273. Paper Prepared in the Department of State1


This paper lays out for discussion, revision, and decision certain possible propositions from which our strategy for the period until the new Iranian Parliament is formed might be built. It goes on to describe the elements from which our strategy will be fashioned and suggests for consideration a specific course of action over the next few weeks.

After six months of frustrating dealings with the Iranians, it is clear that we are dealing with an outlook that differs fundamentally from our own, and a chaotic internal situation. Our character, our society are based on optimism—a long history of strength and success, the possibility of equality, the protection of institutions enshrined in a constitution, the belief in our ability to control our own destiny. Iran, on the other hand, has a long and painful history of foreign invasions, occupation and domination. Their outlook is a function of this history and the solace most Iranians have found in Shi’a Islam. They place a premium on survival. They are manipulative, fatalistic, suspicious and xenophobic.

With such fundamental cultural and historical differences, it is easier to understand why most Iranians have remained unmoved by [Page 743] our various actions throughout this crisis. We are not in a classic bargaining position.

If we are to help create a break in the situation—recognizing the hard fact that the odds are against such a break so long as the internal situation in Iran remains inchoate and the clerics dominant—we need a strategy which takes account of both the complexities of Iranian politics and the complexities of the Iranian outlook. It must combine elements of reasonableness with regard to the future without making the concessions now that Iranians take as weakness. It must convey a strong element of threat without implying retribution when the hostages are released. And the elements of threat must be both credible and conveyed in a way which does not so challenge their pride that they simply posture, blunder, and recall their history of martyrdom.

Some Basic Propositions

1. We can start by eliminating two extreme options:

—We have long since embarked on a policy of imposing costs on Iran for prolonging the hostage crisis, so no one is proposing a policy of negotiation without some form of pressure.

—A policy of pressure alone cannot force a solution. For one thing Khomeini and the clerics are not susceptible to Western-style pressures, so we have to find a different approach to them. Even then, someone will have to work out a political strategy for engineering the release. We will have to play a role whether we want to or not.

2. Within Iran, different leadership groups have different aspirations, vulnerabilities and objectives in this crisis. Our strategy must play on these varying hopes and fears. Our strategy, therefore, must also be a mix of punitive measures and diplomatic initiatives, to try to help construct a solution which would be politically acceptable both to key groups of the Iranians and to us. The issues are (a) the mix of pressures and diplomatic steps and (b) timing.

3. Our first opportunity for a breakthrough could come, as the Iranians have said, with the convening of a new parliament. We should keep in mind, however, that the Majlis will be fractionated and unruly and perhaps without effective leadership. No date has even been set for its opening session. The major purpose of the Majlis may be as a device toward furthering a solution—or rubberstamping a consensus among lay and religious leaders that it is time to end the crisis. The Majlis is likely to hesitate to assume a leading role in forging a solution. But the period between now, the May 9 elections, and the date the parliament is convened will be a time of political flux in Iran. It seems sensible to focus our immediate efforts on this period. There will be relative calm in the political process. Delegates will have been elected, and they will be unsure how to use the new institutions. For a short [Page 744] time after the convening of Parliament, there will not be clear lines between parties, personal alliances, or political strategies. At that moment, a determined and effective leadership might be able to push through a well-planned solution to the crisis. It is thus important that we seek to engage Iranian authorities in a productive dialogue on how the release of the hostages might be presented so as to win positive support in the new parliament.

4. This time we will want to broaden our approach to work with three separate but related leadership elements: Bani Sadr, who will be responsible for putting before the Majlis a program to end the crisis with the U.S. as part of his overall program; with Ghotbzadeh, who is our most helpful collaborator; and, more than we have before, with the clerics, who must be prepared to follow Bani Sadr’s lead or at least not to resist it and make a solution impossible. The failure of our last effort to achieve a negotiated settlement resulted from rivalries between the lay leadership and the clerics. We need to find a way, through a combination of carrots and sticks, to persuade the clerics to accept the outlines of a settlement that the government could push through the Majlis when it meets.

5. In designing our approach, there may be advantage, in some of our communications, in broadening it to reach beyond the hostage issue. With Bani Sadr and Ghotbzadeh, as well as in seeking help from our allies, we could focus on the consequences of widening the crisis for the future of Iran and for the future of Europe. We could concentrate on the kind of U.S.-Iranian relationship we might aim for. However, with the clerics, who believe that a reasonable U.S.-Iranian relationship is impossible or undesirable, it will be necessary to paint more specifically the consequences for their own leadership if the crisis continues.

6. The U.S. position on the elements of a settlement—which might be useful in dealing with the allies and with Bani Sadr—remains that described in the six points passed to Waldheim in January (Tab 1),2 with one possible addition. It may be desirable to elaborate on these points to make clear that we would forego retaliation against Iran if the hostages are released safely under honorable circumstances.

Near-Term Objectives

If these propositions are accepted, three specific objectives should be discussed:

—To encourage progressive improvements in the conditions of the hostages—beginning with regular visits and messages for families—with the purpose of working toward a more active official Iranian [Page 745] involvement in the management of the hostages’ welfare and in accounting for them.

—To increase steadily tangible pressure by the OECD states and, where possible, to encourage other states to take more limited measures against Iran; in this context by portraying Iran’s holding of hostages as offensive to the world community, to broaden the confrontation to Iran vs. the non-communist world.

—To engage key Iranians in discussions that could lead to an understanding on (1) a scenario for hostage release when the Majlis is convened; (2) the role of key leaders during the Majlis consideration; and (3) actions by the U.S. or third countries that would facilitate a release decision by the Majlis.

The issues to be decided are the degree and timing of new pressures, if any, and the nature of a broader diplomatic effort.

Maintaining Pressure

We have the following range of choice in maintaining or expanding pressures on Iran:

—We can maintain the sanctions the U.S. now has in place and press the Europeans to proceed on their present course by following through on the decisions made at Luxembourg.3 This would seem an essential minimum.

—We could take some additional steps to expand our own sanctions (see Tab 2 for a list of possible steps).4 In deciding whether we should impose additional sanctions, we face the possibility that a new cycle of growing expectations and then deeper frustration could be stimulated within the U.S. and new divisions with the Allies created, conveying weakness to Iran at a time we should be emphasizing the strength of the Allies’ stand. Another issue is whether such steps would best complement a diplomatic effort now, or should be held in reserve as a threat during the Majlis’ meetings. Once implemented, we would have little left with which to threaten.

—Additional pressures may be possible through covert action. A great deal of disruptive activity is already under way in Iran which has no U.S. involvement but which most Iranians assume is American-inspired. These disruptions and the assumption of American involvement heighten fears in Iran that we have important assets that could undermine the revolution. In an Iranian context, the advantage of covert options is that although the Iranians will assume we are playing a [Page 746] subversive role—because of their beliefs in foreign devils and conspiracy theories—we will not have admitted such a role and reactions would be correspondingly muted. Consideration of action stimulated by the U.S. should include whether risks of detection and the attendant setbacks to any negotiations or harm to the hostages are outweighed by the advantages to be gained.

—The options for such military acts as mining or blockade can be kept open. Indeed, the threat of such action might well be more effective during a Majlis debate than the action itself. See Tab 4.5

Diplomatic Approaches

It was one of the propositions set out for discussion at the beginning of this paper that we would not stand back on the diplomatic front altogether simply to allow time to pass and pressures to work but rather use the diplomatic resources at our disposal at least to explore the political situation in Tehran and to determine whether a scenario can be found which might pave the way for release of the hostages when the Majlis is formed.

It was also proposed that we broaden our diplomatic approach to concentrate through a special channel on Bani Sadr and to make an effort to reach the clerics.

If those propositions are accepted, the choice narrows to variants of two approaches:

Exploration. We can start by stimulating a broader range of diplomatic channels whom we would request to explore the situation in Tehran and report back to us so that we can begin to determine whether and how to shape a scenario for coupling Bani Sadr’s presentation of his program to the new Majlis with the release of the hostages. We would encourage all those whom we request to participate in this effort (see below) also to make appropriate arguments for the release of the hostages. But we would make no proposal at this time. We would make these approaches immediately in an effort to begin opening broad range of channels as quickly as possible.

Exploration with a U.S. proposal. We could go farther by introducing a tentative proposal of our own, at least to Bani Sadr and Ghotbzadeh. One possible approach to Bani Sadr would be to look beyond the hostage crisis, to talk with him about the elements that could characterize a U.S.-Iranian relationship after the hostage crisis is over, and to talk about ways in which he could present to the Majlis a program for Iran’s relationships with the world in such a way as to subsume the release of the hostages. The elements of our position would be those [Page 747] approved in January (Tab 1) with the possible addition of a statement that we have no intention of taking punitive military action against Iran once the hostages are released. But we would make no concession on the issues between us, since the Iranians would interpret this as weakness and a sign of still further concessions. The purpose of the approaches to Bani Sadr would be to determine how to package the January position and what preparatory steps might be useful before the Majlis receives Bani Sadr’s program. While this approach is being made to Bani Sadr and Ghotbzadeh, other approaches would be made to the clerics (without a U.S. proposal) stating the arguments for ending the crisis in a way that might be more compelling to them.

The Substance of Diplomatic Approaches

More specifically, the separate approaches to the secular and religious principals in Tehran might go as below.

With Bani Sadr (and Ghotbzadeh) we would take the following line:

—We recognize the importance to the Iranians of their convening parliament in completion of the task of putting into effect the Islamic constitution. We accept Iran’s constitutional process.

—We expect that Iran-U.S. relations will be reviewed by parliament in the context of setting the course for Iran’s foreign relations.

—We regret difficulties in relations between U.S. and Iran and believe it is in the interest of both countries to find an early resolution to our problems.

—We believe it would be helpful for the President and Revolutionary Council to be able to present to parliament a basis for future U.S.-Iranian relations. We are prepared to discuss this with him on the basis of the position we have conveyed to him (Tab 1). But the Iranians should not expect any American concessions, or a relaxation of pressures until all the hostages are freed. We have no interest in talking on any other basis.

At the same time, through different intermediaries and others who will not be acting in our name, we should try to develop an understanding by Beheshti and the clerics that the continued holding of the hostages will not be in their interest. The principal motivations of the clerics appear to be (1) desire for power and the construction of an Islamic-dominated regime; (2) fear of the power of the U.S. to prevent them from achieving power; and (3) fear of a Soviet-dominated left. We would use themes that play on their fears and aspirations.

Much of the work on the fear side is already well in train. The rescue mission itself signals U.S. ability to mount significant military operations against Iran. Hostilities with Iraq, the Kurds, the activities of Bakhtiar and Oveissi, and continuing sabotage and disruption within Iran are all assumed to have an American connection and play to the fears of the revolutionaries that we are out to overthrow them. We [Page 748] should do nothing to relieve them of this fear, as long as the hostages are held. At the same time, we need to find ways to persuade the clerics that the U.S. will not interfere in Iran or retaliate against Iran once the hostages are released.

The line intermediaries might take with Beheshti and the clerics could include these points:

—Continued confrontation with the U.S. creates additional prospects for Soviet influence, contrary to the interests of the Iranian revolution. The left is gaining every day in Iran.

—The Europeans and Japanese wish to have good relations with Iran; they can be helpful to Iran in many ways. But this is impossible so long as the hostages are held. They are approaching the Iranians not out of altruism, but because their interests are involved, and they are worried about the future course of events.

—The U.S. is dangerous, unpredictable, and is prepared to give full support to the opponents of the revolution unless the crisis is resolved. The anger toward Iran within the U.S. is widespread and deep.

—The intermediaries would be prepared to press the U.S. to agree to the following points:

—It is for Iranians themselves to decide on the policies of their new government.

—Iran must maintain its integrity.

—Iran must maintain its independence from the Soviet Union.

—Iran must acquire political stability to prevent subversion from within.

—The U.S. would forego retaliation against Iran after all the hostages are released safely under honorable conditions.

—The release of the hostages is a necessary step in the removal of obstacles to such an agreement.

—They would be in a position to guarantee these points once the hostages are released.

The Channels

1. Ambassador Lang: Now that Switzerland is our protecting power, we might if the Swiss are willing put more emphasis on Lang as our chief negotiator and representative to present official U.S. views, particularly with Bani Sadr.

2. Bourguet and Villalon could continue their concentration on Ghotbzadeh and other secular members of the Revolutionary Council. Despite their contacts with Bani Sadr, they tend to see the situation through Ghotbzadeh’s eyes, and it seems a reasonable division of labor to ask Lang to cultivate Bani Sadr while they stick with the Foreign Minister.

3. Key Islamic states (including the Saudis and Bangladeshis) could explore the possibility, especially with the clerics but also with the lay [Page 749] leaders, that the Islamic Conference could act as an intermediary in resolving the hostage crisis. The Islamic Conference’s role would be particularly important in providing the Iranians with credible assurances that the U.S. would not take retaliatory action against Iran or act against the Revolution once the hostages are released. The Saudis have hinted to other Islamic states that they might be interested in exploring such an initiative if others would join them.

The French, Germans, Turks and possibly the British could also be persuasive with the various clerics with whom they maintain contact.

4. Richard Cottam is prepared to go to Iran for intensive discussions with Ghotbzadeh, Beheshti, and other contacts.

5. Archbishop Capucci is possibly the single most influential foreigner with the militants, Khomeini, and the Revolutionary Council. He can be especially helpful with the religious leadership and with the militants.

There are other channels that could be developed, but these are the ones that we might start with. These approaches are laid out in the table at Tab 3.6

In engaging our allies, the best approach might be to share at high level the outlines of our strategy for the next two months on a bilateral basis, asking each government to designate one senior official in its capitals with whom we can discuss our plans in detail on a highly restricted basis.

An important element in enlisting overall allied support and specific cooperation of some close allies will be our position on the use of military options. Understandably, we will not wish to tie our hands completely, but we can assure the allies that (1) we have no present plan to use force; (2) we are prepared to wait for a reasonable period after the Majlis is convened to determine if a peaceful resolution is possible and if our joint diplomatic/political/economic efforts can bring this about; (3) we will consult closely with our allies if we subsequently conclude that the use of force is necessary; and (4) for tactical reasons, we will continue publicly to leave the option of using force open in this interim period, and expect the allies not to criticize us publicly on this point.

Public Affairs Strategy

Because the crisis is likely to continue for some time it will be important to reduce the level of public expectations and to attempt to [Page 750] calm public frustration. Thus, we should avoid the public expectation that there will be new or dramatic initiatives every week or so.

A reduced level of rhetoric is important for three reasons:

—The greater are the public expectations that pressures will lead to a solution in the near future, the greater the frustration and impression of U.S. weakness when they don’t. Rather than continuing the cycle by meeting a new wave of frustration with new measures, it is better to begin to prepare the public for a lingering problem. The less the public frustration, the wider are our options and the less likely we will be driven to action which does not serve our interests.

—The more we play up the hostages as a public issue, the more the militants are likely to conclude that we will make new concessions and the more the militants will want to keep the limelight by keeping the hostages.

—With regard to our Allies’ actions, our public position should underscore the serious hardships and isolation of Iran implied in the sanctions; it is more valuable in Iran and here to play up what the Allies do, rather than down play their actions. This is not to imply that we should take a soft line on Iran. Indeed, a less public line should be shaped to convey menace rather than compromise. But we should avoid promising our public more than we can deliver, thus also building up the militants in Iran.

Our public theme should emphasize the following points:

—Sanctions have been applied and it is necessary to allow time for full effects to be felt in Iran.

—The effects on Iran will increase as the European sanctions are implemented.

—Iran is in conflict with the entire civilized world, not just the United States.

—We are consulting with our allies and friends about further steps they might take.

—Iran has an obligation to the world to improve the condition of the hostages and to report regularly to the families. (We should consider family visits as a means of increasing this form of pressure on Iran.)

Where there are diplomatic developments reported in the press, we should not build these up but portray them as part of our ongoing efforts. We should avoid threats or discussion of military force, except perhaps on background.

Initiatives During the Next Two Weeks

Through May 10

During this period we should attempt to lay out a general scheme for concerted activities by our key collaborators and get their agreement to this plan of action. This would mean:

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—A Saunders meeting with Ambassadors Brunner and/or Lang in Switzerland for their assessment and our presentation of strategy.

—A meeting with Capucci, Bourguet and Villalon, and, if possible, Nobari on the same trip.

—Messages to our allies or meetings with them outlining special roles for them:

For the Germans: To maintain contact with Tabatabai for improvement in the condition of the hostages; with Beheshti to develop a new relationship there; with Bazargan to encourage him to reassert his influence.

For the French and Turks: To become more active generally with the clerics to convey an “independent” European view. To work also with Bani-Sadr, Salamatian, and others with whom the Ambassadors may enjoy special access.

With the British: To concentrate on Beheshti and the other clerics on the Revolutionary Council or to solicit those clerics by other persons with better influence.

—A trip by Richard Cottam for talks with as many leaders as he can arrange, especially Beheshti, whom Cottam has known for seven years. We would encourage Cottam to stay at least one week and perhaps return to Iran after consultations with us.

May 11–18

—Continue foregoing actions as appropriate.

—Messages to the Algerians and Syrians or Bedjaoui and Daoudi to explore the mediation effort by those countries, possibly supplemented by a role for the Swiss and French or possibly a Non-Aligned Movement initiative. The Algerians and Swiss, for example, could suggest, as protecting powers, that they constitute a contact group to hold talks with us for the Iranians in an effort to resolve specific problems in the dispute between us.

Capucci and Bourguet or Villalon return to Tehran.

—Refine and expand, if possible, our six-point position paper with the idea that Lang could use this with the leadership in Tehran—without introducing any new concessions.

—Messages or possible visits to EC–9 capitals to assure there is no wavering on the May 17 sanctions.

After May 18 we would try to put ourselves in a position, through the appropriate intermediaries, to work out a scenario that would reflect the political dynamics in Tehran and steps that are politically feasible for us which might contribute to the decision in Tehran to release the hostages.

Summary of Decisions

If this general diplomatic strategy is approved, we would be moving into a phase of exploring through a number of channels the political [Page 752] situation in Tehran to develop the insights necessary to fashion a more precise course of action. At this stage, the following are the decisions that need to be taken:

—Shall we now reopen diplomatic contact with Bani Sadr and Ghotbzadeh to begin exploring what steps might make it possible for Bani Sadr to present a program to the new parliament that would subsume release of the hostages?

—If we reopen contact, should we do so simply exploring the options with him, or should we at this stage begin to put forward ideas of our own?

—How should we time our various approaches? Should we contemplate a series of approaches, beginning with exploration and then adding ideas in later stages, or should we put forward a full proposal now if we are going to do so?

—Shall we undertake a full-scale effort to get at Beheshti and the other clerics through new intermediaries?

—Should we specifically attempt to involve key European nations as intermediaries in a more precise way than we have in the past?

  1. Source: Department of State, Records of David D. Newsom, Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs, Subject Files, 1978–1981, Lot 81D154, Diplomatic Strategy for Iran. Secret; Sensitive. Submitted to Brzezinski, Turner, Brown, and Jones under an April 30 covering memorandum from Tarnoff, on which an unknown hand wrote: “Revised Version 5/1/80.” Attendees at the May 2 SCC meeting discussed the paper. See Document 275.
  2. Tab 1 is the undated paper prepared by the National Security Council Staff printed as Document 137.
  3. See footnote 6, Document 253.
  4. Tab 2, untitled and undated, is attached but not printed. It lists “further measures the President indicated might be imposed” and “additional non-military sanctions most previously considered.”
  5. Tab 4, a paper prepared in the Department of State, “Iran: Effects of a Total or Import Blockade,” undated, is attached but not printed.
  6. Tab 3, an untitled and undated chart, attached but not printed, lists intermediaries used in various negotiations, their role or special message, the date and place of their meeting with U.S. officials, their primary Iranian contacts, the suggested duration of their stay in Iran, and their means of reporting.