156. Memorandum From William Odom of the National Security Council Staff to the President’s Assistant for National Security Affairs (Brzezinski)1


  • U.S. Reaction to Possible Soviet Military Intervention in Iran

I see possibly three strategies for dealing with a Soviet military move into Iran in the near future;2 none of them are very attractive:

1. Rapid Escalation to a “CRICON” (Crisis Confrontation).

We can follow the traditional pattern of 1962 and 1973 of escalating rapidly to the nuclear level and then negotiating de-escalation to a status quo ante-CRICON. You will recall that Kissinger told Sam Huntington and you in the early days of this Administration that we can no longer follow this strategy in light of the Soviet strategic force buildup. The Soviets are in much better shape to maintain domestic cohesion and implement mobilization and civil defense measures required for a credible crisis posture. I find it extremely painful to admit, but we are forced to recognize the strategic and political implications of the new military balance. The PRM–10 CRICON paper, in retrospect, is sharply to the point.3

2. Contain the Conflict within the Region.

This strategy would require some upgrading of strategic forces alert levels, but its major military component would be projection of U.S. ground forces and air forces into the region. The only feasible deployment would be as a defense of the Saudi Arabian peninsula. That is what we are “organized” to do and therefore most likely to do successfully. We would have to evoke a Saudi invitation. The next [Page 412] steps would involve combining military efforts with other states such as Pakistan, Iraq, Turkey, Egypt, and Israel, if they were willing. By remaining on the western side of the Persian Gulf, we would avoid an early direct engagement between U.S. and Soviet ground forces in which we would be defeated. To make our deployment credible in the weeks and months to follow, a major conventional force mobilization in the U.S. would have to occur. Follow-on deployments up to field army in size, i.e., several corps, might soon be required.

The response of our allies in Europe and Japan would be critical. They might abandon us.

This strategy could lead to at least four outcomes which are unattractive. First, a stalemate and a prolonged period—years—of large U.S. force deployments in the region facing Soviet forces in Iran. Second, a stalemate followed by erosion and forced withdrawal. We could find ourselves with large forces deployed in an environment which is politically hostile, i.e., our allies are equivocating in Europe and our allies in the region prefer accommodation to the Soviets than war together with us against the Soviets. Third, direct conflicts between U.S. and Soviet forces in the Euphrates Valley could lead to a general war, including Europe (Berlin, a Soviet limited offensive into Germany with peace overtures to France, et alia.) Fourth, a direct U.S.-Soviet ground force conflict in which the U.S. is defeated and unable to sustain a regional presence.

3. A Strategic Retirement followed by a Major Long-Term U.S. Buildup.

We would not project U.S. ground forces into the region. We would encourage local ground forces, i.e., Iraqi, Pakistani, and any other volunteers, to move into southern Iran to establish a defensive line north of the oil-producing areas. We would provide some sea- and land-based air to deter or defeat Soviet air. We would be prepared to retreat if the regional forces could not hold. Meanwhile, we would begin a major military reconstruction program at home and a long-term buildup. We would ask the same of our allies in Europe and the Far East.

Some version of the second alternative is the maximum strategy we could prudently pursue. We would put less strain on the Alliance and improve the long-term buildup possibilities by some version of the third strategy.

The course of action which is both feasible and probably most attractive to you is a rapid U.S. force deployment (possibly including some NATO forces) into the Saudi Arabian peninsula with the aim of dividing the region down the Euphrates and the Persian Gulf without combat between U.S. and Soviet forces.

  1. Source: Carter Library, National Security Affairs, Brzezinski Material, General Odom File, Box 27, Iran 12/79–3/80. Top Secret; Outside the System. Sent for information. This memorandum is also printed as Document 258 in Foreign Relations, 1977–1980, vol. VI, Soviet Union.
  2. In a January 16 memorandum, Welch, Brement, and Utgoff of the National Security Council Staff informed Brzezinski that they thought a Soviet invasion of Iran could not be stopped without the use of nuclear weapons and that the best U.S. reaction to an invasion was to occupy the southern oilfields or occupy southern Iran in concert with Iraq. (Carter Library, National Security Affairs, Staff Material, Office File, Box 64, Outside the System File, Iran Non-Meetings Hostage Crisis 1/80–3/80)
  3. PRM–10, “Comprehensive Net Assessment and Military Force Posture Review,” February 18, 1977. (Carter Library, National Security Council, NSC Institutional Files (H–Files), Boxes 28–31)