Over 40-years ago, Iranian militants seized the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, Iran, and took 98 hostages. The majority of them would be held for 444 days until they would be freed just before Ronald Reagan became President. 

The events that unfolded during the crisis would put in motion the creation of the United States Special Operations Command (USSOCOM), as several months earlier, an ad-hoc rescue attempt conducted by Army, Air Force, Marine, and Navy assets ended in a fireball at Desert One — the staging area that the rescuers would be making the attempt from.  So, in a manner of speaking, the Iranians were the driving force in creating SOCOM. 

Iran was a powder keg in the late 1970s. The hated Shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, had been deposed and was sick, dying with cancer. The United States allowed Pahlavi to enter the U.S. to be treated for his cancer. 

Under his rule, Iran had been a close ally to the United States — although Pahlavi distrusted some presidents that he felt were openly plotting to replace him.

During the early 1970s, Iran had an economic boom similar to South Korea’s, as the Shah modernized the country and tried to steer it away from Islam. Labor laws were enacted that were very fair to the working class — although labor unions were abolished. Under the Shah, all religions were tolerated and Iranian Jews were even elected to office. He also recognized Israel as a de facto state — the first regional leader to do so. 

During 1978, dissension turned to outright revolt when the supporters of Ayatollah Khomeini, who was living in exile, began to spread his sermons into the country. And with the Shah’s increasing absence from public, due to his cancer, the thought-to-be untouchable ruler of Iran was suddenly seen as vulnerable. 

The “Black Friday” massacre of religious protesters in Tehran by the military further radicalized the protesters. In an attempt to quell demonstrations, the Shah allowed, in early October 1978, dissidents to return to Iran. 

In 1979, widespread protests crippled the country’s economy. Khomeini portrayed himself as a moderate for all the different factions to rally behind. The handwriting was on the wall. By early January 1979, the Shah left Iran for Egypt; but was soon jetting all over the world looking for a place to stay permanently. His regime was finished. Khomeini took over and appointed new government officials.

After the takeover of the American Embassy, the 98 hostages were gradually whittled down to 52 as the Iranians released minorities and women. After deciding to rescue the hostages using the newly created “Delta Force”, the plan (Operation Eagle Claw) was to gather as much intelligence as possible by using CIA Special Activities Division assets. Former Green Beret Richard “Dick” Meadows, who had raided a North Vietnamese POW camp at Son Tay, led the operation. 

Delta Force operators pray before the launch of Operation Eagle Claw.

A staging area was selected in the desert for the raiding force to assemble. “Desert One” was where the helicopters and C-130s would land and set up a refueling station for the helicopters. Eight heavy-lift helicopters would be used for the mission. A total of six would be required for mission success. 

En route to Desert One, two helicopters suffered mechanical malfunctions, while one got lost in a sandstorm and returned to the USS Nimitz where it had taken off from. With only five flyable helicopters it was decided that the mission had to be scrubbed. That’s when disaster struck. While maneuvering a helicopter on the ground, the sand kicked up and blinded the pilot’s vision, his helicopter inched forward and the rotor blade struck the vertical stabilizer of a C-130. Both aircraft exploded into a fireball. Eight US servicemen died.

Khomeini used the debacle as a propaganda tool saying that “Who crushed Mr. Carter’s helicopters? We did? The sands did! They were God’s agents. Wind is God’s agent … These sands are agents of God. They can try again!”

After the debacle at Desert One, the Congress decided that the military needed a dedicated Special Operations force that would have the air assets needed to conduct future operations successfully. Of particular need were Army helicopter pilots that could fly the low-level special operation missions like the Iran rescue. And it was apparent that the units and services needed time to train together for these types of missions. 

On April 16, 1987, USSOCOM was established by the Pentagon. General James Lindsay was appointed as its first commander. 

Out of the Iranian disaster, the dedicated rotary-wing asset of SOCOM the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment (Night Stalkers) was created. The problems encountered at Desert One are now a distant memory. The Air Force now has its own Special Operations Command and the various Special Operations Wings have been expanded to where their capabilities far outweigh what was available in 1980. 

The global influence and effect of American SOF

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The Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) now ensures that all of the services can operate closely together. JSOC is the “joint headquarters designed to study special operations requirements and techniques; ensure interoperability and equipment standardization; plan and conduct joint special operations exercises and training, and develop joint special operations tactics.”

The Joint Communications Unit (JCU) is tasked with ensuring the compatibility of communication systems and standard operating procedures of the different special operations units.

Since those beginnings, SOCOM has grown to 70,000 personnel and now conducts missions all over the world on a daily basis. SOCOM troops conduct covert and clandestine missions, direct action, special reconnaissance, counter-terrorism, foreign internal defense, unconventional warfare, psychological warfare, civil affairs, and counter-narcotics operations.

SOCOM troops can regularly be found in more than 100 countries at any given time. All of the services now have dedicated Special Operations troops and the dedicated air assets are now considered the best in the world.

And the lessons learned from the disaster at Desert One continue to drive the force forward: SOCOM is always evolving with the changes in missions and the threats that our country faces.