine argued that were history to repeat itself, Carter “would be in no position to follow Truman’s example,” since Moscow had the “overwhelming preponderance of conventional military power in the area, and the United States is no longer the sole possessor of the atomic bomb, as it was in the late 1940s.”
Conine reached the “uncomfortable conclusion” that while Khomeini constituted “an obnoxious irritant to the United States, the collapse of his authority would be worse as long as there is no alternative leader with the popular following to take his place.”
Late in the Iran-Iraq War, both sides targeted each other’s oil tankers. Iran, which possessed a far superior navy, began mining the Persian Gulf. The U.S. intervened by re-flagging Kuwaiti tankers and escorting them in order to deter Iranian attacks. Operation Earnest Will constituted the largest naval escort mission since World War II.
When in October 1987 one of Iran’s Chinese-made Silkworm missiles struck the reflagged tanker Sea Isle City, injuring 17 sailors, the United States launched Operation Nimble Archer. The U.S. Navy destroyed oil platforms that Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps was using as bases.
USS Wisconsin during Operation Earnest Will. U.S. Navy photo
In April 1988, the frigate USS Samuel B. Roberts struck an Iranian mine. Ten sailors were injured. The Navy retaliated with Operation Praying Mantis. U.S. ships and planes sank the Iranian frigate Sahand and crippled the frigate Sabalan.
More than 50 Iranians died in the attacks. America’s only loss was a Marine Corps Sea Cobra attack helicopter, which crashed 15 miles southwest of Iran’s Abu Musa Island, killing both crewmembers.
After Operation Praying Mantis, the Iranians eased up their attacks on tanker ships transiting the Persian Gulf.
But tensions remained high. On July 3, 1988, the cruiser USS Vincennes mistakenly shot down Iran Air Flight 655, killing all 290 civilians aboard. Washington insisted it was a case of mistaken identity. Tehran claimed Vincennes intentionally targeted the airliner.
Less than a month later, Khomeini agreed to the U.N. Security Council Resolution 598, which ended the Iran-Iraq War. The frail old ayatollah equated the ceasefire to “drinking a chalice of poison.”
During the U.S. deployment in the Persian Gulf, the commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, Adm. James Lyons, strongly advocated a wider war with Iran. Lyon’s proposed Operation Window of Opportunity – which he planned to execute on Aug. 29, 1987 – envisioned U.S. Navy carriers and battleships bombarding Iranian military bases and Silkworm missile sites on Iran’s coast.
The warships would then directly target the Iranian economy by shelling Kharg Island and Iranian ports. Borrowing a page from Zumwalt and Bagley’s proposal nine years earlier, Lyons advocating mining the Iranian ports of Bushehr and Bandar Abbas. He envisioned the operation lasting a mere two days.
Operation Window of Opportunity likely would have inflicted significant losses on Iran, but it wouldn’t necessarily have brought down the regime. Lyon displayed the same overconfidence that plagued Iraqi officials in 1979. They all underestimated the fierceness with which Iranians would resist invasion.
The Reagan administration supported Iraq during the war but didn’t seek a major confrontation with Iran. It buried Lyon’s plan. “No, we’re not going to have a war with Iran,” Reagan told a press conference after one of the aforementioned skirmishes in the Gulf. “They’re not that stupid!”
Congress likely would have opposed a war. In July 1987, Robert Greenberger, a correspondent for The Wall Street Journal, wrote about the bipartisan “protectionism sentiment” that existed in Congress at the time. Representatives questioned why U.S. allies were not helping pay for Operation Earnest Will.
The escort mission ended one month after the Iran-Iraq War did. Soon thereafter, the Soviet Union collapsed, along with any reasonable fear of a Russian invasion of Iran. The new Russian Federation, preoccupied with its own post-Soviet domestic crises, no longer even shared a border with the Islamic Republic.
The next time the U.S. military deployed to the Persian Gulf, it was to confront Iraq following its invasion of Kuwait. Iran remained neutral during the 1991 Persian Gulf War. However, it quickly grew uncomfortable with the continued presence of U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf region following the war. Javad Zarif, the deputy Iranian ambassador to the United Nations at the time, alleged that the U.S. presence had “objectives that go beyond the liberation of Kuwait.”
U.S. efforts in the region in the 1990s primarily focused on containing Iraq. However, when a truck bomb devastated the Khobar Towers complex in Saudi Arabia on June 25, 1996, killing 19 American airmen, Washington suspected Tehran was responsible.
“I don’t want any piss-ant half-measures,” Pres. Bill Clinton told National Security Advisor Richard Clarke. The administration reportedly mulled a ground invasion of Iran.
Years later, Clinton’s former secretary of defense William Perry revealed that one of the Clinton administration’s contingency plans entailed an attack targeting “a number of their military facilities that would have weakened – substantially weakened … the Iranian navy and air force.”
“They feared what action we would take,” Perry said of the Iranians. “They rightly feared it. In fact I had a contingency plan for a strike on Iran, if it had been clearly established. But it was never clearly established, and so we never did that.”
In 2007, Perry said he was convinced that Al Qaeda had carried out the Khobar bombing.
In the 2000s in Washington, there was frequent talk of, and even detailed proposals for and against, a U.S. attack on Iran’s nuclear program. After the United States invaded Iraq in March 2003, some pundits advocated a follow-up invasion of Iran. “Everyone wants to go to Baghdad. Real men go to Tehran,” was a popular joke among neoconservatives.
Soon the United States was bogged down in Afghanistan and Iraq. Invading Iran lost its appeal. As early as July 2003, one commentator writing in The Los Angeles Times argued that talk of confronting Iran constituted “an empty threat, since the U.S. does not have the military means and the American people do not have the will to invade Iran.”
“The threat of American military intervention, therefore, only helps the conservative mullahs to rally people around the Iranian flag.”
A decade later, attitudes changed. In the summer of 2018, the Trump administration withdrew Washington from the July 2015 nuclear deal with Iran and imposed harsher economic sanctions on Tehran. Trump’s national security advisor John Bolton, told a rally of the militant anti-Iran Mojahedin-e Khalq group that he sought regime change in Tehran “before 2019.” The administration later claimed it didn’t seek regime-change.
For decades, Americans have argued for and against invading Iran. The arguing continues.