Jimmy Carter’s Options in Iran Were All Bad
In 1980, the U.S. president weighed war ... and hostages' lives
The passing of former U.S. president George H.W. Bush in December 2018 left Jimmy Carter as the oldest living American president. The 39th commander-in-chief and former governor of Georgia was elected in 1976 and served one term, giving way to Ronald Reagan, whose vice-president was Bush, in January 1981.
Carter’s loss to Reagan in 1980 can be attributed in large part to the impact of the Iran hostage crisis, a 444-day affair in which 52 Americans were held against their will by revolutionaries who had seized the United States’ embassy in Tehran.
The botched rescue attempt, code-name Operation Eagle Claw, on April 24, 1980, resulted in the deaths of eight Americans. The incident, among other occurrences during the Carter administration, was seen to have damaged U.S. credibility and prestige worldwide.
During the crisis, there was considerable pressure on Carter to act more decisively to bring the hostages home. There were calls for military action, even at the risk of resultant harm to the hostages. As the 40th anniversary of the crisis approaches, the question remains – what else could Carter have done at the time to rescue the hostages and bolster America’s fledgling credibility?
In retrospect, not a whole lot.
“The National Security Council agreed that [military force was] more likely to provoke the Iranians to kill some of the hostages than to let them go free,” Kenneth Pollack determined in his 2004 history of U.S.-Iran relations, The Persian Puzzle.
He also noted that critics often miss the point when panning Carter’s handling of the crisis, by forgetting he was ultimately successful in attaining the release of every hostage without harm. The president had made it the top priority of his approach to the problem and, though it took over a year, the goal was achieved.
“The relevant question is whether there was another approach that would have brought the hostages home sooner or that would have been less damaging to our interests abroad,” Pollack wrote.
However, Pollack also conceded an argument could be made that the United States should have pursued a policy toward Iran aimed at maintaining “the credibility of American deterrence.” The scholar, currently an American Enterprise Institute resident fellow, noted the callousness such a policy would have entailed, but stressed that deterrence is such a critical component of defense and foreign policy that it cannot afford to be undermined.
Willingly yielding the fate of the 52 Americans to their captors would have been a difficult road for any president to take, but, depending on the mindset and worldview of a given administration, it is not out of the question another president could have handled the same crisis differently.
What sorts of measures could have been taken? And would they have worked? As Pollack detailed, the answer lay in the events that followed the embassy seizure. First, the options – instead of attempting to negotiate, the United States could have tried coercing the Iranians into releasing the hostages, with the trade-off being an increased likelihood of not all the captives returning alive.
Given Iran’s intransigence, it was unlikely coercion would have worked. It may in fact have hardened their resolve to resist the “Great Satan” at all costs. This means, eventually, coercion would have to be backstopped by force. The use of force is precisely what many of Carter’s critics and even his national security advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski endorsed as a means of resolving the stand-off.
At top — Iranian students crowd the U.S. embassy in Tehran in November 1979. Above — C-SPAN capture
The question was, was the United States willing to employ the kind of force necessary to impose “unacceptable” costs, as Pollack put it, upon Iran as to cause Iran to capitulate to American demands? In his eyes, the nature of revolutionary Iran at the time was such that only “a full-scale invasion of Iran or the use of nuclear weapons” would have been sufficient enough to force change in Tehran’s behavior.
Neither option was seriously considered.
In fact, the United States had very few military options. Striking air bases, oil facilities, a blockade including mining Iranian harbors, seizing Kharg Island or a rescue mission were all considered early in the crisis. But even a rescue was initially de-emphasized as an option because of the inherent difficulties in getting a rescue force in and out of Iran safely with minimal casualties, along with a lack of intelligence on the exact whereabouts of the hostages.
Only until more reliable intelligence surfaced and Delta Force had developed a viable rescue plan, was the option more seriously considered and, eventually, implemented in the form of Eagle Claw.
This left air strikes, mining harbors, seizing Iranian territory and a blockade available to the president. In his memoir, Brzezinski recalled a National Security Council meeting on Nov. 23, 1980, in which Carter presented his strategy of “condemn, threaten, break relations, mine three harbors, bomb Abadan, total blockade.”
Though determined to resolve the crisis diplomatically, Carter understood force or the threat of would need to be introduced at some point down the line. The common denominator of all these options was the targeting of Iranian oil as a means of inducing compliance.
Abadan, which hosted a major refinery in oil-rich Khuzestan Province in Iran’s southwest, was the major focus of the strike option. Kharg Island was Iran’s major oil export terminal. Mining and blockade were aimed at shutting down Iranian oil exports complete, thereby causing economic trauma.
But as Pollack noted, Iran under Ayatollah Khomeini was producing less oil than it had been doing before the revolution. A reason for this was because Khomeini himself saw oil as the source of the country’s problems related to outside intervention and imperialism. It was not until the Iran-Iraq War that the former found the need to increase the production of oil.
Unless the United States invaded Iran, causing damage to Iran’s economy was, at least in the immediate term, unlikely to convince Khomeini to release the hostages and probably would have hardened Iran’s resolve to resist America at all costs.
Wreckage of a U.S. rescue helicopter in Iran following the failure of the Eagle Claw raid. Photo via Wikipedia
If that ruled out the air strike against Abadan as well, what about against Iranian air bases? The Iranian revolution had gutted the Iranian military due to political purges, lack of readiness, and even sabotage. Initial setbacks against Iraq during the war demonstrated the extent to which Iran’s air force was in poor fighting trim, only to see the Islamic Republic mount a ferocious comeback against their mortal enemy.
This suggests Iran would have been similarly unfazed by U.S. strikes in 1979 or ’80. From Tehran’s perspective, there was little to lose and their response to their Iraqi invaders implies Iran would have stood their ground in the face of limited American action.
Mining and blockades were unlikely to induce compliance as well. In addition to revolutionary Iran’s conflicted attitude towards oil, it was impossible to completely choke off Iran from the outside world, given its vast land borders which would not be impacted by mining or blockade.
While America could cause considerable damage to Iran’s economy in such a fashion, the way the Iranian people adapted to the rigors of the revolution and the Iran-Iraq War demonstrate not only had they already endured enormous hardship, they were ready for more.
In fact, the Iran-Iraq War is highly illuminating with regards to how Iran may have responded to U.S. military action. Pollack describes disturbing extent to which Iran was willing to take casualties, stating:
Iran suffered horrific damage during that war and its people made astonishing sacrifices, yet it took eight years [emphasis placed] of beating their heads against a wall and losing hundreds of thousands of young men in senseless human-wave attacks, with nearly the whole world lined up against it, before Iran gave up.
This historical fact brings the debate full circle back to the only two options likely to have forced Iran to capitulate – full-scale invasion or nuclear attack, neither of which were feasible nor worth considering given the scenario. The uncomfortable truth is that no military option was likely to resolve the hostage crisis and may have only reinforced the narratives pushed by Khomeini and other revolutionary leaders about the need to resist America to the bitter end.
Additionally, the military options were ultimately indirect means of achieving the president’s primary goal – bringing all the hostages home alive, something only a rescue attempt could achieve. Even as the necessity of such an endeavor became clear, there was still a sense the United States would have to unleash punitive measures against Iran.
“I started to think of the need to combine the rescue mission with a retaliatory strike,” Brzezinski recalled. “My view was that casualties in the rescue mission would be unavoidable and we had to face the fact that the attempt might even fail.”
Ultimately, the rescue did fail, though not for the reasons Brzezinski and others anticipated. What’s more, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in December ’79 also changed Washington’s calculations, which, according to Brzezinski, had been trending closer toward military action.
Ironically, it was the bizarre combination of Soviet expansionism and a tragedy in the Iranian desert that averted military action by the Carter administration and, ultimately, created the conditions for the safe return of all the American hostages.