243. Message From the President’s Deputy Assistant for National Security Affairs (Aaron) to President Carter1

WH92270. Deliver as soon as possible. Subject: Reply From Brezhnev on Iran Sanctions.

President Brezhnev has replied to your letter2 in the message below received via State Department channels. It is not particularly helpful but it does not threaten a veto and the tone is quite moderate. With a Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in the offing, I do not believe they want a struggle with us in the Security Council. They may even [Page 705] hope that if they take a low profile on this issue we will do the same on Afghanistan.

Subj: Soviet Response to Presidential Message on Iran

Refs: (A) Moscow 27880, (B) State 327895.3

1. (S-entire text)

2. I was called in on short notice to see Gromyko at 1:00 p.m. today (December 24). He handed me a response from Brezhnev to the President’s message concerning Security Council action on the Iran situation. The message in effect disagrees with the appropriateness of sanctions and urges that the US continue to exercise restraint.

3. Following is an informal Embassy translation of the Brezhnev message:

Begin text

His Excellency

Mr. Jimmy Carter

President of the United States of America

White House


Dear Mr. President:

I have carefully studied your message which was transmitted on December 21, 1979.

As I understand it, its purpose is not simply to provide information concerning the steps which the US intends to take with regard to Iran, but to learn our views in this regard. Proceeding on that basis, I also consider it possible to express to you certain of our considerations. I would like to say at the outset that one can understand the feelings which are experienced in the US in connection with the holding in Tehran of the American diplomatic personnel. We have clearly and firmly expressed our position in this regard, having categorized those actions as violating international law. And I can definitely affirm that such remains our position.

At the same time the Soviet Union, like many other countries, firmly advocates that the dispute which has arisen between the United States and Iran be settled exclusively by peaceful means to the mutual satisfaction of the parties. We have several times emphasized the exceptional importance of restraint and equanimity in the situation which [Page 706] has built up and the necessity of handling the matter in such a way as not to complicate the situation further but to seek a path for lowering the level of tension in connection with the question concerning the American diplomatic personnel in Tehran. In our opinion, that which the United States now proposes to undertake would change the situation for the worse.

Transferring the question to the level of any kind of sanctions, of physical action in relationship to Iran can only bring forth a exacerbation of the situation and complicate a solution of the question of the American diplomatic personnel in Iran. For the question of sanctions can arise, in accordance with the UN Charter, in situations in which a threat to peace exists. We are convinced that if the United States will not step over the bounds of reason, will show the necessary restraint as befits a great power, then there will not be such a threat. For that reason we do not think that there is a basis for broadening the interpretation of the existing dispute into the framework of a serious international conflict. It can be said immediately that, in contrast to the broad understanding which the position of the United States enjoys on the specific question of the “hostages” and the violation of diplomatic immunities, going over to sanctions will surely produce a different attitude on the part of many states, including during the consideration of this question in the Security Council.

It is also necessary to take into consideration the complicated situation which exists in Iran itself. It can by no means be excluded that posing the question of sanctions can produce there the opposite re-sult to that which the American side is obviously counting on. This would far from facilitate the earliest possible release of the American diplomats.

These are the thoughts which I wanted to share with you frankly and confidentially in connection with your message. I repeat that we react with understanding to the concern shown by the United States.

We are deeply convinced that it is not an escalation of pressure on Iran through some kind of sanctions—which would inevitably be connected with serious costs, including for the United States itself—but restraint and a measured approach which are the surest way promising to produce a solution acceptable to both sides.

Such an approach would find understanding and support from the side of the Soviet Union, which also intends in the future consistently to advocate the observance by all states of the generally accepted norms of international law and, accordingly, to act in this direction.

I hope that you will react with understanding to the considerations I have expressed which are dictated by the wish that the American-Iranian dispute will find the earliest possible just solution.

[Page 707]


L. Brezhnev


December 24, 1979

End text.

(Note: The message bears no written signature.)

4. I told Gromyko I would of course transmit the message to the President immediately. Speaking personally, I said that we of course all recognize that the action we are taking does carry with it the risks to which Brezhnev referred. Nonetheless, I noted that no new ideas have emerged to facilitate or speed up the release of the hostages. The action we are now taking represents a measured step forward and is, in fact, milder than the Soviets seem to view it. Its purpose, I said, is to achieve the goal we both want, the preservation of this fundamental principle of international law.

5. I then asked Gromyko whether we were to conclude that implicit in the Soviet position is the belief that the present situation does not fall within the conditions spelled out in the UN Charter. Gromyko affirmed this, adding that the Soviets do not consider that there is a threat to peace as a result of Iran’s actions. There is, he said, not only a need but a possibility for finding a peaceful solution; the Soviets are convinced that not all means for doing so have been exhausted.

  1. Source: Carter Library, Brzezinski Donated Material, Geographic File, Box 18, U.S.S.R.—Carter/Brezhnev Correspondence (9/79–2/80). Secret; Sensitive; Eyes Only. Sent from the White House Situation Room. Aaron sent the cable with instructions that it be delivered “as soon as possible” to Carter, who was at Camp David, December 21–28. Aaron was forwarding to Carter Brezhnev’s response, which was sent to the Department as telegram 27895 from Moscow, December 24. Carter initialed Aaron’s telegram.
  2. See footnote 3 below.
  3. Telegram 27880 from Moscow, December 21, outlined proposed sanctions on Iranian oil as a potential response to the hostage crisis. Telegram 327895 to multiple posts, December 20, transmitted the President’s message on Iran, which was delivered to heads of state. (National Archives, RG 59, Central Foreign Policy File, P840140–2583 and P840163–1578, respectively)