122. Minutes of a National Security Council Meeting1


  • Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan


  • The President
  • The Vice President
  • State

    • Secretary Cyrus Vance
  • Defense

    • Secretary Harold Brown
  • CIA

    • Admiral Stansfield Turner
  • JCS

    • General David Jones
  • White House

    • Zbigniew Brzezinski
    • Jody Powell
    • David Aaron
  • NSC

    • Gary Sick (joined at 10:50 a.m.)


The President convened the National Security Council and it was agreed that we would begin by discussing the situation in Afghanistan since it would be important to communicate today with our European Allies.

[Page 317]

[Omitted here is discussion on Afghanistan and Pakistan. For portions on Afghanistan and Pakistan, see Foreign Relations, 1977–1980, vol. XII, Afghanistan, Document 107.]

Secretary Vance reviewed for the President what is happening with respect to Iran. Ambassador McHenry joined the meeting. The EC–9 nations have begun a drawdown of their personnel in Iran, including their nationals. As a whole, they believe that an affirmative vote for sanctions in the UN will subject them and their nationals to danger in Tehran, including a possible takeover. The UK is now removing nearly all of its people, and the French, Germans and Italians are considering a move. The ambassadors of the EC–9 in Tehran are going to Qom today if they can, or else will approach the Revolutionary Council. They will weigh in on the new circumstances in Afghanistan and try to persuade the Iranians that the Soviet actions are the real issue. They will argue that Iran should settle the problem with the U.S. and begin to focus on the real danger. They will deliver this as a message from the European Community.

Ambassador McHenry said that consultations at the UN have been proceeding over the past several days. In addition, there will be an informal meeting of the Council this afternoon and a formal meeting tomorrow morning. We need to have a resolution by tomorrow if we are to have a vote on Monday2 and avoid the change in composition which will occur at the New Year. The present group is better since we have long worked with them on this issue. There are potential difficulties associated with a delay; for one thing, if the Cuba-Colombia dispute over seating is not resolved, we could have a 14-member Council. Although there is no question of the legality of functioning with only 14 members, it does raise political question. We would lose the Bolivian vote, and we would still need nine positive votes. The French would be in the chair. It is doubtful that the Soviets, Czechs or Kuwaitis could vote for any resolution based on Chapter VII sanctions. They may be willing to imply such support if they can change the resolution to a lesser first step with sanctions to follow, but he believed that this was merely tactical and we would not in the final analysis get those three. Indications are that the Soviets would abstain.

The Norwegians, British, Portuguese and French are prepared in principle to be supportive, but at least the British and French have suggested changes in the description of sanctions which are extensive enough to require some time to work out. He did not believe this could be worked out this month. The British changes would provide no automatic default on existing credits, approval of credits for items, e.g., [Page 318] food, disagreement over the extra-territoriality (i.e., whether or not U.S. laws can be applied to U.S. firms in third countries), and the applicability of sanctions to a joint venture company in which five tankers fly the British flag and five fly the Iranian flag.

A third group of countries are the non-aligned, who are trying to find a two-stage approach. Instead of immediate sanctions, they would propose formalizing the Secretary-General’s mediation efforts, calling on him to visit Tehran and warn them that if they did not act by a given time, the Security Council will impose sanctions. This may be attractive to the Soviets, Czechs and Kuwaitis, but he thought not. Bangladesh may be in the same position as the Soviets, but it is not entirely clear. The Bangladesh ambassadors in New York and Washington have urged us to press the President of Bangladesh at a high level to cooperate. Nevertheless, he thought that Bangladesh would abstain.

It will take a number of days to get agreement on the list of sanctions, which will put us into January. With a high expenditure of political capital, including personal intervention by the President by telephone, he thought we could get nine votes after the first of January.

The President summarized the membership of the Security Council as three groups composed of: (1) Soviets, Czechs and Kuwaitis who will oppose sanctions and probably abstain; (2) the Norwegians, British, French and Portuguese who will support us; and (3) Jamaica, Bangladesh, Gabon, Bolivia, Nigeria, China and Zambia.

Ambassador McHenry said after January 1, Nigeria will be replaced by Nigeria [Niger], Gabon by Tunisia, Kuwait by the Philippines, Czechs by East Germany and Bolivia by an empty chair.

Dr. Brzezinski thought that we would come out about the same.

Ambassador McHenry thought he could possibly get more votes by going to a two-stage process in which we would continue to get sanctions while also meeting desires for an interim period. The resolution would deplore the failure of Iran to comply with the UN, direct Waldheim to go to Iran by a given date, and state that if the hostages had not been released by a certain date the Security Council would take action under articles 39 and 41.3 We would need the interim period in any event to negotiate sanctions, and this would put that period to use.

Secretary Vance said the British had dumped these changes on us suddenly yesterday.

The President wondered if we could get them to back off?

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Ambassador McHenry said the British first called and said they had some “minor changes,” but when he saw them later he realized they were not minor at all. They subsequently indicated that they could not support sanctions unless all three of the changes outlined previously were included in the resolution.

The President thought that would be good, but it should not delay our preparation of the second vote on sanctions. We need to get the British and French on board.

Dr. Brzezinski wondered how sure we were of getting a favorable second vote.

Ambassador McHenry said it would still require a Presidential effort.

The President said he was ready for that.

Dr. Brzezinski said he was worried about the public perception. We had planned to ask our Allies to impose sanctions even if the vote failed at the UN. Would it not be better to go for sanctions and at the same time to make an approach to the Iranians about the Afghan situation. He did not think the U.S. public expected a vote immediately.

Mr. Powell disagreed. He said a vote was expected very soon and this would be seen as a classic case of legislative impotence if we could not deliver.

Dr. Brzezinski wondered still if we would be better off to go for sanctions directly.

The President said he thought it was more important to get something before January. He noted that the Iranians had in any event refused to meet with Waldheim.

Ambassador McHenry agreed and noted that a two-stage process was a way of getting around the red herring that somehow Waldheim could produce a solution. Waldheim had called him at midnight the night before about a call he had received from the Pakistani Ambassador relaying a message from the Pakistani Foreign Minister in Tehran. The Iranians had reiterated the view that they did not want to see the Secretary General right now. The Pakistanis wanted his reaction to a proposal that the Secretary General go to Iran with the advance understanding that nothing would come of it. Would that help, defuse the situation? Ambassador McHenry had told Waldheim that we would not buy that, and Waldheim agreed that it did not sound like a good idea.

The President said he was not embarrassed to get a positive vote on Monday which would give Waldheim a week to arrange release of the hostages and provided that at the end of that time the Security Council would be committed to act on articles 39 and 41.

Mr. Powell observed that the story would still be that we did it because we did not have the votes to win.

[Page 320]

The President said it was a rational approach, not a great victory.

The Vice President said there was a great deal of feeling in the UN that the Secretary General approach should be played out.

Ambassador McHenry said that the West has often used this very same approach on many other issues. The only difference in this case would be the commitment to a vote and specification of a date.

The President asked how sure he was of getting twelve votes.

Ambassador McHenry said he would have to work hard, but he thought we could get it. Maybe even the Soviets would be embarrassed enough to vote for it.

The Vice President agreed that was the way to go.

Mr. Powell said that if we get down to a week or two and cannot get what we want this way, we will get great pressure to act unilaterally. The difference is between getting the pressure in one week or two.

The President said he had watched what Beheshti said on TV. He was under the impression that Beheshti was one of the more reasonable members of the Revolutionary Council. He said flat out that there would be a trial of the United States, not the hostages, and that the hostages would be released whether guilty or not.4 If we had to face public pressure for strong unilateral action, he would rather face it on January 6 rather than January 1. He noted that when we talked to Giscard on the phone yesterday, he had been quite evasive when asked if France would impose sanctions in the event sanctions were voted down in the Security Council.5

Secretary Brown noted that they were all getting more cautious as they listen to their bureaucracies.

The President said he hated to shift gears and start working on Niger and others that had not previously been involved.

Admiral Turner said he did not believe that sanctions would get the hostages back. There are three groups we are working with: the Revolutionary Council; the kidnappers; and Khomeini. We had had some success in getting our message through to the Revolutionary Council. There is no way to get through to the kidnappers. He still thought that Khomeini could work his will on the students, so the question was how to impact on him. He wondered if the correct [Page 321] approach would not be a combination, playing off the Afghan theme and offering some kind of concession at the same time.

The President said that the concessions we had drafted previously were still available. He thought Dr. Brzezinski was right—Khomeini would like to see all Western influence in Iran ended. Any military action by us would simply play into his hands. He would say, “We would have a great situation here in Iran if it were not for the American mining, or bombing or whatever.” He guessed that Shariat-Madari and Beheshti and perhaps others have influence on Khomeini as potential alternatives to his rule. Khomeini is not so solidly in power as to be able to ignore the Revolutionary Council entirely. As far as he knew, Bani Sadr was the only officially announced candidate for President of Iran.

Secretary Vance said there were some indications that the Iranian Government was more coherent now with the Revolutionary Council under Beheshti. He has shown himself to be careful and strong. He has never put himself in the position of having his position immediately reversed.

The President noted that the students are now reported to be forming a coordination committee with the Revolutionary Council. On the UN resolution, he would like the triggering device to be the release or non-release of the hostages. We need a vote by the first of January. If Secretary Vance did not mind, would he please go up to New York. The President was prepared to help.

Secretary Vance said the real problem for the British was the question of the five ships with Iranian flags. The extra-territoriality question is one that we will not be able to resolve. It has been a problem for years.

The President wondered if we could not find language which would permit the operation of those ships.

Secretary Vance said we should be able to come up with something. He noted that the British were backing away from their position on credit because of the position taken by their Treasury.

The President said the British were the only obstacle.

Ambassador McHenry said he would want to study the proposals the French had put to us only this morning.6 (Ambassador McHenry then left the meeting.)

[Page 322]

Mr. Aaron (who reentered the meeting at this point) reviewed for the President the schedule of his phone calls to Schmidt, Thatcher, Giscard and Zia.

[Omitted here is discussion on Afghanistan and Pakistan.]

Secretary Vance mentioned that he would see the clergymen who had recently returned from Tehran. He would tell them that they cannot release the names of all the hostages. There was nothing we could do to keep them from releasing the names of the 43 they saw, but we must absolutely prevent release of the other seven. It could risk their lives.

(The President left at 12:01 and the meeting ended after a brief review of the various messages which were under preparation and their status.)

  1. Source: Carter Library, National Security Council, NSC Institutional Files (H–Files), Box 57, NSC 025 Iran/Afghanistan & Pakistan 12/28/79. Top Secret; Sensitive. The meeting took place in the Cabinet Room at the White House.
  2. December 31.
  3. See footnote 3, Document 87.
  4. Apparent reference to Beheshti’s comments at a December 27 meeting with reporters in Tehran. (Edward Cody and Michael Weisskopf, “Iranians Seek Testimony, Release of U.S. Hostages,” Washington Post, December 28, 1979, p. A1)
  5. Carter, who was still at Camp David on December 27, talked to Giscard on the telephone from 11:20 to 11:27 a.m. (Carter Library, President’s Daily Diary) No record of the discussion was found.
  6. As reported in telegram 6374 from USUN, December 28, the French queried the U.S. position should any of the hostages be sentenced or imprisoned and proposed that sanctions be applied on concrete acts rather than across the board. (National Archives, RG 59, Central Foreign Policy File, D800003–0430)