129. Memorandum From Gary Sick of the National Security Council Staff to the President’s Assistant for National Security Affairs (Brzezinski)1


  • Iran—Next Steps

The SCC on January 2 will need to examine the covert action program being worked up by CIA and the diplomatic/economic strategy we intend to pursue over the coming weeks. The first objective of the SCC meeting—and the NSC meeting to follow—should be the establishment of a policy framework with clear objectives which are agreed at the highest level. The second objective should be to insure that the package of proposed overt and covert actions are mutually reinforcing and consistent with the policy objectives.

U.S. Objectives

We have two principal objectives: (1) the release and safe return of the hostages; and (2) “to encourage the establishment of a responsible and democratic regime in Iran.”

Although we have tended to regard these as separate, in fact they are two sides of the same coin. Khomeini is not going to accept the political costs of giving up the hostages until he is persuaded that continued holding of the hostages is more costly to him than giving them up. That means that Khomeini must see his internal power base eroding, with the risk of losing control over the revolution. No other argument or scheme is going to tempt him to change his mind.

Our strategy, therefore, must concentrate on making the present situation as costly politically as possible for Khomeini and his followers. We can do that by maintaining maximum pressure on Iran through a diplomatic-economic offensive, combined with a vigorous covert action program which undermines Khomeini’s effective control.

We should beware of various proposals which would have us make a new set of offers or concessions to Khomeini as a face-saving device. These will not work and could make things worse, rather than better. Khomeini [Page 341] has all the face-saving devices he needs, and he will use them when he decides to pay the political price. He can use Waldheim, the PLO, Syria, Algeria, or any number of other intermediaries who are waiting anxiously in the wings with visions of being tapped as the “savior” of the hostages. He has no shortage of strategems available to him domestically, including the possibility of a quick trial and expulsion of the hostages, or any number of other schemes combining maximum U.S. humiliation with the freeing of the hostages. What is lacking is the will to use one or more of these possibilities.

We should not underestimate the effectiveness of the steps we have taken to date. Despite the brave rhetoric of Khomeini and the Iranian media, the leadership and much of the population is aware of the isolation of Iran, the damage to the reputation of the revolution, the economic complications for Iranian companies and individuals, the threat of shortages of key parts and basic necessities, the stagnation of the economy, and even the danger of U.S. military intervention. None of these is so severe that it is likely to reverse the course of events in the immediate future, but the cumulative effect is visible in the high-level infighting among Khomeini’s followers, the increasing readiness of individuals to criticize the present leadership, and outright insurrection in key areas of the country. We must not permit ourselves to become victims of Iranian propaganda. Our most effective weapon is holding firmly to a course of steady and persistent pressure.

That course may be frustrating to us when it fails to yield immediate results, but it is the only realistic option available to us which is likely to produce the desired outcome. We must grit our teeth and persevere.

Diplomatic/Economic Options

The following is a list of actions available to us at present:

1. Sanctions. We must continue to press with all our resources for a UN vote on sanctions and effective implementation of its provisions. The sharp reaction to the threat of sanctions in Tehran is the best indicator of their unwillingness to be only the second nation in recent history to have been branded an international outlaw. The fact that the economic effects will be slow in coming should not mislead us about the psychological impact. The practical complications for ordinary Iranians in terms of travel, credit, imports and routine communications should also not be underestimated.

2. Drawdown of Foreign Personnel. There is considerable alarm in Tehran today as word spreads about the withdrawal of personnel from foreign embassies and commercial representatives. We should encourage this and try to accelerate it. A limited military show of force, e.g. overflights, could be quite effective in helping some nations make up their minds.

[Page 342]

3. Boycott of Iranian Products. A unilateral U.S. boycott of all Iranian products, e.g. carpet and agricultural goods, could be helpful in keeping world public attention focused on our seriousness of intent and could raise more public concern in Iran about our ultimate intentions.

4. Break Relations. We may be approaching the moment when this would be an effective gesture. Announcement of a break in relations on January 7 as we approach the next UN vote could help dramatize our seriousness.

Covert Action

CIA will present a paper to the SCC summarizing their views. It will focus on the following basic questions:

1. Should we focus on maintaining the territorial integrity of Iran or should we stimulate regional/tribal opposition to Khomeini? The paper recommends that our strategic objective should be to preserve Iran’s territorial integrity, but that tactically we must capitalize on regional and tribal opposition. This means walking a narrow line, but it is not impossible. In our contacts with opposition groups, we should make clear our interest in a united Iran.

2. Should we choose a single opposition leader or cooperate with a variety of possible leaders? In fact, there is no single leader in sight at the present time capable of overthrowing or replacing Khomeini. We must keep a number of lines out and capitalize on developments.

3. What groups or leaders appear most promising? The CIA paper examines the obvious candidates. [9½ lines not declassified]

4. What is the impact of a covert action program on the fate of the hostages? The more effective pressure we bring to bear on the regime in Tehran, the quicker they are likely to come to the conclusion that the hostage issue is an unproductive sideshow which must be ended.

In addition, the CIA presentation will consider the value of possible military or paramilitary action in promoting political change. The following six areas of interest were identified by David Aaron’s group:

1. [1 paragraph (4 lines) not declassified]

2. [1 paragraph (6 lines) not declassified]

3. [1 paragraph (1½ lines) not declassified]

4. Direct cooperation with Iraq. The Iraqis do not like Khomeini, but they also wish to avoid a return of U.S. influence in Iran. They have been very coy thus far. If we are to get their cooperation, we will have to offer them something more substantial than the promise of “talks” or emissaries. This needs more study. Could David’s group examine this in greater detail and report back to the SCC?

5. [1 paragraph (5 lines) not declassified]

6. How can a limited military action, e.g. a blockade, be made to work for us, rather than uniting the country against us? The elements of such [Page 343] a plan include a heavy dose of propaganda, plus some careful advance planning/consultation with political opposition groups.


The evolution of political events in Iran continues to be dominated by the constitution. The next key event is the election of a president on about January 25. I have two observations:

—We should encourage the political opposition groups with whom we are in contact to boycott the presidential elections. If they attempt to run their own candidates, they will merely fail, while lending legitimacy to the election process. By boycotting, they probably cannot prevent the election of a candidate of Khomeini’s choice (which may be some nonentity subject to Khomeini’s personal control), but they can maintain a strong position of objecting to the legitimacy of the entire process, thereby strengthening their own hand for rejecting the outcome.

—The fortieth day after Ashura, known as “Arba’in,” falls on January 19, just prior to the presidential elections. We should use whatever influence we have with opposition groups to promote open resistance to Khomeini’s rule and the proposed constitution on that occasion. If something dramatic could be arranged, e.g. the departure of Shariat-Madari from Qom to the holy city of Najaf in Iraq, it could detract from the election process and spark increased resistance to Khomeini throughout the country.

  1. Source: Carter Library, National Security Affairs, Staff Material, Office File, Box 73, Presidential Advisory File, Middle East Box 6 11/79–2/80. Secret; Sensitive. A stamped notation in the upper right margin of the memorandum reads: “ZB has seen.”