123. Memorandum of Conversation1


  • Rev. William Sloane Coffin
  • Rev. Howard
  • Bishop Gumbleton
  • Under Secretary Newsom
  • Assistant Secretary Saunders
  • Deputy Assistant Secretary Constable
  • Henry Precht


  • Meeting with Clergymen Who Visited the Hostages

The clergy briefed the Secretary for an hour on their Christmas visit to the hostages in the compound. They found the hostages physically well although some were under obvious stress. The students holding the compound were rigid, obsessed with the crimes of the Shah, and unyielding on all points, both procedural and substantive. In their other contacts with Foreign Minister Ghotbzadeh and some religious leaders, the clergy found an almost universal insistence on the return of the Shah and deep emotion over the injustices suffered during the Shah’s regime. Ghotbzadeh and other Western-trained Iranian officials were more flexible but experiencing obvious difficulties [Page 323] in finding a solution acceptable to Khomeini and the students. Reverend Coffin was critical of American policy and urged statements which would “transcend” the present stalemate and respond to the Iranian need for understanding of their grievances. Reverend Howard did not believe that any dramatic proposals by the U.S. would yield results. All three agreed that additional U.S. pressures through sanctions would only harden the Iranian position.

I. The Hostages: The three clergymen believe they saw 43 hostages: Mr. Howard saw 21, Mr. Coffin 16 and Bishop Gumbleton 6. They were not allowed to take any notes and therefore have had to work on identification from memory and scanning of pictures. They found the hostages in good physical condition but some were showing obvious signs of stress. The two women were in especially good spirits and were very pleased to see each other after a month’s separation. Some remarks by various hostages led the clergy to believe that they were resisting or defying their captors in small ways. The presentation of the message read by Plotkin was obviously staged and two of the hostages took pains to tell Bishop Gumbleton so. One hostage, Joe Hall, came in rubbing his wrists and seemed almost disoriented, although his spirits picked up during the evening. Ode was described as “cranky” and complained about the lack of fruit, all of which Coffin interpreted as a sign of psychological health. One hostage noted that while they had been treated well they were subjected to “a lot of interrogation.” Coffin noted that captivity was particularly tough on the Marines who were supposed to be guards rather than guarded. Golacinski noted to one of the clergy that the hostages were being “treated like animals.” The clergy believed that the experience of the Christmas service was a tremendous lift for the hostages and the results were worth the manipulation which accompanied it.

II. The Students: Coffin described the students as in complete control, intelligent, tough, with a religious conviction best described in terms of fervor and intensity, not charity. Coffin compared them to American students of the 60’s but felt they were more personally controlled and had a greater sense of purpose than their American counterparts. Coffin said he had argued that their holding of the hostages was in complete contradiction to their stated purpose of defeating Carter and would only result in his re-election. He found it impossible to put that kind of message across to them. They were totally absorbed with the Shah’s crimes and with their conviction that the U.S. could extradite him. Their organization was thorough, and they noted that even police were disarmed before they were allowed to come in the compound. The clergy described the difficulties they had in arranging services as they desired. They found the students absolutely rigid and unwilling to negotiate any changes in their pre-arranged plans, which they justi [Page 324] fied in terms of decisions made by the “security committee.” The captors whom they met all appeared to be genuine students, although some of them, particularly the numerous armed guards, appeared to be very young. Coffin described one as a student of electrical engineering named Mohammad. He was deeply moved by the Christmas services and even took notes on Coffin’s sermon. Bishop Gumbleton thought that the students did not occupy quite as commanding a role as Coffin ascribed to them. He said that the students had not wanted the clergy to come and that Ghotbzadeh had arranged this through Khomeini. He also noted that, in the controversy over the numbers, Ghotbzadeh after talking to the clergy may have played a role in persuading the students to acknowledge that some hostages had not been seen.

III. Other Meetings: The clergy had a long meeting with Ghotbzadeh and found him genuinely interested in finding a solution. He and others whom they talked with seemed to feel that the holding of the hostages was an embarrassment, but nevertheless felt very strongly about the Shah’s crimes and the need for the U.S. to recognize their grievances. The clergy also met with a group of religious figures where they again found very deep feelings about the Shah’s crimes and an insistence that the U.S. could easily arrange the Shah’s extradition from Panama.

IV. U.S. Policy and Outlook for the Hostages: Reverend Howard was persuaded that, barring some unforeseen development, the hostages might be there a very long time. All three believed that the U.S. and Iran are approaching the problem from totally different perspectives and seem unlikely to find common ground. Howard also noted the problem of reaching Khomeini and the students. He noted that it meant nothing to the students when the clergy argued with them that they would look bad in the eyes of the world if the clergy did not hold the services. Their ideas were fixed and rigid. Reverend Coffin argued that the U.S. needs to find ways to hear the legitimate grievances of the Iranians who had suffered under the Shah. All three clergy believed that economic sanctions against Iran would only harden the position of Iranians and make matters worse. Howard said it will “move them to martyrdom.” Howard also argued in contrast to Coffin’s position that any dramatic proposal offered by the U.S. would only lead the Iranians to believe that the holding of hostages was yielding results and would not lead to their release. Without specifying a specific formula, Howard felt that we should look for some way to make small gestures from our side which might produce a change in Iranian thinking.

V. Public Statements on the Hostages: After considerable discussion, the clergy appeared to agree that they would only release the names of the hostages if the families agreed to their doing so. Coffin appeared [Page 325] to be concerned that the USG would somehow manipulate the question of the discrepancy in the numbers in a way that would escalate tensions. It was pointed out to Coffin that the students have now admitted that there are 49 hostages and that the clergy did not see all of them. The discrepancy question is now narrowed to one hostage. The Secretary suggested that the clergy say that they had seen 43 hostages and had given the names to the Department and talked to the families. The Department would note that there were 50 hostages on the compound and that clarification has been requested from the Iranians. The clergy appeared to accept this formulation.

  1. Source: Carter Library, Plains File, Box 8. Secret; Sensitive.