Operations Analysis

Iranian Hostage Crisis

To: Secretary Albright

From: Jane Smith

Subject: Iranian Hostage Crisis National Security Council (NSC) Decision-Making



On November 4th, 1979, terrorists took the American Embassy in Tehran.  Sixty-six embassy personnel were held hostage, 52 of them for the full 444 days of captivity.  Ostensibly, the action was in retaliation for America admitting Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi into the U.S. for medical treatment.  The Shah’s rapid modernization of his nation, and the questionable behavior of his security service, had alienated enough Iranians to cause his overthrow.  Citing CIA support of the 1953 coup against Iran’s Premier Mossadeq, the terrorists may have believed that the U.S. was planning on overthrowing the newly created theocracy, and returning the monarchy to power.  

The embassy had been attacked in February of the same year, an attack that had been denounced by Ayatollah Khomeini.  His followers organized the counterattack, which freed the embassy.  However, Iran’s leadership was still in transition at that time.  In addition, Marxist students led the February attack, whereas the November attack was led by Islamist students.  Khomeini had consolidated his power later in the year, and condoned the attack instigated by his own followers.

Key Players

President Jimmy Carter:  Jimmy Carter was a U.S. Naval submariner, prior to taking over his family’s peanut farm in Georgia.  He entered politics through election to the local board of education, served two-terms as State Senator, and lost a bid for the governorship before becoming governor in 1970.  His success in reorganizing state government put him on the cover of “Time” magazine as a symbol of the “New South.”  He ran as a Washington outsider, building on the distrust generated by Watergate, and won the presidency in 1976.

President Carter had become a born-again Baptist in 1966, and actively used his faith in policy formation.  He was an international human rights advocate who engineered the Camp David Accords, brokering the peace between Egypt and Israel, and pursued arms limitation negotiations with the Soviet Union.  When he first took office, the President was more sympathetic to the State Department’s approach of long-term engagement, but became impatient with them as time went on.  He was initially opposed to covert action, believing it to be immoral, but changed his views following the invasion of Afghanistan by Russia, and the failure of negotiations during the Iranian hostage crisis. 

Secretary of State Cyrus Vance:  Cyrus Vance was an attorney who served four years in the Navy, before going into private practice.  Fourteen years later he became General Counsel for the Department of Defense, and three years later was appointed Deputy Secretary of Defense.  In May 1968, he was chosen as Deputy Chief Delegate to the Paris Peace Accords, serving under Averell Harriman, but directly responsible for portions of the negotiations with the Vietnamese.  He then returned to private practice, before being asked to serve as Secretary of State by Jimmy Carter.  

During his time at the Pentagon he had gone from supporting the war in Vietnam, to backing U.S. troop withdrawal.  As Secretary of State, he believed in concentrating on arms control negotiations, and wished to avoid actions he perceived would unnecessarily antagonize the USSR, such as supporting dissidents, and pressuring Russia on its human rights record.

Dr. Zbigniew Brzezinski:  Dr. Brzezinski is a political scientist who received his Ph.D. from Harvard, and served as a foreign policy advisor during the Kennedy, Johnson, and Humphrey presidential campaigns.  After acting as Jimmy Carter’s primary foreign policy advisor during his bid for the presidency, President Carter appointed him National Security Advisor.

Dr. Brzezinski was the son of a Polish diplomat, whose father had been stationed in Germany during the rise of the Nazi party, and in Russia during Stalin’s Great Purge.  When he was eleven years old, Poland was invaded by Germany and Russia, who had previously signed the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, making Poland one of six countries that the invading nations had secretly agreed to divide between them.  He would be unable to return to his homeland for eighteen years.  His realist viewpoint contrasted with Secretary Vance’s cooperative approach, and the two men had fundamental differences over policy that became progressively more disruptive to the decision-making apparatus.

Decision-Making Process

NSC System:  President Carter believed that civility was vital to effective decision-making.  However, the NSC system he established exasperated the almost inevitable tensions between his realist National Security Advisor, and the more process oriented Secretary of State.  President Carter created two committees, the Policy Review Committee (PRC), and the Special Coordination Committee (SCC).  The former dealt with issues where one department took the lead, and the latter with interdepartmental concerns.  These committees were created to decentralize power away from the Executive.  In practice, the Secretary of State often chaired the PRC, while the NSA chaired the SCC.  This gave Dr. Brzezinski greater power than his predecessors in shaping policy, and allowed him to champion an agenda that often challenged the State Department’s aims.

Congress:  The President’s relationship with Congress prior to the crisis was strained.  President Carter considered himself a populist, and was happy to present his case to the American people when Congress questioned one of his numerous reforms.  In response to Watergate, many in Congress were on guard against executive overreach, and felt more comfortable challenging him.  They were also under daily pressure from their constituencies to see the hostages returned home.  The crisis had extensive media coverage, including ABC’s “Iran Crisis: America Held Hostage”, which evolved into the still aired “Nightline”.  CBS’s famous anchorman Walter Cronkite signed off each night by announcing the number of days the hostages had been held.  The crisis overshadowed many other concerns.

Military Option:  Several initial steps were taken to put pressure on Iran.  Military parts en route to Iran were not sent, Americans were prohibited from purchasing Iranian oil, Iranian assets were frozen, and trade was discontinued between the two countries with exceptions made for humanitarian goods.  However, when negotiations proved unsuccessful, the Carter administration began to explore stronger measures, such as mining Iranian harbors, bombing oil facilities, capturing the Kharg Island oil export terminal, or creating a blockade.  These options were not considered viable, since they were likely to provoke the terrorists into killing hostages.  Additionally, Russia had invaded Afghanistan in December 1979, and the U.S. was involved in creating an Islamic coalition to counter the Soviets.  Many did not want to risk this endeavor by militarily engaging an Islamic nation.

Covert Option:  Due to a variety of factors, covert action to help reinstate a more moderate government was not feasible.  The President strongly disliked covert activity for moral reasons, and upon entering office had supported a plan to dissolve 820 positions over two years in the CIA’s Operations Directorate.  The Directorate was already down to 4,730 personnel from a high of 8,000.  An additional limitation came from the CIA’s approach in Iran.  The agency had dealt primarily with associates of the Shah.  Overnight, most of their contacts within Iran had either fled the country, been killed, or were imprisoned.  The CIA did enter Iran after the revolution to rescue six Americans hiding at the Canadian Embassy, but they were not in a position to mount any significant operation.

Rescue Option:  Although initially against a covert rescue mission, the President eventually authorized Operation Eagle Claw after negotiations continued to produce negative results.  The April 1980 operation was forced to abort due to weather and equipment difficulties.  Nine people lost their lives after the mission was called off, when an airplane and helicopter collided at the staging area in Iran.  Secretary Vance so strongly opposed the rescue operation, he informed the President that he would resign after its completion, regardless of the outcome.  However, this was partially due to the decision being made while he was absent, a move which reflected the growing distance between himself on the one hand, and President Carter and Dr. Brzezinski on the other.

Final Decision

Algerian diplomats brokered a deal that released frozen Iranian assets, and provided immunity to those involved, in exchange for the hostages being released.  All survived their captivity, and were returned on January 20th, 1981, immediately following President Reagan’s inauguration.  The primary goal of bringing the hostages home alive was achieved.  However, this may have occurred despite weaknesses in the decision-making process, rather than because of its strengths.

To begin with, the Secretary of State and National Security Advisor were not able to resolve their differing viewpoints, nor agree on who should take the foreign policy lead.  President Carter was unable to force such a resolution, or chose not to.  In addition, personal preferences may have blinded the players to sensible contingency planning. For example, President Carter was so strongly opposed to military action, he denied Brzezinski’s request to fly over Iran in preparation for staging, and then gave the military limited time to prepare when he was ready to authorize the rescue mission.

Although the hostages were reportedly freed only after President Carter left office to prove Iran could “topple” U.S. government, it is unlikely that Khomeini had that type of control and foresight.  This final touch was probably a convenient added benefit.  Ultimately, a major factor may have been the Iran-Iraq War.  Iraq had invaded Iran on September 22, 1980, and most of Iran’s military equipment had been purchased by the Shah from the United States.  Iran needed American military hardware to defend itself.  This, as much as any other factor, may have encouraged the Iranians to release the hostages.