157. Telegram From the Embassy in the United Kingdom to the Department of State and the White House1

1314. Eyes Only for the President, Secretary Vance, Dr. Brzezinski From Jordan and Saunders. Subject: Meeting With Panamanians.2

1. Secret–Entire text.

2. Summary. We met all morning with our Panamanian contacts and one of the French lawyers with whom the Panamanians have been dealing and all afternoon also with the second who had just arrived mid-day from Tehran.3 The morning conversation focused on the dynamics of the present situation in Iran. The afternoon talk concentrated on efforts to find a resolution. Both seemed straightforward in stating the authority for their talk—the concurrence of Ghotbzadeh and three other members of the Revolutionary Council but not of the Council as a body. We explained clearly why it is necessary to have a scenario that begins with release of the hostages. They explained why the political situation in Iran makes it possible only to proceed in stages so as to prepare public opinion. Privately we concluded that some scenario combining some elements of both approaches—including early release of the hostages—might be necessary, but we told them we had no authority to go beyond our present position. They had no authority to present any new position from Tehran. On the basis of our conversation, they called Foreign Minister Ghotbzadeh from the residence. He clearly regarded our coming here as a significant signal and recognized the need to demonstrate Iran’s own seriousness. Our two French contacts decided to return to Tehran and, at our urging, to tell Ghotbzadeh that the most serious signal he could send would be to designate someone to negotiate directly with us. End summary.

3. Following are the most interesting points that came out in the conversation.

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4. The two lawyers involved had been close to the Iranian exile group for some time, particularly to the Khomeini group in Paris during the revolution. One is himself a political exile from Argentina. The other is a lawyer with human rights interests. He is a partner of Charon, with whom we were in touch earlier, and has been associated earlier with Amnesty International. Both probably have financial interests with the Iranian Government. The one who had just come from Tehran said he had seen Ghotbzadeh and Habibi (spokesman for the Revolutionary Council). He says what he presented is also backed by Chamran and Tabatabai. Ghotbzadeh did not see, but spoke to Khomeini’s son (Ahmad) and son-in-law. The Frenchman believed Khomeini is aware of the contact. He said he could not repeat not say the Revolutionary Council as a body was aware of our meeting, although some members are. We believe he had these contacts, but it is apparent that he is mainly representing a small group of individuals including Ghotbzadeh.

5. The discussion focused in almost separate segments on two main elements of a possible settlement.

A. On extradition, the lawyer just in from Tehran began by saying that the release of the hostages would have to await a final decision in the Panamanian courts on the extradition of the Shah. When the Panamanians present made clear the Shah would not be extradited and when we eventually turned to other elements of a settlement, he indicated that it might be enough if progress was being made on the other track (below) and for the extradition proceedings to have begun. But he never fully retreated from his initial description of Iran’s position. (He did state that the Council did not expect or want the Shah back.) In this discussion, the Panamanians made it clear they would cooperate on extradition only to the extent that beginning extradition proceedings might contribute to creating an atmosphere in which the hostages could be released.

B. On the formation of an international commission, Ghotbzadeh has either misunderstood or misrepresented what they “agreed” with Waldheim when he was in Tehran. The Iranians apparently chose to believe that the international commission would be formed shortly after Waldheim’s return to New York. They say they are still waiting. Ghotbzadeh’s version of what they told Waldheim is this: Waldheim would form the commission, and the Iranians would respond by saying they accept the principle of releasing the hostages. After the commission reports, the hostages could be released. We explained our position that the hostages should be released simultaneously with the appointment of the commission but our recognition that there might have to be a series of steps by which each side tested the other’s readiness to move toward a settlement.

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6. Following our conversation, they called Ghotbzadeh from the residence. The Foreign Minister was reluctant to have a direct conversation but realized the need for him to demonstrate their seriousness. The two lawyers are going to Tehran Sunday.4 We said that it would be useful for Ghotbzadeh to say publicly that the Iranian Government wants an early peaceful resolution of the hostage problem but more important it would be a sign of seriousness if he would designate someone to negotiate directly with a U.S. representative. They agreed to urge continuation of the dialogue in this way. If that is impossible, we said contact through a third party is better than no contact at all. If they decide to designate a negotiator, they will send his name through today’s channel and have him contact Hal.

7. Among the interesting points of general information raised were these:

A. Ghotbzadeh reports that a decision is now being considered on delaying the date of the Presidential election, and a decision will be made by Sunday night. One reason is that, with Farsi dropping out of the race, the Islamic Party wants a chance for a new candidate to have time to campaign.

B. The central political contest in Iran is between the religious elements and what they called the “European group,” i.e. those like Ghotbzadeh who were with Khomeini in Europe. They described the takeover of our Embassy as designed by Ayatollah Khalkhali and his followers to force the revolution toward the religious right. Khomeini had countered by introducing all political elements into the compound to the point where even Khalkhali no longer saw advantage in keeping the hostages.

C. The Frenchmen reported that in the recent meeting between Khomeini and representatives of the captors, Khomeini told them that Laingen would not be turned over to them and that they had to begin preparing themselves for resolution of the hostage problem. Khomeini is reported to have told them he did not want anyone hurt because the honor of their nation is at stake.

8. The general and specific information provided by the two Frenchmen either reinforced our own analysis and information or shed new light on some dimension of the problem in Iran. And while there is good reason to believe that the Frenchmen’s primary personal relationship is with Ghotbzadeh, their political and financial interests and their history of working with the group that had been in exile with Khomeini would leave them in the posture of wanting to help resolve the crisis regardless of who is elected President. If someone other than Ghotbza [Page 416] deh is elected President, these men could still play a constructive role in communicating with the government.

  1. Source: Department of State, Records of David D. Newsom, Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs, Subject Files, 1978–1981, Lot 81D154, Iran NODIS Cables Jan 1980. Secret; Niact Immediate; Nodis; Cherokee. A handwritten note at the top of the page reads: “DDN [Newsom]—URGENT.”
  2. The meeting took place the morning of Saturday, January 19, in London at the home of Deputy Chief of Mission Edward Streator. According to Jordan, he and Saunders reported the meeting to Carter and Vance on their return to Washington late Sunday evening, January 20. (Jordan, Crisis, pp. 114–118)
  3. Rory Gonzales, Gabriel Lewis, Hector Villalon, and Christian Bourguet. Bourguet arrived mid-meeting. Bourguet and Villalon are referred to as the “two lawyers” or “French contacts.”
  4. January 20.