Aftermath of rescue attempt makes another try tougher
Washington — With memories of the final honors to eight US servicemen fallen in the April 24 failed hostage rescue mission in Iran still fresh, the nation still ponders how the hostages might be brought safely home.
US defense officials say that any contingency plans for a new rescue attempt would be used only in case all peaceful means of freeing the 53 American prisoners, now reportedly dispersed among at least seven Iranian cities, should finally fail.
Meanwhile, military men and policymakers, reviewing the consequences of the failed mission, are weighing its implications for the future. Among these:
* New rescue raids into Iran will be even more difficult. Short nights, hot days, and desert winds that breed the kind of sandstorm that brought down the first RH-53 Sea Stallion lost to the mission, are among the hazards.
* There now is heightened Iranian vigilance and greatly intensified Soviet surveillance. Top US defense officials say at least one new Soviet reconaissance satellite launched since the raid seems aimed at plugging the glaring gap that prevented the Soviets from picking up the raid on their radar and sensor systems, which were heavily jammed by US electronic-warfare techniques.
* US negotiations for access to new base facilities around the Indian Ocean rim -- especially in Oman, close and crucial to the security of Persian Gulf oil supplies -- have been rendered far more difficult.
Sultan Qabus, the Omani ruler, protested the "unauthorized" US use of the airfield on Masirah Island. Base talks were interrupted. The State Department and Pentagon expect the Sultan may double or triple the asking price in US military and technical aid -- already flowing into the kingdom -- in exchange for regular use of Masirah Island, the airports at Sibb and Salallah, and the port of Matrah near Muscat.
The high political and financial price of access in Somalia and Kenya -- especially Somalia, whose regular forces are confronting Soviet- and Cuban-backed Ethiopian troops -- already had slowed talks with those countries before the raid.
Use of bases in Egypt may still be possible. The eight C-130s used in the mission apparently took off from Qena in southern Egypt. (Their arrival weeks earlier had been trumpeted by Israeli newspapers, causing US Defense Secretary Harold Brown to remonstrate with Israeli Defense Minister Ezer Weizman about the possibility that the mission had been "blown.")
But the US will avoid embarrassing President Sadat by any public mention of use of Egyptian facilities or the air-refueling of the C-130s over the Red Sea.
A further embarrassment to the US was the action of an Israeli radio monitor April 25, in broadcasting on US television and to other US news media a map showing the overflight of Saudi airspace and refuelling stops at Bahrain, neither of which apparently took place.
The results included street riots in Bahrain by local leftists and Iran-oriented Shia Muslim dissidents (Iran has claimed Bahraini Shia owe allegiance to Iran's ruling Shia clergy) against continued permission of the ruler, Sheikh Issa Ben Salman, for the Us Navy to make limited use of Bahrain's port facilities.
A visiting high Saudi official in Washington told this reporter: "We sympathize with your desire to rescue your people. But please do not use our territory, or your military forces. Rely on the regional people, and your friends in the area -- you still have them, you know -- to settle this."
President Carter has promised to continue efforts to free the hostages. He said he expected new Secretary of State Edmund S. Muskie to be "more active" than former Secretary of State Cyrus Vance, who resigned out of disagreement over the Iran mission.
But Sen. Gary Hart (D) of Colorado and the Senate Armed Services and Budget Committee told a CBS-TV "Face the Nation" panel May 11 that a new mission would be difficult to plan and "We'd have to go back to first base . . . The risks would go up and the chances of success would go down."
One reason for Senator Hart's statement is identical with that for the breakoff of the April 24 mission: the importance of safeguarding lives.
US military doctrine had inculcated in the mission's leaders, in the words of combat veteran Col. Charles (Chargin' Charlie) Beckwith, that "human life is the most precious thing on the face of the earth." Colonel Beckwith was the leader of the 90-man ground unit of "Blue Light" commando volunteers.
The desire not to further risk the lives of members of the rescue force, or of the American hostages then in the Embassy compound and Iranian Foreign Ministry buildings in Tehran, or US and Iranian "helpers" infiltrated ahead of time, aborted the mission.
There was just "no way," in the words of Colonel Beckwith, that the mission could continue with fewer than the minimum of six helicopters available to fly onward from the first landfall, "Desert One," to "Mountain Hideout" closer to Tehran.
Iranian moderates, including President Abolhassan Bani-Sadr, have been weakened politically because of the failed mission, according to US studies. These include a report on the raid prepared by 13 defense analysts of the Congressional Research Service. Soviet exploitation of the situation, these reports add, had encouraged some Iranian communists and others to lean toward more Soviet- bloc assistance.
Japan and the European allies of the US, impressed by the resignation of Secretary Vance, share his apprehensions about possible consequences to the safety of other Americans and Westerners in Iran had the rescue succeeded. They incidate they may soften the economic and diplomatic sanctions they will take against Iran later this month. Many feel, as one high-ranking allied officer told this reporter, "The sanctions won't do any good and may strengthen the Russian hand in Iran."
President Bani-Sadr has said a new Cabinet installed in Tehran next week would give "first priority" to the hostage question.
Defense Secretary Harold Brown has told leading congressmen, as well as newsmen, that nothing will be disclosed publicly -- and little will be disclosed even in closed committee sessions -- about the latter stages of the mission (had the commandos gotten that far). These stages apparently were to have involved a descent from Mountain Hideout to overpower the embassy militants and extract the hostages by helicopters to waiting C-130s at another secret location.
Some Iranians, however, believe the task force planned to join with Iraq-based supporters of former Iranian prime minister shahpour Bakhtiar or Gen. Gholam Ali Oveissi to cooperate in a coup or counter-revolution. This, as the authoritative London- based Middle East Economic Digest pointed out, caused "continuing concern" about a possible "wider regional or world conflict involving the Soviet Union."
Published European reports, denied at the Pentagon, have said that before the mission the Soviets air-dropped weapons and supplies to Kurdish, Azerbaijani, and other dissident Iranian or pro-Soviet forces and may even have been getting ready to move in Soviet forces.
Although again denied by US sources, one perception overseas, where there was furious electronic jamming and deception activity by the US, is that the raid was actually a kind of warning to the Soviets not to move into Iran.
At home, the mission has triggered a searching examination of the readiness and combat capability of the task force and all US armed forces. Those answering questions before closed US congressional committee hearings have included, besides Colonel Bechwith, the overall task force commander, Army Maj. Gen. James Vaught and his assistant (as senior Air Force commander on the mission), Lt. Gen. Philip Gast, who served in Iran during the Shah's reign and who knew Tehran well.