280. Briefing for Secretary of State Muskie1


Critical Issues. The hostage crisis can be viewed in two different ways:

On one level, it is a complex negotiating problem. By retaining custody of the hostages, the militants are able to influence the course of Iranian revolutionary politics. Those who wish to put an end to the crisis in the interest of normalization and order (e.g. Bani-Sadr) are politically weak and subject to charges of aiding the enemy. Their rivals on the Revolutionary Council (Beheshti and the militant pro-clerical faction) are using the issue to destroy Bani-Sadr’s position. Khomeini is primarily interested in vengeance and humiliation of the U.S. Our rescue mission was a unilateral effort to break this political impasse.

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On a strategic level, the violent anti-Americanism generated by the hostage situation: gives the Soviets and the Iranian left a unique opportunity to increase their strength and legitimacy by siding with Khomeini; diverts attention away from Soviet activities in Afghanistan; constrains U.S. freedom of action; and severely complicates U.S. relations with regional states and our allies. The slide to the left in Iran threatens to extend Soviet influence closer to the Persian Gulf and radically reorient the regional power balance.

Current Policy. Europe and Japan are reluctantly prepared to proceed with economic and diplomatic sanctions in mid-May if there has been no decisive progress toward freeing the hostages.

Basic Choices. We have no risk-free options.

Status Quo/Diplomatic. We can use the period between now and the election of the Majlis to reopen channels of communication with some of the key Iranian actors, including Beheshti if possible. The key question will be whether we will offer any new inducements and/or intensify our military pressures.

Escalate Pressure. We could enhance nervousness and fear in Tehran, and also complicate Iranian shipping, by overt military demonstrations (e.g. interrogation of shipping) and veiled threats. Although this would keep the Iranians off balance and worried, it could play into the hands of the hard-liners and the left.

Military Operation. Another rescue operation or a blockade could be attempted in disregard of intense pressure from the allies.

Covert Action. We could lend active support to some of the dissident groups which are becoming active. This would keep the political pot boiling, but probably would not free the hostages.

[1 paragraph (4½ lines) not declassified]

  1. Source: Carter Library, National Security Affairs, Staff Material, Middle East File, Box 32, Subject File, Iran 5/80. Secret. Prepared by the NSC Staff. A copy was sent to Blackwill. Muskie began his tenure as Secretary of State on May 8.