303. Message From Secretary of State Muskie to President Carter1

WH07367. Forwarded per request of Secretary Muskie. Please deliver as soon as possible. Subject: Soviet Demarche on Iran-Iraq Conflict.

1. (S-entire text).

2. Begin summary: Dobrynin gave the Secretary an oral statement on the Iran-Iraq conflict on October 4 in which the Soviet Government requested clarification from the USG on the purpose of reported plans for naval activity in the Straits of Hormuz and the deployment of [Page 892] AWACS to Saudi Arabia. The statement also reaffirmed the Soviet position on non-interference in the conflict and expressed the assumption that the U.S. was aware of the “far-reaching consequences” of any interference in the conflict. The Secretary noted that U.S. naval activity, like the AWACS deployment was defensive in nature, aimed only at being prepared for contingencies which we hoped would not arise. He said the Soviet statement would be studied carefully to determine whether an additional reply would be needed. He also responded to questions from Dobrynin on our assessment of the present military situation in the Gulf area and on his recent conversations with the Iraqi and Pakistani Foreign Ministers. End summary.

3. Near the conclusion of a meeting in the Department on October 4 which the Secretary had requested to discuss other topics (reported septel),2 Soviet Ambassador Dobrynin stated that he had just received instructions to deliver an “oral statement” on the Iran-Iraq situation. Translated text of the statement follows:

Begin text

In the course of the recent conversation with the Minister of Foreign Affairs of the USSR,3 the Secretary of State on behalf of the American Government gave assurances to the effect that the USA would observe neutrality in the Iranian-Iraqi conflict and that it in general did not intend to interfere in the affairs of the countries of that region.

However, there have been numerous communications in recent days to the effect that plans are being discussed within the US Government as well as between the USA and other Western powers concerning a possible use of their armed forces in the Persian Gulf area under the pretext of assuring freedom of navigation in the Straits of Hormuz.

No refutations of such communications on the part of the U.S. Government have followed. Moreover, the accuracy of some of them, for example those concerning the transfer to Saudi Arabia of military aircraft of the “AWACS” type with American crews, has been confirmed by official representatives of the US Defense Department and Department of State. Nor do they deny the fact that additional naval forces, including one more aircraft carrier, are being moved to the Persian Gulf area.

A legitimate question cannot but arise on the Soviet side: how can one understand all this in the light of the assurances given by the American side?

[Page 893]

In Moscow they expect to receive from the Government of the USA prompt and comprehensive clarifications on this score, having in mind the need—as was also emphasized by the Secretary of State—for the USSR and the USA to have a precise and clear view of the position of each other in connection with the Iranian-Iraqi conflict.

The Soviet position on this question remains just as it has been stated by us, namely: no one should interfere in this conflict, be it a large power or any other state. The Soviet Union will also in the future adhere to this course on the understanding, of course, that all other countries, including the USA, will act in the same manner.

We proceed on the basis that the far reaching consequences with which any, especially military, interference of the USA or of anyone else in the Iranian-Iraqi conflict, and in general in the affairs of the countries of the Persian Gulf area, would be fraught must be clear to the American side. End text.

4. After hearing the statement, the Secretary stated that he would give a brief reaction now and that the statement would be studied to see what additional response might be required. He stated first of all, that with regard to the sea lanes in the Persian Gulf and elsewhere, our only concern was that they be left open. In the first days of the war we were concerned that the Iranians were going to seek to “regulate” shipping in the Straits of Hormuz, and they in fact went so far as to hail two ships transiting the Straits.

We were concerned that this might be the first step in an effort to restrain shipping. The immediate effect was an increase in insurance rates, and a second effect was that shipping was backing up in the Straits area. If shipping and the flow of oil were to be seriously disrupted, our vital interests would be so seriously affected that we would need to consider what steps to take.

5. Recently, the Secretary continued, the risks appeared to have diminished. The Iranians have stated that they too want to protect the open sea lanes; in fact much of their normal shipping flows through the Persian Gulf. Nonetheless, we continued to discuss possible options that would be available to us because of the serious consequences of a disruption of shipping.

6. The Secretary said that it was not our desire to take sides in the conflict and that it was important that we not be perceived by either of the combatants to be taking sides.

7. With regard to AWACS, the Secretary noted that the aircraft had no offensive capabilities. The Saudis had requested this assistance so that they would have as much advance notice as possible of any “desperate” attacks by Iran. The AWACS deployment was thus a defensive move made at the request of Saudi Arabia, and was not an attempt to violate our policy of neutrality. The Secretary added that, when the de[Page 894]ployment was being discussed, he was aware of the possibility that it would raise concerns on the part of the Soviet Union and thus had made it clear to the Saudis and publicly that the planes were strictly for Defensive 3. He assured Dobrynin that both our naval movements and the AWACS deployment were thus done strictly in preparation for contingencies which we hoped would never arise.

8. Dobrynin asked whether the U.S. was discussing with other countries the creation of some joint flotilla. The Secretary responded that we had no concrete idea in mind for keeping open the sea lanes, and that the situation might never go beyond the discussion stage. As he had said we saw the risk diminishing at present. We had no desire to get into the Persian Gulf with our naval forces and hoped the region states would patrol the Gulf and keep it open.

9. Dobrynin commented that the U.S. already had a sizeable strength in the area and asked why, if we saw the risk diminishing, it was necessary to continue to beef up our naval forces there. This served only to increase tensions, he said. The Secretary responded that the Iranians had a continuing ability to disrupt the flow of oil. While we did not want the contingency to arise where we would need to act to protect the oil flow, we could not act as though the risk did not exist.

10. Continuing his argument, Dobrynin stated that the Secretary had earlier in the conversation spoken of the need for mutual restraint. But after his conversation with Gromyko the U.S. had sent an additional carrier to the area—an action he implied showed lack of restraint. The Secretary pointed out that Iran had displayed an inclination to indulge in irrational acts; the U.S. was already the victim of one such act. It was impossible to know what role Iran might see for the hostages, or what it might perceive as the best way of bringing pressure on Iraq.

11. Asked by Dobrynin for his general impression of the present military situation, the Secretary responded that it appeared to be stabilized at a containable level but that the conflict might be a prolonged one. The Iraqi Foreign Minister had told him their objectives were limited, though there had been subsequent movements into Iran. It was possible Iran could force a stalemate and thus the Iraqis faced a dilemma—whether to sit where they were or to take some additional action. If they choose the latter, the next steps in the conflict would be unpredictable.

12. Dobrynin asked whether it was true, as he had heard, that the Secretary had advised Iraq not to move its aircraft into other states of the region. The Secretary responded that he had not discussed this with Iraqi Foreign Minister Sa’dun Hammadi except in terms of the possibility that the conflict could spread. He had told Hammadi that if it did, other nations would have to decide how to respond, and the Soviet Union would then have to decide its own reaction—especially if insta[Page 895]bility inside Iran increased. He added that he had told Hammadi that the U.S. was following a hands off policy and that it was his impression that the Soviet Union was doing the same. Dobrynin asked whether there were any Iraqi planes in Oman and Saudi Arabia, to which the Secretary responded he thought those planes had left and that in fact this had occurred before his discussion with Hammadi. It was possible that the Iraqis had decided not to spread the war to the southern end of the Gulf.


13. After the Secretary had stated once more that the oral statement Dobrynin had delivered would be studied, Dobrynin asked whether Pakistani President Zia, in his talks in Washington, had been “helpful” with regard to the Afghanistan situation. The Secretary responded affirmatively, adding that he had also talked with Shahi4, who had described to him his meeting with Gromyko. Shahi said there had been a frank exchange and that he had found the meeting relaxed, not threatening as he had expected it to be. (Dobrynin interjected, “of course not since the Soviets were trying to find a way out.”) The Secretary said it was obvious from our discussion with the Pakistanis that they were receptive to a political settlement of Afghanistan, but that they have serious difficulties with the May 14 proposals.

  1. Source: Carter Library, Plains File, President’s Personal Foreign Affairs File, Box 5, USSR (General): 9/77–12/80. Secret; Sensitive; Cherokee; Eyes Only; Nodis. Handwritten time of receipt reads “10:15 pm, 05 Oct 1980 EST.” Sent from the White House Situation Room. The initial “C” written in the upper right-hand corner indicates that Carter saw the cable. Carter spent October 4 and 5 in a fishing cabin in Spruce Creek, Pennsylvania. (Carter Library, Presidential Materials, President’s Daily Diary)
  2. See Document 304.
  3. See Document 302.
  4. Agha Shahi, Adviser to the President for Foreign Affairs of Pakistan.