Senior Iranian Army officers accompany Ayatollah Sadegh Khalkali on a tour of the burned-out American C-130 cargo plane used in an aborted commando raid to rescue U.S. embassy hostages in the eastern desert region of Iran on April 26, 1980.
(Originally published by the Daily News on April 25, 1980. This story was written by James Wieghart and Lars-Eric Nelson.)
WASHINGTON (News Bureau) — An attempt to rescue the 50 American hostages from the occupied United States Embassy in Tehran early today was canceled by President Carter because of equipment failure. Two American aircraft collided on the ground at a remote airstrip in Iran during the withdrawal.
The White House said that eight crew members were killed in the crash and several others were injured. The military personnel were airlifted out of Iran and the injured were receiving medical treatment and were expected to recover.
The White House said that Carter would address the nation on television at 7 a.m. today.
There was no official word from Tehran on the welfare of the 50 Americans at the embassy or the three diplomatic personnel being held at the Iranian Foreign Ministry. The militants holding the Americans at the embassy have repeatedly threatened to kill all their captives at the first sign of an American military action against Iran.
ABC News reported that Iranian Foreign Minister Sadegh Ghotbzadeh said in Tehran that no rescue attempt had taken place.
State Department official Mark Johnson said no statements had been received from the militants. “We have no evidence of any reaction against the hostages,” Johnson said.
The Moslem militants announced April 9 that they would burn the U.S. Embassy in Tehran and kill all the hostages if the United States attempted “even the smallest” military move against Iran.
On Nov. 27, barely three weeks after the Nov. 4 takeover, the militants said they had planted mines throughout the embassy compound and would set them off if American agents tried to storm the embassy and free the hostages.
No word on fate of other Americans
There also was no word on the fate of other Americans still in Iran. There are believed to be 12 to 15 other Americans in Iran, almost all reporters, as well as possibly 2,000 to 3,000 dual nationals, the majority Americans married to Iranian citizens.
The White House said that the action “was not motivated by hostility toward Iran or the Iranian people and there were no Iranian casualties.”
The statement said the attempt was “ordered for humanitarian reasons to protect the national interests of this country and to alleviate international tensions.” The mission was called off after a C-130 transport plane and a helicopter collided.
“The President accepts full responsibility for the decision to attempt the rescue. The nation is deeply grateful to the brave men who were preparing to rescue the hostages. The United States continues to hold the government of Iran responsible for the safety of the American hostages and the United States remains determined to obtain their safe release at the earliest possible date,” the statement said.
Pentagon officials were called to a midnight meeting in the office of Defense Secretary Harold Brown. The meeting lasted about two hours and none of the participants had any immediate comment. Key congressional leaders and the families of the hostages were also notified of the aborted rescue attempt.
Carter canceled a planned weekend visit to the presidential retreat at Camp David, Md., and First Lady Rosalynn Carter was returning to Washington from a campaign trip to Texas.
Raid was unexpected at high levels
The raid was unexpected and unknown even at high levels of the American government. Top administration officials had said as late as yesterday that no military action against Iran would be contemplated while European economic and diplomatic sanctions against Iran were put into effect, a process that could take two months or more.
But one top White House official said last Friday that when military action came, it would be a surprise blow, designed to shock Iran into an awareness of the dangers it faced by holding the hostages. He was referring, it appeared, to a military blockade of Iran’s posts rather than a rescue attempt.
In its latest program of sanctions, the Carter administration barred travel to Iran except for journalists and urged other Americans there to leave. The journalists were reported about to be expelled by the Iranian government.
Military experts have frequently pointed to the difficulty of a rescue attempt because Tehran is 400 miles from the Arabian sea and the U.S. task force of 26 ships built around two aircraft carriers. A U.S. Marine combat team of 1,800 soldiers is on station with the task force. The location of Tehran appeared to make a helicopter rescue impossible and the distance between the embassy and Tehran’s Mehrabad Airport, where heavier planes could land, seemed to bar an Entebbe-type raid. In that operation, Israeli commandos rescued a planeload of hostages from an airfield in Uganda.
Canada had opposed use of force
Secretary of State Vance had spent yesterday on a one-day trip to Canada, where he was told that Canada opposed the use of force. “I can’t… see how it could serve us in any way at all,” Prime Pierre Eliot Trudeau said.
Vance was working in the State Department in the early hours this morning. The announcement of the rescue attempt came as a surprise to senior officials of the department’s Iran working group, who have maintained a 24-hour watch since the U.S. Embassy was seized.
President Carter had said last week that military action would be the next U.S. option if economic and diplomatic pressure by America and its allies did not lead to the hostages’ release. The principal tactic under consideration then was a sea blockade that would most likely involve the mining of Iranian ports.
However, the chairman and ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in Washington said yesterday that Carter’s talk of possible military action in the Iranians Crisis made clear that the time had come for consultations with Congress under the War Powers Act.
Chairman Frank Church (D-Idaho) and Sen. Jacob Javits (R-N.Y.) assured Vance in a letter that such consultations would be held under “the strictest confidentiality.”
They noted that Carter has repeatedly said that the use of military force is an option open to him in seeking the release of the American hostages.
“The advance consultation provisions of the War Powers resolution are intended to come into play before any such decision has been made, in order to insure that any such decision, if made, is a national decision jointly entered into by the President and Congress,” Church and Javits.
The Soviet Union had volunteered to circumvent a possible U.S. blockade of Iran by expanding its overland road and rail routes. The Soviets confirmed yesterday they would open their highway system to increased Iranian traffic in case of a blockade of Iranian seaports. They also announced they were resuming suspended negotiations to buy Iranian natural gas.
Responding to reports that Iran was concluding major economic deals with the Soviet bloc, State Department spokesman Thomas Reston said, “The Soviets do not have the economic wherewithal to replace the goods that Iran now imports from the West.”
Reston reminded Iran’s leaders of the fate of neighboring Afghanistan, now occupied by 85,000 Soviet troops after pursuing a Marxist path of development. He also reminded them of the Soviet attempt to seize Azerbaijan, Iran’s north westernmost province, after World War II.
About Russia’s increasing its land traffic with Iran, Reston said that “as a practical matter, the transportation capacity between the USSR and Iran is limited. Further I do not believe that Iran’s true national interests would be served by a further amount of involvement with the Soviet Union. Given the continued turmoil in the country and the presence of Soviet forces in Afghanistan, the real threat to Iranian security is more than self-evident.”
At the same time, Iran threatened to cut off the West’s vital Persian Gulf oil lifeline if the United States mined Iranian ports.
Gotbzadeh said in an interview on Iranian radio and television yesterday that, “We shall close the Persian Gulf at any price.”
Ghotbzadeh did not say just how the Iranians might try to halt the supertanker traffic out of the gulf, which accounts for about 60% of all world oil exports.