In today's blog post, Justin Williamson examines the condition of Iranian forces facing the US at the time of the hostage rescue attempt, the subject of his latest book, Operation Eagle Claw.
When Iranian students seized the US Embassy in Tehran, taking 66 American citizens hostage, the very real possibility of conflict with Iran lay on the horizon, especially if any harm befell the hostages. Even if the US did not directly attack Iran, any attempt to rescue the hostages would result in some kind of military clash – ranging from engaging the guards at the Embassy to a larger battle if the rescue went wrong. What the US defense establishment needed to know, as options and plans for retaliation or a rescue mission were deliberated, was what exactly was the state of the Iranian military? On paper, it appeared the US was facing a formidable enemy, armed with some of the most advanced weaponry, much of it supplied by the US.
The Iranian Military Buildup
In the 1970s, the Shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, flush with oil revenues, attempted to make Iran the dominant military power in the region, dreaming of restoring the glory of the ancient Persian army. To do so, he would spend billions of dollars around the world, buying every imaginable western weapons system and allying himself with defense contractors who would fuel his lust for military glory. To quench his unsaleable thirst for military hardware, the Shah imported $20 billion dollars in military hardware between 1970 and 1978.
The US was so determined to sell the Shah whatever weapons he wanted to keep Iran firmly in the US camp, that in May 1972, President Richard Nixon and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger personally flew to Tehran to sign a new arms agreement with the Shah. In the years after the 1972 deal, Iranian military purchases went from $500 million before the deal to $4.3 billion dollars in 1974. By 1978, the Shah had spent $20 billion on weapons his country didn’t need and couldn’t use even if it wanted to.
The Iranian purchase of the advanced US F-14 Tomcat came to symbolize the Iranian military buildup without any real plan. Iran gave the US over $2 billion dollars for 80 F-14s, 77 of which were eventually delivered. The US trained 120 ground crewmen on the F-14 but did not allow Iranian personnel to maintain or repair F-14 components, requiring these to be worked on by US contractors and parts to come directly from the US. The Iranian F-14 pilots were taken from their F-4 and F-5 squadrons, leaving those squadrons shorthanded. Recognizing that any pilot who took a risk with one of the precious F-14s would face the wrath of the Shah, the F-14 pilots were careful to fly only in daylight and only in good weather. (This Grumman produced a video on the sale and transfer of F-14s to Iran clearly shows the significant hurdles faced by the high-tech weapons sales https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sfCmpsHjtNg)
Iran also eventually purchased 179 F-5 A/B Freedom Fighters and F-5E Tiger II fighters, 225 F-4D and E Phantom II fighters; 56 C-130 Hercules transports; six P-3 Orion maritime patrol planes; six KC-130 Stratotankers. The Shah even dreamed of acquiring 300 F-16 Falcons, with 160 actually paid for, and 250 F-18 Hornet fighters. It was his proposed purchase of seven Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) planes that finally started to draw serious congressional scrutiny, expressing fear that with the AWACS, Iran would be capable of conducting and offensive military operations.
Probably the biggest concern for American planners were the Iranian air defenses. While they were new and manned by inexperienced crews, the purchase of US MM-23 HAWK missiles and other Western air defense systems including Orleikens and Rapiers gave the Iranians an impressive air defense network on paper. These were organized into 21 air defense groups, divided among four air defense zones.
Besides aircraft, the Shah wanted to build up the Army, hoping to have at least 3,000 tanks in the field. By the mid-1970s, Iran had acquired 460 M60s; 400 M47 and M48 Pattons; and 900 British Chieftans. The Army helicopter fleet also grew and by the time of the revolution, Iran had 205 AH-1J Super Cobra attack helicopters; 90 CH-47C Chinooks; numerous Hueys and Bell Rangers; and other smaller helicopters. At sea, the Shah hoped to build up its naval force not only to protect the Persian Gulf, but also to project farther out into the Indian Ocean. By the mid-1970s, Iran had 14 British-built hovercrafts along with four Saam-class frigates.
Quality of Iranian Military Personnel and Reliance on Western Trainers
As the high-tech weapons systems poured into Iran, the armed forces lacked the work force to maintain the new or the older equipment, and came to rely on American personnel for training, further widening the gap between the systems and technically proficient Iranian personnel. By 1973, 3,600 US technicians were in Iran servicing the weapons and the number increased to nearly 50,000 US contractors and US military trainers by 1978. Furthermore, with equipment coming from various countries, the Iranian military never developed or refined the system to get spare parts and equipment to the units. Training was further hampered by the lack of gunnery and maneuver ranges or roads and infrastructure to move forces around the country.
The various ethnic and tribal groups comprising the Iranian military made matters worse because of their cultural differences and lack of common languages. A substantial portion of training was taken up by learning Farsi for the enlisted and English for the officers. With their disparate number of ethnicities, the Iranian units were just as susceptible to influence by tribal, village, and ethnic elders as they were to the military chain of command.
A 1976 report by the US 94th Congress expressed alarm at the unprecedented buildup of forces by Iran affirming Iran could not absorb the amount of equipment it was receiving. However, the arms and parts shipments continued unabated into the country but often never made it past the ports. The logistical problems of moving the equipment to the right units left millions of dollars wasting on the docks. Even if the equipment could move to the right units, the units did not know how to use it without the American trainers.
With the entire Iranian military reliant on the US to maintain and equip it, the Congressional report also expressed concern that the Shah could drag the US unwittingly into war. If the Shah stumbled into a war by his own design, the US would be left with three tough decisions – order the 50,000 American trainers to stand down and stay clear away from frontline units; evacuate the country which would result in the immediate collapse of the Iranian military; or the US would have to keep the Iranian military functioning, making the US personnel legitimate targets.
The Shah’s Paranoia of His Own Men
The Shah, like so many other dictators and authoritarian leaders in history, possessed a paralyzing fear of a coup being mounted by his own military. As the commander of the armed forces, he had regular meetings to personally meet out promotions and punishments. Officers were personally promoted based on politics and loyalty. Initiative and audacity by officers in training or exercises could invite unwanted scrutiny and consequently cost them their positions. To keep an eye on his commanders, his secret intelligence service, the dreaded SAVAK, and branch intelligence officers continuously spied on each other and gathered intelligence on who was loyal or disloyal. Command and control were very rigid, with subordinates and NCOs unable to make decisions or act on anything without permission. Military commanders were loyal only to the Shah himself. Combined arms training or training as part of larger formations was met with skepticism and hesitation.
The system of exuberant salaries, payoffs, and bribes paid to officers meant they would do anything they could do to keep their positions, including exaggerating troop performance and equipment readiness. The junior officers and NCOs never received the same benefits but modeled themselves after the corruption and decadence of the ruling class. They too became beneficiaries of bribes and corruption. Through it all, the lowest soldiers suffered with minimal pay and poor training, yet saw with their own eyes the billions of dollars pouring into the country’s military. The kickbacks to Iranian military officers and relatives of the Shah to keep weapons sales going were staggering, and helped fuel the corruption and, worse, demoralized the average Iranian soldier, as they witnessed their commanders lining their pockets. For example, an estimated $10 million in kickbacks was paid back to Iranian officials for purchasing the F-14s.
The Iranian Military and The Revolution
As the Iranian Revolution picked up steam, the Iranian military was in an unenviable position. On one hand, the military could try to oppress the spreading revolution, and put themselves at risk. The revolution appealed to the average Iranian soldier and suppression of protests would be detrimental to morale. The revolutionaries knew this and worked the soldiers’ grievances into their own anti-Shah speeches. The Iranian military could see what was happening in the country and by early 1978, at least 200 soldiers were deserting a day. With the Shah clearly on his way out, by the end of the year, nearly 1,000 were quitting daily. The army division at Mashhad simply ceased to exist. Senior officers knew that trying to stop the revolution was suicide.
The Shah, in his final days in Iran, failed to clarify the chain of command or gave military commanders any authority, leaving the Iranian military in a state of confusion. Upon the Shah’s departure on January 16, 1979, the military conducted a show of force, putting more troops on the streets and initiating air force flyovers to intimidate the revolutionaries, to no avail. With no hope of stopping Khomeini from returning to Iran, senior officers began to flee with the Shah, getting out of Iran as fast as they could. Others reached out to Khomeini’s followers in Iran and offered to facilitate his return to Tehran to prevent a bloodbath. On January 20, 800 Iranian air force personnel declared their loyalty to Khomeini and seized air bases at Dezful and Hamadan.
Other units simply disintegrated with troops deserting en masse. Officers tried to negotiate with revolutionary leaders in a vain attempt to save their own lives, while others turned over their armaments to the revolutionary zealots. Other units, such as the Imperial Guard, based at Lavizan in Tehran, declared their loyalty to the Shah and the government of Prime Minister Bakhitar. On February 1, 1979, Khomeini made his triumphant return to Iran from Paris and declared the creation of the Islamic Revolutionary Council, urged the Army to side with him, and offered protection to defectors and prosecution of those who refused to switch sides. The military was no longer in position to oppose Tehran. Revolutionaries seized armories and even the Imperial Guards Javidan Brigade, along with 30 tanks, was stopped by thousands of revolutionaries who drug the officers out of the lead vehicles and shot them. The attacks on Iranian military bases killed at least 650 people in addition to the estimated 10,000 killed in the previous months of rioting and anarchy. Finally, on February 11, the Iranian Military’s Supreme Council of the Armed Forces decided there was no way out and decided that, in the best interest of the country and their lives, the Iranian military would stand down and declare a tacit neutrality, thus sealing the fate of the old regime. The Council ordered military units to return to their barracks. Prime Minister Bakhitar knew what this meant – the Revolutionary forces sweeping Iran were triumphant and the Iranian government completely collapsed as he fled the country.
The Post-Revolution Purges
With the end of the Shah’s regime, the new Iranian government needed to consolidate its power and protect the Revolution from any counterrevolutionaries who were surely lurking about. The October 1979 national referendum made Khomeini the Rahbar, or supreme leader, of Iran and the constitutional commander in chief of the armed forces. The Revolutionary government decided the most expediate way to stop any latent military desire to seize power was to purge the ranks of the military and give it a new purpose and ideology. The new regime also had to answer to the people. The Iranian people, tired of the millions spent on the armed forces with no immediate threat on the horizon and furious over the military’s firing upon civilians demanded the military be scaled back.
These cuts even reached the Iranian Navy, undoubtedly puzzled over it because of the critical need to protect the oil tanker routes. On March 6, 1979, it was announced that the naval base under construction at Chah Bahar on the Gulf of Oman would be converted into a fishing harbor. Six modified Spruance class destroyers ordered by the Iranians were cancelled and the completed hulls were taken over by the US Navy. Three “La Combattante II” French designed destroyers were similarly abandoned, with three seized by French authorities for non-payment of cash.
Even the 5,000 Iranian contingent of the UN peacekeeping force in Lebanon was recalled. Hard core leftists wanted the Iranian military completely dissolved and to be replaced with a people’s army. Pro-Soviet elements demanded only the officer corps be dismantled, and other factions, such as the nationalists, wanted to only take out the very top so as not to disrupt order and discipline throughout the ranks. With no clear direction, the purges took place at random.
The only question was how deep the purges should go? Like many revolutions, once the purges began, they were hard to turn off. On February 15, 1979, four of Shah’s top-ranking generals were executed and by May, another 27 generals had been shot. In the ensuing months, more than 400 other officers were executed officially, with many more assassinated by leftist groups or because of personal vendettas. Hundreds of more officers were imprisoned, exiled internally, or forced into retirement. The military was saved by, of all people, Khomeini. He concluded that Iran had to retain some sort of a military to counter any insider or outsider threat. It just needed to be controlled and kept weak. The Revolutionary Clerics established the Ideological-Political Directorate of the Armed Forces under the Ministry of Defense. It was, however, accountable to the Revolutionary Council and was staffed with many clerics. These clerics were assigned from the command staff to the platoon level. The Directorate was responsible for the ideological and political education of the soldiers, promotions, writing the manuals, and providing all news to the troops. Much like Stalin’s political commissars, they would spy on soldiers and commanders and be ready to enforce Islamic behavior. Iran would rebuild the armed forces as an Iranian nationalist force, separated from the influence of the Americans. The Iranian military would no longer buy and maintain sophisticated weaponry it could not afford nor would likely ever use. The clerics believed the purchase and dependence on these weapons meant that Iranian sovereignty was always in doubt because Iranian forces needed to be trained by the West, Westerners were constantly in Iran training military personnel on the weapons, and for these weapons to stay ready, Iran had constantly purchase parts from the West. The military’s training and purpose would dramatically shift, and trades and skills applicable to agricultural and industrial work would be emphasized rather than tactics and strategies.
The purges of the Iranian military stripped the Iranian military of its best thinkers and most experienced soldiers. By June 1979 over 250,000 soldiers had deserted their posts. The loss of manpower was so great that Khomeini had to announce an amnesty for all military personnel, except those involved in murder or torture. By Iran’s own admission, over 10,000 military personnel had been executed, imprisoned, or forced from the military. Almost all the Shahs’ senior leaders had been executed. By the summer of 1980, forty percent of Iran’s military was gone. The Iranian air force, so dependent on American aircraft and parts, despite its professed loyalty to the Revolution, suffered greatly. Only the Iranian navy got through the purges mostly unscathed. The purges intended to punish the military for supporting the previous regime; eliminate any influence or loyalty to the Pahlavism and imperial culture; and to convert the military into an Islamic force.
Finally, in July 1979 the bloodletting against the Iranian military started to come to an end. The Revolutionary Council announced that effective on July 10, all members of the Iranian military and security forces would be granted amnesty except for instances of murder or torture. Ayatollah Khomeini announced the new policy on July 9 and in concert with the commander of the Tehran’s Revolutionary Guards Unit, Brigadier Saif Amir Rahimi, agreed that the army was necessary to maintain order. By now, over 250,000 military personnel had deserted and all the senior generals had been executed, jailed, or forced out. Few officers or senior NCOs remained in control and discipline in the armed forces had virtually ceased to exist. Executions continued of those accused of murder of anti-Shah protestors, but the purges were slowing down.
Performance in Battle in Ethnic Uprisings
Meanwhile, as the chaos engulfed Tehran, ethnic minority populations in Kurdistan, West Azerbaijan, and Khuzistan rose up to demand greater autonomy and some freedom denied to them by the Shah. The Revolutionary leadership sent in the forces to crush the rebellions, but they performed poorly. The Iranian military decimated by purges, confusion, and a lack of weapons were hard pressed to succeed against the minority rebellions. Furthermore, the new, fanatical Revolutionary Guards did not cooperate with Iranian regular forces. Commanders had little control of the mix of forces in the field. To make matters worse, once again the Iranian forces were being asked to fire on Iranian civilians and minorities, which the military officers had either close or distant ties to. Some officers refused to fight, and units deserted. At least 12 senior officers were executed in September 1979 and many within the enlisted ranks were imprisoned. Eventually, more ruthless military officers rose to the top and worked with the Revolutionary Guards to unleash their own brand of counter-insurgency operations, eventually prevailing. The price was heavy. For example, the Kurds, wanting to secede and highly motivated, were the toughest to defeat. At least 1,200 Kurds were summarily executed for inciting rebellion and another 5,000 killed in fighting. However, at least 3,000 Iranian soldiers were killed.
The Islamic Revolution Guard Corps – The Pasdaran
To keep an eye on the Iranian military, the new regime created the Islamic Revolutionary Guard (IRGC) or, the Pasdaran. The Guard’s intent was to recruit the most pious and zealous men in Iran to serve as a foil to the Iranian military, counter revolutionaries and the West. Their actual origin is a bit of a mixed story. Some claimed they were formed from inspiration or assistance by the Palestinian Liberation Organization, a claim made by Chairman of the PLO, Yassar Arafat. Other sources of origin include they were the Guards and security for the various underground revolutionary leftist and extremist organizations flourishing in the years before full revolution.
They became heavily armed in February 1979 as Iranian army armories fell into their hands in Tehran and army ranks deserted to their cause. The provisional government of Mehdi Bazargan granted them authority, either implicit or tacitly, to take over government and civil society institutions like police stations, mosques, prisons, and government buildings.
As with any evolving revolution, various factions vying for control in Iran kept their own Pasadaran formations. From the Communist party to the clerics to civilian authorities, the Guards were employed by anyone with any modicum of power. In the provinces outside of Tehran, a similar fracturing was occurring with Guards divided up between different Ayatollah’s and local ethnic or tribal leadership.
Finally, the Ayatollah Khomeini, in recognition of the chaos this disparate band of revolutionaries could cause, decreed that all Guards would be loyal to the Tehran regime. This achieved several aims. First, it brought all factions within his fold as supreme religious leader; it availed the fears of Iranian civilians who saw the lawlessness and confusing order of the Guards as more dangerous than the Shah; and it brought a sense of strength to a force he planned to keep an eye on the regular military.
In the months that followed, Khomeini reorganized, shuffled, and fired various Pasadaran commanders; established clearer chains of command; and with the help of the PLO, began a more formal training. Training by the PLO lasted until the summer of 1980 when the regular military was given the task of training them.
With the better organization, training, and legitimacy, the force expanded rapidly. From an estimated 4,000 fighters in May 1979, it had 10,000 by December 1979. By the spring of 1980, there were 25,000 Guards, and continued to grow steadily. During their expansion, the Guards force continued to gain experience in combat by putting down various rebellions, most notably, against the Kurdish in Iranian Kurdistan.
With their strength, both in numbers and in experience, growing rapidly, the Guards became even more important to the political maneuverings in Tehran. Power in Tehran now came at the hands of the Pasdaran. Any political leader who had the support of the Guards would secure his place in power. It was soon evident that the Guards were the true power brokers in Tehran, if not the de facto shadow government.
The Sepah-e Basij
As the hostage crisis continued, the regime created another force. In November 1979 the Ayatollah Khomeini called for the creation of the National Basij Organization which sought to raise a 20-million-man force to protect the regime. Formed on November 26, the organization of the Basij was slow to take shape. While it sounded impressive that the Ayatollah could call upon that many to defend Tehran and the Revolution from Americans, the fact was that it was still nothing more than a mob, an armed mob, though. Tasked with protecting the Revolution, the Basij competed with the Guards for influence and power.
The ongoing crisis with America gave it a reason to exist, but the Guards wanted to control it and tried to organize it into a support role of civil defense and assistance. Those advocating for the Basij recognized that for it to continue, it had to stay motivated by a “struggle against the US imperialism and its domestic bases…or it will gradually die.” Nevertheless, it wasn’t until the Iran-Iraq war that their training became slightly better organized but still suffered horrific casualties during the Iran-Iraq War.
The storming of the Embassy was not spontaneous, having been put forth by Ebrahim Asgharzadeh, an Industrial Engineer student at the Sanati Shariff University of Technology in Tehran. Angered by Americans taking in on the Shah, he called for the takeover of the Embassy in September 1979. When the students took the Embassy on November 4, 1979, he quickly emerged as the leader and the students became collectively known as The Muslim Student Followers of the Imam’s Line. The students came from the University of Tehran, Sharif University of Technology, and Tehran Polytechnic. As the crisis settled into a routine, there remained about 200 so-called students at the Embassy round the clock watching over the hostages. Whether or not they were all students was questionable. Many of them conducted themselves with military bearing and were more organized in negotiating with the government and keeping the hostages than anything they could have learned in their normal studies. Even without Revolutionary Guards direct involvement, they had the Guards backing under the leadership of Mohsen Razaee. With this support, the Students could seize the Embassy without fear of interference. There was also skepticism that the Ayatollah was caught by surprise by the takeover. It was clear to the Americans he knew of the plan and probably even gave his approval. At the very least, the students had briefed one of the clerics, Mousavi Khoeniha, who said the Ayatollah would support their actions. The students were bolstered by the Ayatollahs speech on October 28 calling upon all Iranian students from grade school to university to fight against America. Although some of the student leaders were lightly armed at the time of the takeover, in the ensuing weeks and months, they would be seen with rifles, both from the American Marine Security Guard detachment armory and passed to them by the Guards.
According to the US Department of Defense’s Fourth Psychological Operations Group, the hostage holders presented a different challenge than a traditional military organization the US military would have to face. The student militants possessed a lot of revolutionary zeal and were determined to hold the Americans until the Shah was returned to Iran. They, despite their appearance, were a sophisticated and disciplined group. They were masters at media manipulation and knew what statements to make and how to frame the narrative of their objective into media ready images and speeches. They also knew how to influence internal and US political and were aware they could influence the 1980 US Presidential election. The militant’s leadership committee was dominated by those who sought to hold the hostages as long as possible. They were in a position of having seized the Embassy, and now had to use it to save their own futures if the Ayatollah changed his thinking. They were participating in the belief and devotion to the Ayatollah Khomeini and would do what he told them to do. They were less likely to be swayed by anyone not in the Ayatollah’s inner circle. This presented a problem if a political leader, and not Khomeini, advocated for the release of the hostages.
The question was, how strongly were they committed to holding the hostages in face of an armed assault? While they would conduct mock executions and frequently threaten to put the Americans on trial, it was becoming clear as the crisis dragged on, that they would be incapable of a serious defense of the Embassy. However, an organized defense was one thing, individual students who were skittish or trigger happy was another. Then there was the notion that a hostage could be killed accidentally. Those students who did not have any sort of military training, handled their weapons poorly and carelessly putting the lives of the hostages at risk by the simple act of just being in the same room. It was this unknown that was most disconcerting to planners.
Other militants were not considered as loyal to Khomeini as they were to the Islamic Revolution and were even more unpredictable. They considered themselves the leaders in the advocacy of a revolutionary classless, socialist state, struggling against imperialism. It was possible they would even defy Khomeini’s instructions to free the hostages if they felt Khomeini was suddenly acting contrary to the revolutionary ideals. They were considered the most dangerous, possibly willing to execute hostages on their own inclination. While, by February 1980, it was unlikely any hostages would be executed by order of the new Iranian government, it was the dangerous uncertainty of the intentions of these militants that weighed heavily on US leaders.
As US planners studied the Iranian opposition, they concluded that the Iranians would be no match for the American military. They were void of effective leadership, poorly trained, demoralized, lacking functioning weapons systems, disorganized, and hardly a cohesive fighting force. The Revolution and subsequent purges had reduced the Iranian military into nothing but a paper tiger. Between the Revolutionary Guards, students, the military, and other factions, it was clear to US planners that the Iranians, under any scenario, could not mount a formable defense if taken by surprise. The once vaunted Iranian military, with 300,000 men in uniform, financed and trained by the West, especially by the US, was in no position to offer any resistance to whatever military action the Americans were prepared to take.
The Pentagon was confident that US forces would make short work of the Iranians in any scenario. The biggest obstacle facing US planners for a rescue mission was how to get into and out of Tehran. In that area Iran, despite haphazard conditions of their forces, had one huge advantage on their side – geography. The geopolitics and geography of the region meant that US forces, operating so far from home, and in the backyard of several countries with unclear loyalty to the US, would be operating at the extreme limits of endurance of men and machines.
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