109. Editorial Note

In late December 1979, Panama and Iran cooperated to establish a new channel between Washington and Tehran for negotiations on the hostage crisis. This channel was slow to develop, but from early on it appeared to have the backing, on the Iranian side, of the Ayatollah Khomeini and the active engagement of Foreign Minister Sadegh Ghotbzadeh. On the Panamanian side, it had the full support of President Aristides Royo and at least the acquiescence of Panamanian Military Leader General Omar Torrijos. Neither Secretary of State Cyrus Vance nor President Jimmy Carter initially supported the channel. However, creation of this channel introduced as emissaries two lawyers, Christian Bourguet and Hector Villalon, both of whom were in close cooperation with the Iranian revolutionary government, and who would play an extremely visible role in hostage negotiations early in 1980.

Within days of the Shah’s December 15 move to Contadora Island in Panama, Iran requested his extradition. Panamanian President Royo telephoned U.S. Ambassador Ambler Moss to inform him that Khomeini had given his approval for an Iranian representative to travel to Panama and negotiate a face-saving means of extraditing the Shah and freeing the hostages. Moss, who felt the Shah would panic on hearing this plan, wanted urgent instructions. It should be noted that, although the telegram refers to the Iranian Prime Minister, that post was empty; the reference is presumably to Foreign Minister Ghotbzadeh. (Telegram 10253 from Panama, December 18; National Archives, RG 59, Central Foreign Policy File, P840148–2166) Royo insisted that Panama would not agree to any extradition but wanted to help free the hostages. (Telegram 10306 from Panama, December 18; Carter Library, National Security Affairs, Brzezinski Material, Country File, Box 60, Panama 6/79–1/80)

On December 19, Royo received a message through contacts in France that Ghotbzadeh had also proposed a coordinating committee [Page 291] of Iranian, Panamanian, and U.S. high-level representatives to discuss “the manner in which the hostages might be liberated.” Royo wanted to know what the United States thought of this proposal. (Telegram 10324 from Panama, December 19; ibid.) After consulting with Vance, Moss informed Royo that “the proposal had all the earmarks of a scheme to try to negotiate for the extradition of the Shah in return for the prisoners’ release.” Vance, he told Royo, thought that the “plan would be very counterproductive.” (Telegram 10330 from Panama, December 19; ibid.)

However, Ghotbzadeh apparently had developed a specific plan. He told Professor Richard Cottam on December 21 that the Revolutionary Council had developed “a settlement scenario in which several things might appear simultaneously.” This involved the extradition of the Shah, some form of examination of the Shah’s crimes and U.S. policy toward Iran through perhaps a Senate-House Committee, and the coincidental release of the hostages alongside this Committee’s operation. (Memorandum for the Record, December 21; Department of State, Records of David D. Newsom, Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs, Subject Files, 1978–1981, Lot 81D154, Memoranda of Conversation) Royo told Moss that a representative of Khomeini would be arriving in Panama December 24 and that his presence was to be kept “completely secret.” Moss countered with the information that Ghotbzadeh’s position was “shaky,” implying both his belief that Ghotbzadeh was the representative and that he would be unable to deliver on any negotiated deal. (Telegram 10422 from Panama, December 21; National Archives, RG 59, Central Foreign Policy File, P840171–0384 and N790010–0290)

The Iranian representatives who subsequently appeared in Panama were Bourguet and Villalon. “The more important delegation,” Royo told Moss, “probably would not come.” The two lawyers brought an extradition request which Royo announced Panama would “consider,” meaning “request and study as if it were a complaint filed in court.” (Telegram 10540 from Panama, December 28; National Archives, RG 59, Central Foreign Policy File, [no film number]) Royo told Moss, Bourguet, and Villalon that Panama would “not hand over the Shah under any circumstances but would be willing to accept and consider an extradition request as a ‘face-saving’ device providing the GOI put itself into conformity with international law by releasing the hostages.” The lawyers then returned to Iran with this message. Royo, who believed the “face-saving” concept had to be handled in person, intended to send Marcel Salamin to Tehran. (Telegram 2 from Panama, January 2, 1980; National Archives, RG 59, Central Foreign Policy File, P870108–1063)

Moss told Royo that Salamin’s trip to Iran was “very bad news,” and there was serious concern in Washington that the Panamian-[Page 292]Iranian communications were “interfering in the processes we have in motion to free the hostages.” Royo decided Salamin would wait in an intermediate location until after the upcoming visit of Secretary-General Waldheim to Iran. (Telegram 13 from Panama, January 2; National Archives, RG 59, Central Foreign Policy File, P870108–1068) For information on Waldheim’s trip, see Document 128.