103. Memorandum of Conversation1


  • The President’s Meeting with Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher


  • The President
  • The Vice President
  • Secretary of State Cyrus Vance
  • Dr. Zbigniew Brzezinski, Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs
  • David Aaron, Deputy Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs
  • Ambassador Kingman Brewster
  • Ambassador at Large Henry Owen
  • George Vest, Assistant Secretary of State
  • Robert D. Blackwill, NSC Staff Member
  • Prime Minister of the United Kingdom Margaret Thatcher
  • Lord Carrington, UK Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs
  • Sir Nicholas Henderson, Ambassador to the U.S.
  • Sir Robert Armstrong, Secretary to the Cabinet
  • Sir Michael Palliser, Permanent Under Secretary of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office
  • Sir Frank Cooper, Ministry of Defense
  • Michael Alexander, Private Secretary to the PM
  • George Walden, Principal Secretary to the Secretary of State

The President began by saying how delighted he was to have Prime Minister Thatcher in the United States. It was a thrill to have her visit him in the White House. After noting that he and the Prime Minister would have a few moments at the end of the general meeting to discuss sensitive matters, the President expressed the deep gratitude of the American people for the help that Mrs. Thatcher and her people had given us during the Iranian crisis. Securing the release of the hostages was the all-consuming concern of the American people. The President noted that the U.S. had gained the almost unanimous support of the world community in seeking to obtain the release of the hostages, but the UK had especially been in the forefront of those who had been assisting us. That UK role in the crisis; the President said, filled him with admiration. (S)

[Omitted here is material unrelated to the hostage crisis.]

The Prime Minister said that she assumed it would be appropriate to talk first about Iran so that the UK could know our minds in order [Page 277] to respond in effective ways as quickly as possible. She had been asked about Chapter Seven sanctions against Iran this morning in a TV interview and had, of course, said Britain would support the U.S. in such action. It could never be otherwise. But it would be helpful if she knew the President’s mind on timing for next steps to increase the pressure on Iran. (S)

The President responded that he would be brief since Mrs. Thatcher no doubt had been following the crisis in detail. Lately we had been reasonably encouraged. Initially the Iranian authorities had said that the hostages would be tried individually as spies. That theme had gradually diminished which was a good sign. The U.S. was prepared to use naval forces if the situation demanded it but certainly wanted to avoid such action. The President said that if there were public trials, the U.S. would interrupt commerce with Iran as had been made clear to the UK, France, the FRG, Italy, and to Khomeini. If any of the hostages were executed, we would reserve the right to take more forceful action. The President said he prayed that that would not be necessary and repeated that there were some hopeful signs. He said it was his sense that Khomeini had decided that holding the hostages was counterproductive. The President continued that Panama’s courageous act in accepting the Shah had also helped after Lopez Portillo had pulled the rug out from under us having given a firm commitment to take the Shah as late as the morning that Mexico announced the reverse. (S)

The President said that Khomeini seemed to be shifting toward a multinational tribunal approach—not a trial but the equivalent of a grand jury. This was quite a change from Iran’s original position but it was hard to know how much control Khomeini had over the students. In a showdown, the President said, Khomeini could probably prevail, but Khomeini no doubt wished to avoid just such a showdown. The President noted that three of our people in Tehran at the Foreign Ministry, including Bruce Laingen, had been able to communicate with us. Laingen had felt that the departure of the Shah would help in defusing the crisis. Indicating that we must do everything possible to prevent the Iranian crisis freezing into a status quo, the President said that later today he would know more precisely the time schedule for our next steps to increase the pressure on Iran. He would discuss this privately tonight at dinner with the Prime Minister. Secretary Vance added that both Foreign Minister Ghotbzadeh and the Iranian Chargé had said that the Shah’s departure would be an important first step in beginning the process to free the hostages. (S)

The President then noted that Sadat had always been forthcoming with respect to providing a home for the Shah, but we did not favor this solution to the problem. It would produce difficulties for Sadat in [Page 278] the Arab world and could be seen in Iran as a step by the Shah to get close enough to reassert himself into Iranian affairs. (S)

The Prime Minister asked for our view of the process of a general trial. What were the Iranians trying to accomplish? How long would it last? Was it designed by them as a way out of the crisis? If the answer to the last question was yes, the Prime Minister thought the U.S. attitude should be to assist the Iranians in finding a face-saving device which did not at the same time humiliate America. (S)

The President responded that we knew very little about what the Iranians had in mind concerning the Tribunal. He hoped Khomeini was looking for a way to save face, but he guessed there was very little rationality in Iran about the idea. The President said he thought that the Iranians knew we would punish their country if their action so warranted. But it was our hope that Iranians would not call the hostages before the Tribunal, even as witnesses. Our position would be to continue to do nothing which would endanger the safety of the hostages, but at the same time not lend any dignity or authenticity to the proceedings. (S)

Indicating that he would like to make two points, Dr. Brzezinski said there were a number of specific financial steps our friends could take before a Chapter Seven finding was adopted at the United Nations. Now was the time to take those steps. With respect to the Tribunal, Dr. Brzezinski noted we were witnessing a struggle for the future of Iran. A major actor in this struggle was a group dedicated to using the crisis to permanently sever links between Iran and the U.S. and between Iran and the West. This highly destabilized situation raised an important longer-range strategic question. How could we influence the course of events in Iran so as to minimize the danger that it would gradually assume the role of a satellite of the Soviet Union, an evolution which events in Afghanistan did not make any less likely.2 (S)

In response to Dr. Brzezinski’s first point, Lord Carrington said that experts from France, Germany and the UK had agreed last week in Brussels after the Quad meeting that it would be much easier to take specific financial steps after a Chapter Seven finding at the UN rather than before. Lord Carrington then asked how long the U.S. would wait before taking further positive action against Iran. A matter of days, the President responded. Secretary Vance said that he guessed that the Iranians did not know what they wanted to do with the Tribunal. Mrs. Thatcher observed that this Iranian uncertainty and confusion made a quick trial highly unlikely and could also produce humilia[Page 279]tion for the hostages in Tehran. She said that, as she understood it, the U.S. would neither oppose the Tribunal nor support it. (S)

The President responded that in public we would oppose the Tribunal stressing that it had no legitimacy and no relevance to the central fact that Iran in holding the hostages was violating every norm of international behavior. At the same time, we recognized that the Tribunal could be a way to the hostages’ release. We had asked nations not to participate in this kangaroo court, but it was a delicate balancing act. The President added that if we do go for sanctions, we would like the UK unilaterally to impose them immediately rather than waiting for what could be a lengthy UN debate on the subject. Mrs. Thatcher wondered what sanctions we would be asking for at the UN. The President replied that he would decide this during the course of the day, but stressed that we would probably move in the UN before the end of the week. It was nearly inevitable. Mrs. Thatcher asked whether a naval blockade would be part of our action. Noting that such action posed some difficulties, the President said he would discuss this with her privately. In closing the discussion of Iran, Prime Minister Thatcher repeated that it would be easier for Britain to take certain economic and financial steps against Iran after a Chapter Seven finding rather than before.3 (S)

[Omitted here is discussion unrelated to the hostage crisis.]

Mrs. Thatcher said it was her impression that the U.S. public did not know how helpful the PLO had been during the Iran crisis. Observing that this was not the case, the President said that the positive PLO role had been much in the press. Secretary Vance added that all members of Congress knew we had been in touch with the PLO although they did not know the specific role the PLO had played in the crisis. The President said that we would wait until the next tranche of land was returned and the ambassadorial exchange occurred in January before taking a stronger lead in the Middle East negotiations. There had been indirect communication with Arafat on the hostages and Israel knew this. (S)

[Omitted here is discussion unrelated to the hostage crisis.]

  1. Source: Carter Library, National Security Affairs, Staff Material, Middle East File, Box 31, Subject File, Iran 12/8/79–12/18/79. Secret. The meeting took place in the Cabinet Room at the White House.
  2. In the left margin next to this paragraph, Carter wrote: “(ZB said he interjected this when it became clear the talks were going to stay general only.)”
  3. Following their meeting, Carter and Thatcher spoke from the South Grounds of the White House. Carter thanked Thatcher for the “strong and unequivocal support” on Iran. She, in turn, stated that “when the United States wishes to go to the Security Council for further powers under chapter seven, Great Britain will be the first to support him in his endeavors.” (Public Papers: Carter, 1979, Book II, pp. 2259–2260)