Applying the Theories of Foreign Policy Decision-Making to the 1979 Iran Hostage Crisis
During former President Jimmy Carter’s term, his administration arguably tackled no greater challenge than the 1979 Iran hostage crisis. Faced with both internal and external pressures for immediate action, Carter considered various options including negotiations, sanctions, and military responses. Despite Carter’s reputation for and commitment to diplomacy, he made the surprising decision to abandon negotiation with the hostage-takers. Instead, he ordered a rescue mission, known as Operation Eagle Claw, the failure of which resulted in eight deaths.
Scholars explain Carter’s out-of-character decision through two different models: the domestic politics model and the prospect theory model. Using the domestic politics model, scholars suggest Carter chose military action over diplomatic negotiations because Operation Eagle Claw provided an opportunity to reinstate the status quo—the notion that the hostages would return home and restore Carter’s own domestic prestige. Other scholars, applying the prospect theory, suggest his actions were purely for the purpose of returning the hostages safely to US soil. This paper will provide an assessment of each of these theories in relation to Carter’s various decisions to demonstrate how they may explain the ultimate execution of Operation Eagle Claw.
The 1979 Iran Hostage Crisis
On November 4, 1979, chants of “Death to America!” and “Death to the Shah!” were heard outside the walls of the US Embassy in Tehran. These thunderous chants, which had begun with the Islamic Revolution in the late 1970s, had become routine for embassy workers. On November 4, 1979, a group of Iranian students, operating under the belief the embassy was housing American spies, broke through the main gate of the compound and scaled the embassy walls. The students occupied the embassy within a few hours and took 52 Americans hostage.
These students acted on the belief that the US embassy was already engaged in intelligence efforts, and therefore felt the compound was a “den of spies.” Iranian students had previously been incited by the 1953 military coup d’état that ousted former Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh—although there were only a small number of CIA operatives in the embassy in 1979, the memory of the 1953 coup led the students to believe the embassy was planning another coup to topple the revolutionary regime and transfer authority back to former leader Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi. Even though the students only intended to occupy the embassy for a few days, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini endorsed the takeover, which resulted in 444 days of captivity for 52 American hostages with no indication of when they would be released.
President Jimmy Carter’s Reaction
When Carter received word of the takeover, he assembled a National Security Council Special Coordinating Committee (SCC) to strategize a response. During the SCC’s first meeting, Carter perceived the hostage crisis as an unprecedented situation, describing it as “the first time that such an activity has been encouraged and supported by the government itself.” Multiple courses of action were discussed, from negotiations to all-out military intervention.
Negotiations were quickly taken off the table, as each attempt at discussion with the Iranian government proved unsuccessful. For example, on November 5, 1979, Carter sent former Attorney General Ramsay Clark and Senate Intelligence Committee staff director William Miller to speak directly with Khomeini and members of his administration, but the Iranian authorities refused. As a result, Carter decided to take a more forceful approach, and the US responded with a series of economic and political sanctions on Iran, including an embargo on all Iranian oil products and a freeze on Iranian assets held in US banks. From November 1979 to the following March, negotiation attempts again failed and the SCC ran out of patience. At this point, it considered direct military intervention.
The discussion of military intervention arose out of concerns about Carter’s reelection campaign, which was stalled by the President’s diminished approval ratings as a result of many unsuccessful attempts to retrieve the hostages. It was evident that Carter was frustrated that Khomeini would seemingly never act, and “in spite of all our work and the efforts of the elected leaders of Iran, the hostages were not going to be released.” But there were three crucial milestones during March and April of 1980 that inched Carter to the final decision to wage a military rescue mission. The first was on March 22, 1980, when Carter agreed to a reconnaissance flight into Iran to find an initial landing site for the rescue force. The second occurred on April 11, 1980, after the Iranian government accused the US of being involved in Iraqi threats to invade Iran. At this point, Carter stated that “we could no longer afford to depend on diplomacy.” Just days later, on April 15, 1980, the decision was made to execute Operation Eagle Claw.
Operation Eagle Claw’s strategy was simple. On the night of April 24, 1980, US aircraft would land at the Desert One base just south of Tehran to refuel. The aircraft would then transport military forces outside of Tehran and wait until the night of April 25, 1980 to assault the embassy compound, take the hostages to a nearby soccer stadium, and transport them outside of the city to safety.
While the plan was strategic, the mission failed miserably. Of the eight helicopters flying to Desert One, two of them were badly damaged after they unexpectedly encountered a dust storm. The remaining helicopters arrived late, and it was discovered that one of the six had mechanical problems, which forced field commanders and Carter to abort the mission. Then, as the rescue team prepared to leave the base, one of the helicopters collided with another aircraft carrying fuel and service members, which resulted in an explosion that killed eight soldiers.
Prospect Theory and Carter’s Decision-Making Process
While the Iranians had made a diplomatic solution difficult, the president’s decision to execute a risky rescue mission puzzled observers who knew him for his emphasis on diplomacy. By examining scholar Rose McDermott’s prospect theory and applying it to the hostage crisis and the domestic politics model, one can better comprehend why Carter endorsed Operation Eagle Claw.
The term prospect theory was first coined by psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, who defined it as “outcomes as gains and losses, not as states of wealth” when it comes to decision-making, placing emphasis on situational factors that influence individuals and their leaders. Scholar Rose McDermott simplifies prospect theory into two elements: the first is a framing phase, when the leader’s motives determine the appropriate domain of action, “whether or not it takes place in a situation of gains or losses.” The second element acknowledges that individuals who are loss-averse “tend to be risk-seeking” to recover their losses, while individuals who are risk-averse tend to operate in a “domain of gains” under such conditions.
As discussed above, McDermott simplifies the theory into two components: the domain of action and the level of risk the decision-maker is willing to take. Carter operated in a domain of losses from both a domestic and international standpoint. Domestically, Carter’s placement in the polls plummeted in March and April of 1980, and thus hindered his reelection campaign. For example, his job approval rating in a Gallup poll that year was a mere 37 percent. Another CBS News/New York Times poll taken around the same time found a 52 percent disapproval on Carter’s handling of foreign policy. Democrats then tried to rally former Senator Ted Kennedy for a presidential campaign since Carter was seen as “excessively embattled and politically vulnerable.” Therefore, it appears Carter was desperate to take risks that would recover his losses since “he had not renormalized to a new status quo that incorporated a serious loss.”
Furthermore, some of Carter’s advisors strongly supported inaction. Secretary of State Cyrus Vance, for instance, endorsed inaction since he believed it would best protect the hostages without provoking the Iranians while they were in the midst of forming their new government. The decision not to act, however, would be unlikely to release the hostages and also carried domestic political risks as Carter was facing mounting pressure by the American public to act. Under prospect theory terms, Vance framed the situation for Carter by looking only at the lives of the hostages. Since none of the hostages had died, Vance saw the situation in a domain of political gains. The option of sanctions was also discussed. Although the route was considered safe as it would likely not provoke Iranian harm against the hostages, it was—like inaction—not likely to motivate Iran to release the hostages.
Of all the options, the rescue mission was the riskiest that “could be taken militarily without engaging in an outright act of war.” Although this option had a low probability of success like sanctions, the retrieval of hostages was considered “paramount for personal, political, and international reasons.” At the time, those close to Carter perceived the mission as “more easily containable and less prone to uncontrollable escalation” than mining the harbors or conducting military strikes. The Carter Administration thus evaluated the mission as the only option with both the perfect balance of minimal political and military risks as well as the only option that would allow Carter to recover his losses and make additional gains. If successful, the hostages would return home, Carter’s approval ratings would improve in time for reelection, and America’s international prestige and the status quo would be restored. If unsuccessful, tensions would escalate with Iran and potentially place the lives of the hostages at risk. It was also possible that Carter’s image would be tainted internationally and he would lose the election. Using prospect theory, it is important to note that Carter advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski, who strongly supported the mission, framed the decision based on his notion of the importance of the hostages’ safety in addition to preserving America’s national power and prestige. Unlike Vance, Brzezinski operated in a domain of losses in order to return to the status quo.
Analyzing the role of prospect theory in the hostage crisis suggests why Carter supported Brzezinski. Carter and Brzezinski were operating in a domain of losses, unlike Vance who operated in a domain of gains. Prospect theory demonstrates that the rescue mission was the only option that offered Carter the opportunity to recuperate all of his losses and still make gains at the same time. Even though Carter was aware of the consequences, he placed his confidence in the mission because “of the possibility, however small, that this prospect might restore status quo ante.”
Domestic Politics Model and Carter’s Decision-Making Process
Examining Carter’s decision under the domestic politics model explains how “domestic political concerns can affect the plausibility of decision alternatives as those alternatives are being generated.” Scholar Steve Yetiv simplifies the model into two types of domestic-level goals often embodied by decision-makers: type one goals that reference personal objectives, such as an individual’s electability, and type two goals that reference promotional efforts, such as “preparing for or promoting a potentially favored alternative or one already chosen.”
Carter arguably prioritized domestic-level goals throughout the decision-making process, specifically with regards to his personal fears of electability and competition with Senator Kennedy in the Democratic presidential primary. Here, the domestic politics model is actually embedded with prospect theory since Carter operated in a domain of losses. He framed the rescue mission as an opportunity to save the hostages and restore America’s international prestige. He also executed the mission presumably to restore his approval ratings ahead of a close primary election. Surely, if domestic factors did not, in fact, play a role, Carter could have adopted Vance’s recommendation of inaction until Iran established a new political system. As McDermott explains,
there was a universal sense that the situation was intolerable and doing nothing about it was unacceptable. Emotional motivations like deep anger and frustration added to the cognitive belief that there was no strategic or political reason why the United States should allow itself to be pushed around by a lesser power in the Middle East.
It is clear that due to the domestic pressure for action, in addition to Carter’s personal interests to achieve a second presidential term, that he endorsed the rescue mission to restore both the status quo and the public’s faith in him.
Prospect theory and the domestic politics model demonstrate Carter’s logical reasoning behind the decision to execute Operation Eagle Claw. They also provide insight behind the decision-making process of the SCC. This analysis concludes that Carter was operating in a domain of losses and was, therefore, willing to take a major gamble to bring the hostages safely home. This decision would not only restore America’s international prestige, it would also reinstate his honor as president. After failed negotiations with Iran, the pressure faced by the administration forced Carter to choose the rescue mission without carefully assessing the major risks.
Examining the case study of the 1979 Iran hostage crisis through the lens of the domestic politics model and the prospect theory model provides a unique perspective through which policymakers can comprehend the impact of decision-making processes on issues of foreign significance. Carter’s decision to execute Operation Eagle Claw tarnished his reelection campaign, as he lost by a landslide in the 1980 election to former California Governor Ronald Reagan. During a press conference in 2015, he openly admitted that Operation Eagle Claw was the biggest regret of his presidency. He said, “I wish I had sent one more helicopter to get the hostages, and we would have rescued them, and I would have been reelected.”
Bowden, Mark. “The Desert One Debacle.” The Atlantic, May 1, 2006. http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2006/05/the-desert-one-debacle/304803/
Bowen, Mark. Guests of the Ayatollah: The First Battle in America’s War with Militant Islam. New York: Atlantic Monthly, 2006.
Carter, Jimmy. Keeping Faith: Memoirs of a President. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 1995.
Gallup Poll. “Presidential Job Approval Center.” Last modified November 20, 2016. http://www.gallup.com/poll/124922/presidential-job-approval-center.aspx.
Hertzberg, Hendrik. “’Argo’: The Jimmy Carter Experience.” The New Yorker, February 22, 2013. http://www.newyorker.com/news/hendrik-hertzberg/argo-the-jimmy-carter-experience.
Houghton, David. U.S. Foreign Policy and the Iran Hostage Crisis. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001.
Kahneman, Daniel. Thinking, Fast and Slow. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011.
Katz, Andrew Z. “Public Opinion and the Contradictions of Jimmy Carter’s Foreign Policy.” Presidential Studies Quarterly, Washington: Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress, (2000): 662-687.
McDermott, Rose. “The Iranian Hostage Rescue Mission.” Risk-Taking in International Politics: Prospect Theory in American Foreign Policy, Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, (1998): 45-75.
McDermott, Rose. “Prospect Theory in International Relations: The Iranian Hostage Rescue Mission.” Political Psychology 13.2, Special Issue: Prospect Theory and Political Psychology (1992): 237-263.
Mendez, Antonio J. “A Classic Case of Deception.” Central Intelligence Agency, June 27, 2008. https://www.cia.gov/library/center-for-the-study-of-intelligence/csi-publications/csi-studies/studies/winter99-00/art1.html
Miller, Jake. “What Is Jimmy Carter’s Biggest Regret?” CBS News, August 20, 2015. http://www.cbsnews.com/news/what-is-jimmy-carters-biggest-regret/.
Sick, Gary. All Fall Down: America’s Tragic Encounter with Iran. New York: Random House, 1985.
Smith, Hedrick. “Reagan Easily Beats Carter’ Republicans Gain in Congress.” The New York Times, November 5, 1980. http://www.nytimes.com/1980/11/05/politics/05REAG.html
Smith, Steve. “Policy Preferences and Bureaucratic Position: The Case of the American Hostage Rescue Mission.” International Affairs 61.01 Royal Institute of International Affairs (1985): 303-318.
Yetiv, Steven A. Explaining Foreign Policy: U.S. Decision-Making in the Gulf Wars. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 2011.
 David Houghton, U.S. Foreign Policy and the Iran Hostage Crisis (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 51.
 Mark Bowen, Guests of the Ayatollah: The First Battle in America’s War with Militant Islam (New York: Atlantic Monthly, 2006), 197. According to Bowen, there were originally 66 hostages. Khomeini, however, demanded the release of 13 African-American and females in hope that the “oppressed” would identify with the Iranian struggle. Another hostage was released after he was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis.
 Ibid., 199.
 Ibid., 197.
 Houghton, 63.
 Ibid., 54.
 Jimmy Carter, Keeping Faith: Memoirs of a President (Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 1995), 466; see also Houghton, U.S. Foreign Policy, 80.
 Rose McDermott, “The Iranian Hostage Rescue Mission,” Risk-Taking in International Politics: Prospect Theory in American Foreign Policy, Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, (1998): 52; see also Houghton, U.S. Foreign Policy, 81.
 Houghton, Foreign Policy, 106.
 McDermott, Iran Hostage Rescue Mission, 53.
 Carter, Keeping Faith, 517.
 Ibid., 515.
 Steve Smith, “Policy Preferences and Bureaucratic Position: The Case of the American Hostage Rescue Mission,” International Affairs 61.01 Royal Institute of International Affairs (1985): 305.
 Carter, Keeping Faith, 516.
 Ibid., 517.
 Mark Bowden, “The Desert One Debacle,” The Atlantic, May 1, 2006, http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2006/05/the-desert-one-debacle/304803/
 Houghton, U.S. Foreign Policy, 132.
 Daniel Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011), 279.
 Rose McDermott, “Prospect Theory in International Relations: The Iranian Hostage Rescue Mission,” Political Psychology 13.2, Special Issue: Prospect Theory and Political Psychology (1992): 238.
 “Presidential Job Approval Center,” Gallup Poll, last modified November 20, 2016, http://www.gallup.com/poll/124922/presidential-job-approval-center.aspx.
 Andrew Z. Katz, “Public Opinion and the Contradictions of Jimmy Carter’s Foreign Policy,” Presidential Studies Quarterly, Washington: Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress, (2000): 664.
 Carter, Keeping Faith, 539.
 McDermott, “Prospect Theory,” 51.
 Ibid., 52.
 Ibid., 53.
 Ibid., 55.
 Gary Sick, All Fall Down: America’s Tragic Encounter with Iran (New York: Random House, 1985): 292. Slick notes that options of mining Iranian harbors and waging an all-out military strike were seen as highly politically risky, as they both had the possibility of escalating tensions to war. With the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in December 1979, Carter feared that if the Soviets could successfully consolidate their influence in Afghanistan, “the balance of power in the entire region would be drastically modified in their favor.” Furthermore, Iranians could invite the Soviet Union to assist with minesweeping and therefore open a Soviet intervention in the region. Nonetheless, neither strategy would help the Carter administration’s goal to safely secure the hostages. Moreover, neither would bring the country back to the desired status quo of bringing the hostages safely home. See also McDermott, “Prospect Theory,”51.
 McDermott, “Prospect Theory,” 69.
 Steven A. Yetiv, Explaining Foreign Policy: U.S. Decision-Making in the Gulf Wars. (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 2011), 82.
 McDermott, Rose, “Prospect Theory,” 53.
 Hedrick Smith, “Reagan Easily Beats Carter; Republicans Gain in Congress,” The New York Times, November 5, 1980, http://www.nytimes.com/1980/11/05/politics/05REAG.html.
 Jake Miller, “What Is Jimmy Carter’s Biggest Regret?,” CBS News, August 20, 2015, http://www.cbsnews.com/news/what-is-jimmy-carters-biggest-regret/.