American Counterterrorism in Iran: The Creation of the Delta Force and the Failure of Operation Eagle Claw

Eric Haney
Eric Haney, courtesy of NPR

An unusually apprehensive seasoned U.S. Army Ranger in pressed camouflage fatigues, Sergeant Eric Haney, reported to the desolate post of Fort Bragg, North Carolina on the crisp noon of 13 September 1978. He had been offered the exceptional opportunity to be a charter member of America’s first combat unit designated to fighting international terrorism – the Delta Force. He had accepted the invitation and was determined to pass selection process, so he could face difficult work, danger, and no recognition for covert operations across the globe, including Iran.[1] Haney recorded this initial encounter, training, and several other Delta Force led counterterrorism campaigns in his popular military history memoir, Inside Delta Force. Most notably, he chronicled the military details and his opinions as an operator on Operation Eagle Claw – the failed rescue attempt of American hostages in Iran – in which the Delta Force served as America’s direct action force against terrorism.

The Delta Force went through an arduous gestation. COL. Charlie Beckwith “saw the need within the U.S. military for a compact, highly skilled, and versatile unit able to undertake and execute difficult and unusual ‘special’ missions.”[2] After fighting conservative generals in the Army, the new unit – 1st Special Forces Operational Detachment – Delta was founded on 21 November 1977. After selecting senior non-commissioned officers, the cadre of the unit began to recruit from U.S. Army Rangers and Special Forces. Haney, then a Platoon Sergeant in the Rangers, joined the grueling selection process, which consisted of physical tests, rucksack marches, land navigation, and countless evaluations at Fort Bragg, North Carolina.[3] Inside Delta ForceAfter the selection process, candidates went through the Operators Training Course, where the men of Delta Force refined their shooting abilities and close quarters battle techniques. Operators also cross trained with the Central Intelligence Agency, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Secret Service, the State Department, the Federal Aviation Administration, and the Department of Energy.[4] The Delta Force completed its final validation exercise by the National Command Authority on 4 November 1979 – the same day Iranian revolutionaries took Americans hostage.[5]

            The concept of the operation (CONOP) to rescue the hostages created by the Joints Chiefs of Staff (JCS) involved coordination between multiple branches of the U.S. military and intelligence network. At the start of the crisis, the CIA had no reliable networks in place by Tehran, Iran. Former Special Forces officer Dick Meadows was brought out of retirement in order to gain useful intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR).[6] Delta Force Operators and Rangers would make up the Army component, the Air Force would compose the fixed wing aircraft (C-130s), and the Navy would fly the rotary element (RH-53).[7] However, Haney had serious misgivings:

“This is where service parochialism reared its ugly head. Even as it became obvious that neither the naval air crews nor the Navy helicopters were capable of executing the mission (my emphasis), the edict came down: no change. The admirals would keep their piece of the pie no matter what the eventual cost.”[8]

 

Haney’s team even went as far as planning to pack ‘pointy-talk sheets’ (a list of Iranian sayings of hospitality) and to plan a contingency of stealing cars to drive to the Elburz Mountains so they could surrender to the Soviets rather than to the Iranians.[9] The final JCS plan was for the men to fly to an Egyptian airfield and stage off Oman. The men would rally at Desert One where the helicopters would refuel and then move to another hide site. At the second hide site, Meadows would rendezvous with Delta Operators and Iranian SAVAK security personnel and then assault the embassy. Finally, the operators would secure a local stadium, supported by Navy and Air Force assets, and be extracted. The Delta troops would then meet with Army Rangers at the near by Iranian Mansariah Airfield and withdrawal with the hostages via C-130s. The complicated plan was ready to execute on 1 February 1980.[10] With so many moving parts, the plan seemed to be in jeopardy from the briefing room.

Crashed RH-53 at Desert One, courtesy of PBS

            Eagle Claw spurred several developments in American military policy. President Carter and National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski visited Delta Force, and “accepted full responsibility for what happened and that there would be no witch-hunts.”[14] The military set up the Holloway Commission to see what went wrong, but ultimately protected the Navy.[15] The branches of the military consented to the creation of Joint Special Operations Command, which could pool resources for future missions.[16] The Army established Task Force 160 – ‘Night Stalkers’ – an elite aviation corps to transport Army Special Forces into combat.[17] The Delta Force started en route recording, adopted flame resistance jumpsuits, and Bowstring rotations of training and deployment between squadrons.[18]

            Haney described the Delta Force in greater detail, from actual operations to training. However, his position in the unit made him biased in favor of the U.S. military. He made no mention about leaving the charred remains of U.S. personnel in the Iranian desert or the struggle that ensued to return the bodies. He could have also interviewed more troops from the various branches to have a different perspective – especially the Navy. Inside Delta Force was a revealing even enthralling, popular military memoir. The memories of the Delta Force and Eagle Claw are intrinsically intertwined; “the unit, and what it stands for, will live forever,” a poignant example of American military involvement in Iran.

 

Works Cited

Al Jazeera English. Operation Eagle Claw Anniversary. 2010. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LltpZrs4nG8

Amazon. Inside Delta Force. http://www.amazon.com/Inside-Delta-Force-Americas-Counterterrorist/dp/0440237335

Elliott, Debbie. ‘The Unit’ Delves Into the Life of Commandos. NPR. 2006.          http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=5289120

Haney, Eric L. Inside Delta Force: The Story of America’s Elite Counterterrorist Unit. Bantam Dell; New York, 2003.

PBS. American Experience: Jimmy Carter: The Iranian Hostage Crisis.  http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/features/general-article/carter-hostage-crisis/

 


[1] Haney, Eric L. “Inside Delta Force,” p. 15.

[2] Ibid., p. 1.

[3] Ibid., pp. 27, 103.

[4] Haney, Eric L. “Inside Delta Force,” p. 161.

[5] Ibid., p. 228.

[6] Ibid., p. 231.

[7] Ibid., p. 233.

[8] Ibid., p. 234.

[9] Ibid., p. 234.

[10] Haney, Eric L. “Inside Delta Force,”  p. 237.

[11] Ibid., p. 241.

[12] Ibid., p. 244.

[13] Ibid., p. 251.

[14] Ibid., p. 252.

[15] Ibid., p. 256.

[16] Ibid., p. 256.

[17] Haney, Eric L. “Inside Delta Force,” p. 257.

[18] Ibid., p. 262.

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