Beware The Eagle's Claw


It was early on the morning on 25 April, 1980, and I was lying half awake in my bed in the Intercontinental Hotel, Tehran, dozily listening to the BBC news at 7:00, when the newsreader ended the broadcast by saying, ‘We will be crossing live to Washington in half an hour for President Carter’s broadcast about the failure of the American raid to rescue the American Embassy hostages in Tehran.’

I rushed to the door, opened it, and witnessed what looked like a French farce all the other doors open, as half-dressed, half-stunned reporters fell out, saying in six languages, ‘Did you hear that?’ Then back to the bedroom window to see if the crowds were coming up the hill to hang us foreigners from lamp-posts.

This failed American raid was the disaster that probably cost Jimmy Carter a second term as US President and immensely strengthened the young regime of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, whose supporters had overthrown the Shah and installed him as leader the year before.

As far as Iranians were concerned, God had intervened on their side to defeat ‘The Great Satan.’ The grandiose, complicated, grotesquely named (as they too often are) Operation Eagle Claw had ended in disaster because helicopters and transports bringing in special forces to rescue diplomats held hostage by Iranian students in the US Embassy had run into a blinding, engine-choking sandstorm and had crashed and burned. The Iranians brought the charred skeletal remains of dead US crewmen back to Tehran and showed them to the world. Ronald Reagan won the next US Presidential election.

I look back to this event a quarter century ago because I am concerned and appalled but not surprised at all that the Americans, lead by a man who is proud about how little he reads, have forgotten the lesson of Eagle Claw and are once again planning another adventure in Iran. This time it will be an operation to knock out Iran’s nuclear installations to stop them developing an Islamic Bomb.

Thanks to Clay Bennett

There have been many speculative stories about such a strike in recent weeks, but the most alarming came this weekend in a long article in the latest issue of The New Yorker by America’s most consistently accurate investigative reporter, Seymour Hersh (who told the world about the My Lai massacre in Vietnam, and the torture of prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad). Hersh writes that not only are American special forces soldiers now inside Iran gathering target information, but even that the idea of using nuclear-tipped bunker buster bombs on such targets was on the planners’ table. Bush of course, dismisses Hersh’s piece as ‘wild speculation.’ He would, wouldn’t he.

So when would such an attack be launched? Well if you had been in Sydney late last month, you could have a heard a lecture by a leading member of the neo-con cabal around Bush, Daniel Pipes, who told his audience that the world had ‘just months to take out’ Iran’s nuclear facilities.

Are the Iranians developing a bomb? Very possibly although they flatly deny having a weapons program. They are known to have been given the technological know-how by that industrious Pakistani proliferator Abdul Qadir Khan, and their main uranium enrichment plant would seem to be in the pleasant little city of Natanz, south of Tehran.

And why would they develop a bomb? Well everyone else seems to be doing it, and today Iran has a quite unstable nuclear power on its eastern border, Pakistan, where Osama bin Laden lives. But the Americans, so obsessed with Iran and terrorism, turn a blind eye towards the Pakistani’s nuclear program because they are helping track down and destroy Osama bin Laden.

But let’s face it, the main reasons the Americans would want to take out Iran’s nuclear facilities is that (a) if they finally make a bomb, and if they built an intercontinental ballistic missile, they might attack the USA which, according to a recent article by Jimmy Carter, only has 12,000 nuclear warheads to defend itself; and (b) because they might attack Israel, America’s fractious partner in the region, which according to Carter has a mere 200 warheads.

Oh, and Israel also has the most powerful and best-equipped military in the Middle East.

And there is one other reason why the Iranians would like a bomb: because they are genuinely scared of both an unhinged America (they just have to look across their western border to see what it has done to Iraq), and an aggressive Israel, and they think that by developing a nuclear weapon, they might establish some balance of terror forcing their putative enemies to think twice before attacking them. Iran will be well aware that the world has done nothing to curb the excesses of a genuinely nutty and dangerous North Korean leadership, because the North might, just might, have a bomb, and they might, just might, be crazy enough to use it on one of their neighbours like, say, Japan or South Korea.

But you might say, America or Israel would never launch pre-emptive strikes against a third country without UN approval. And we know the UN Security Council is even now debating how to contain the Iranians, whether to impose sanctions, or help them with their peaceful program. And China and Russia probably wouldn’t sanction attacks anyway.

All true in that last paragraph, but who cares?

We now have documents showing that even while the debate went on at the UN about how to deal with Saddam Hussein Bush and Blair had agreed to attack Iraq, regardless of what happened in the UN. So why wouldn’t it happen again? You have the same dumbo in the White House, and the same weakling in Downing Street. These were the people who ignored the UN chief weapons inspector Hans Blix who repeatedly said there were no WMDs in Iraq. Now Blix is saying (in Norway last week), ‘We have time on our side. Iran can’t have a bomb ready for the next five years.’ But if Bush and Blair didn’t listen to him last time, why would they listen now?

The Iranians have learned from the Israeli attack which destroyed Saddam’s single location Osirak nuclear reactor in an air strike in 1981. They’ve scattered nuclear facilities all over the countryside so, short of carpet bombing Iran, there’s no way of knowing if the right targets have been hit.

I’m certain the Americans don’t know where all the facilities are because their intelligence on Iran has always been woeful. I was in Iran when the Shah was overthrown, and the Americans who then had hundreds of operatives and thousands of personnel in the country had no idea the Shah was even under threat, let alone that he was going to tossed out by a bearded old guy sitting in exile in a backyard in Paris. I actually talked to a man who had burned one million dollars in banknotes on the US Embassy roof because they hadn’t realised Khomeini’s men were just down the next block.

The bombing would have to be done by strike planes flying over Iran to its reactors. Using massive conventional bunker-busting bombs in the civilian areas where many of the nuclear installations have been built, would kill hundreds, maybe thousands of civilians. The almost unthinkable use of nuclear bunker-busters could kill tens of thousands directly and because of fall-out. And the possibility of even one US plane going down and the crew being captured or killed would rerun the Eagle Claw disaster for American audiences.

The pictures of destruction and of dead women and children would rouse the Islamic world. And of course the now divided Iranian population would rally behind their leaders for what could turn into the ultimate nightmare for the overstretched US military in Iraq an Iranian full-force drive into Iraq or, much more likely, a huge increase in cross-border guerrilla attacks and massive military aid to Ir
aq’s anti-American Shia militias.

A successful (or even unsuccessful) attack would put Iran, a major oil supplier and one of the largest and most influential countries in the Middle East, into the anti-American camp for the next 50 years.

Surely none of this could happen. It would be madness to attack Iran. But it was madness to attack Iraq, and the US and its allies, including brave little Australia, did it anyway even though the US had been warned by its own generals that the job couldn’t be done with the small forces Donald Rumsfeld demanded. And although the invaders totally misread how the Iraqi people might react to seeing their country destroyed, they’ve continued to occupy the country and preside over its continuing disintegration.

Given her recent over-heated public rhetoric about Iran being ‘the central banker of terrorism,’ you have to be fearful of what kind of hard word US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice might have put on Howard, Downer and company (over the Grange at Kirribilli House, last month) about supporting a US strike on Iran. This is the woman who said only a few days ago in England that America had made ‘tactical errors, thousands of them, I’m sure’ in Iraq.

Let the Americans go on making their errors, but let them do it alone. Australia has no quarrel with Iran as it had no quarrel with Iraq. Let it stay that way.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.