The Iranian hostage crisis

Been reading newspapers from the time and I got questions that were answered by wikipedia:

  1. Why did it take so long to get to a solution when the solution was pretty obvious? Iran had four key demands: US not interfere in Iran anymore(easy), unfreeze frozen assets(complicated but doesn’t take 450 days), return the Shah’s wealth(impossible and no one knew how much he had), and apologize for past interference(easy, but not gonna happen). In the end, they settled for unfreezing of assets and the US had no problem pledging not to interfere in Iran. Seems to me that that should have taken a lot less than 450 days to agree to.

  2. In the last days, getting Iran it’s money proved to be very complicated. Why not just ask Congress to appropriate the funds, pay them, and then turn around and get reimbursed whenever banks can get together the funds however they did that in 1981?

  3. Would the failed US military mission to rescue the hostages been much more likely to succeed today? I read that the US military was still having trouble with recruitment targets and quality of recruits and equipment was being under maintained at the time. Was the disaster something that would have happened no matter what, or would today’s better trained and equipped military have succeeded? Bonus question: given Israel’s success at Entebbe, if we’d secretly asked them to do it for us, would they have been more likely to pull it off? Bonus question 2: did the US ask Israel for advice on long distance hostage rescues?

  4. What would be the likely result if a mass hostage taking by a sovereign Third World nation occurred today, let’s say Venezuela seized US embassy staff. I’d have to think there’d be an ultimatum followed by swift military action. Let’s leave Trump out of this since he’s an idiot and unstable and assume a normal President like Biden or Booker or Rubio having to deal with this problem in 2022 or something.

Would Israel have even agreed to such a thing? I think they were still holding out hope that the new regime would be a natural ally in the region. That didn’t work out, but they tried for a while.

I didn’t know that Israel thought they could deal with the ayatollahs. I guess there’s a natural “enemy of my enemy is my friend” thing going. But I already figured for various reasons that Israel doing the job for us was a non-starter. I just wondered if given their expertise they could have done it.

Yes, it would be more likely to succeed. The reason why is that we know how to operate aircraft in a desert environment now. It is highly unlikely that we would lose so many aircraft like we did in Operation Eagle Claw. That said, I think that it would still fail. I think that hostage takers are smarter and better organized now than they were then. Groups taking hostages aren’t going to be groups of protesting students, but likely militants with lots of military experience. Also, anything with hostages involved is extremely risky. You’re really relying on hostage takers being slow to react and slow to take lives. I don’t think that’s something that you can rely on in any modern hostage situation.

I also think that Entebbe was not a success. Yes, the Israelis saved their 100 people, but Amin ended up killing 250 others instead. Israel might not have cared since they weren’t Israeli citizens, but I’m of the mind that more people dying is a bad trade from a humanistic stand point.

I think aircraft like the V-22 Osprey and the stealth helos from the bin Ladin raid would make a modern-day Eagle Claw operation more doable than in 1980. But…the Venezuelan (or whoever) captors might have also learned lessons from that and won’t keep American hostages together in one rescue-able single location, instead scattering their sites.

Not “easy” at all, and you clearly misunderstand the situation. By giving in to Iranian demands, the US would be admitting that the new Iranian government was legitimate, that their demands were legitimate, and that hostage-taking was a legitimate policy tool. The US would have lost their ability to influence events in Iran, and would have lost influence elsewhere by admitting defeat. By accepting the Iranian terms, they would set a precedent whereby any militant group could dictate US policy by taking hostages. You NEVER want to reward hostage taking because it only encourages it in the future.

Not going to speculate about the details of international finance except to say (A) refer to the answer above and (B) why the &@/ should the tax-payer have to un-&@/ the banking industry?

Almost certainly. The fact that the rescue attempt was such a fiasco prompted huge changes in military doctrine, mostly focused on inter-service interoperability. It culminated in the Goldwater–Nichols Act, which was probably the most significant military reform since WW2.

Almost certainly irrelevant. The people involved were Delta Force and Army Rangers. These were not Vietnam-era pothead conscripts. They were some of the most elite soldiers available. Equipment maintenance might have been a problem, since the aircraft did suffer mechanical failures (but when do helicopters NOT have mechanical problems?). The actual problems at Desert One had more to do with weather, bureaucratic incompetence, and inter-service rivalry. High-ranking morons cared more about their individual fiefdoms and getting a piece of the glory than making an efficient operation. (Refer back to the Goldwater Nichols Act)

Almost certainly, yes. The US military today is better equipped for force projection and complex inter-service coordination. Our patience for insults and ransom demands is extremely low. The anti-war crowd is smaller and quieter than any time I can remember. Seventeen years of perpetual, borderless warfare has produced a public that uncritically accepts unilateral military offensives as normal. (Whether this is good or bad is up to you.)

And let’s not forget, the last time an embassy was attacked the mere perception of inaction led to years of political accusations, smear campaigns, blatant lies, and millions of tax dollars squandered on baseless, partisan witch hunts culminating in a lost presidential election. It is impossible to know how big of a role the Benghazi fiction played in the outcome, but I continue to meet people who are absolutely convinced that Hillary personally, deliberately and maliciously left brave Americans to die in Libya. I doubt anyone in power would want to invite that kind of criticism again, regardless of facts.

You are forgetting the whole ‘hostage’ part of the Iran hostage crisis. Then you have the fact that a rebel government, to the US anyway had displaced a US ally in the region. I’m unsure what your vision of the US government being quick and agile wrt this sort of thing is, but frankly it’s pretty amazing that it ONLY took 450 days. And that mostly because Jimmy Carter was pushing as hard as he could, including up to his last few hours in office to make this happen.

My WAG is that it would be politically difficult to get such a thing through. What makes you think that Congress would have gone for this? Was it even under discussion, and if so what sort of support did it have in Congress?

Not sure what recruitment targets have to do with this, but we’ve had extensive experience in the region now. We have, after all, fought 3 wars in the region since then. Not only is our equipment better, and better suited to the environment but our training and doctrine have made us much more effect in the region. So, yeah…we’d be a hell of a lot more effective doing something like this. Recall the SEAL raid on ObL’s compound, for instance.

My guess would be a much harsher reaction, regardless of who is president, with a lot more military options being put forward. When this happened during Carter’s time the US was pretty shy about direct military confrontation. Our military experience at that time was pretty much Vietnam, and the US public had a totally different view of foreign adventures than they do now. We probably wouldn’t directly negotiate with a group taking hostages, and even our back channel negotiations would not be making a lot of concessions…all while we move assets into the region to hammer, say, Venezuela hard and probably send in a raid team to try and take back the hostages. Even if we did negotiate I’m not seeing us moving faster than the 450 days you seem to think was a long time for something like that to drag on. There just wouldn’t be any sort of political consensus on what to do, whether to cave in to the demands and give them concessions or not negotiate with ‘terrorists’ and hammer them hard…or myriad positions in-between. And my WAG is the American people would be equally divided, so would be hard for politicians to come to a consensus either because of this.

I agree with the rest of your post, but not with this part. The longer the Iranian hostage crisis went on, the weaker Carter looked. Then when he botched the rescue attempt it pretty much put paid to his foreign policy cred and his Presidency.

I think the American people would rally behind a President who took a hard line and said “Here is our negotiating position - give back the hostages or prepare to be invaded”. That’s what Bush did with Afghanistan and his father did with Kuwait.

Maybe I’m biased, but that’s how I would feel, and I doubt I am the only one.


You seem to be ignoring the first half of XT’s paragraph. My understanding was that XT started off saying that aggressive military action was a near certainty. The statement that there would not be a political consensus was specifically referring to a scenario in which the administration tries to negotiate a solution rather than use military force.

I didn’t ignore it; I agreed with it. My point FWIW is that Carter sort of went the negotiation route and it cost him re-election. Other factors were involved, of course, including that when he tried military force he botched it. And the economy, and the fact that the Iranians held him in contempt. I was saying that, if we did choose negotiations rather than a “surrender or die” approach, a consensus would arise that we shouldn’t waste the time. Remember Walter Cronkite announcing every night “this is the 320th day of captivity for the hostages in Iran”.

Carter’s approach was, ISTM, different. Bush 43 was re-elected. Carter, not so much.


No one was in a negotiating frame of mind, everyone that I knew was waiting for Jimmy to get aggressive

The peanut farmer was on the democratic ticket, but had zero allies in Congress and never really did any bipartisan bridge building. He was pretty much a lame duck president going into the final days, it would have been too much to expect Congress to back him now.

Eagle Claw was a perfect storm of everything that could go wrong in a military operation from the start and culminated in the abort. The thing with Iran was that it also operated front line American Equipment, so to send in the 82 airborne to secure the Embassy, while waiting for a Marine Meu to backstop them and backed by fleet airpower would have been the better option, we did not know which way the Iranian military was going to jump. Even today there is a paralell Iranian military formation. The better play would have been to engineer a counter coup backed by American force.

The US has more options and it would depend on the sitting president and whom ever on the Venezuelan side. The fun question is what to do if a bunch of starving people took the embassy simply to get the US to invade.

As already pointed out, simply shifting recognition immediately when an internationally recognized government that is friendly to the US is overthrown has long-term implications that go far beyond Iran’s borders.

Let’s say we did and treated the new, and still chaotic, revolution as the government. That’s closer to the Venezuela hypothetical. The hostage scenario then begins with what is an act of war against inviolable territory under international law. It escalates to holding diplomats hostage in violation of international agreements and norms. Giving a nation that does those things everything they want almost immediately has serious implications for international order and stability.


Entebbe was an incredible success. 104 our of 106 hostages were rescued and IIRC, only one Israeli soldier was killed.

The 250 people Amin killed later on were not part of Operation Entebbe and had nothing to do with it. Saving every single person Amin might retaliate against was not the goal of the operation, and trying to tie them to it as Israel’s responsibility is frankly absurd.

The 70s were a weird time, when hostage taking got so serious that even sovereign nations were willing to do it or participate in it. I’d heard about Entebbe, but I didn’t know till I saw a movie on it that Idi Amin actually visited the hostages and urged them not to try to escape. And then Ugandan soldiers, not PLO terrorists, pulled one of the hostages left behind because she was in the hospital out of her bed and shot her. We complain about rogue states today, but the 70s was probably peak rogue state and there were a lot of them.

Delta force was formed in the mid 70’s and Iran was their first (or one of their first) real missions. They were still getting things figured out.