281. Briefing Memorandum From the Director of the Bureau of Intelligence and Research (Spiers) to Secretary of State Muskie 1


  • The Hostages and Iranian Domestic Politics

You have received analyses about the hostage situation from NEA and other sources. INR has prepared here an analysis of the crisis, setting it within the broader context of the Iranian political situation.

In sum we conclude that the hostages are being used as pawns by competing factions in the Iranian domestic power struggle. Hence, the possibility of reaching a negotiated settlement remains minimal. Only Ayatollah Khomeini has the authority to negotiate on behalf of Iran. Thus consensus building appears the best route to reach our desired goals. The US has little ability to influence the key actors, however, especially if our reward for releasing the hostages is only the cessation of US power projection and pressures.

Background: The dominant ideology which has fueled Iran’s revolution rests on two basic ideas:

—Islamic Shiite fundamentalism which projects a vision of an idealized society governed by Islamic law and mores; and

—fanatical hatred of the imperialistic West and particularly the United States, which is viewed as the epitome of decadent, bankrupt Western culture.

These ideas have increasingly demanded strict adherence from all revolutionary cadres. Over the past year, the hardline revolutionary core has progressively eliminated or neutralized those individuals, including former Prime Minister Bazargan, who re-interpreted or modified the Revolution’s basic ideology.

As events have developed, the Revolution can be divided into three phases:

—Sweeping away the Shah’s regime. (November 1977–February 1979). This was eventually led by a broad and very large anti-Shah coalition.

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—A series of political crises which have narrowed the base of the revolutionary leadership and destroyed the original coalition. (from March 1979 and still developing); and

—Eventual political and economic reconstruction.

Phase two is not complete. The highly fluid current situation is characterized by competing factions striving to establish a solid political base upon which to begin building Iran’s brave new world.

Phase two revolutionary politics are dominated by two fundamental questions. First, is the Revolution an essentially conservative movement designed to restore the prestige and influence of Iran’s traditional socio-economic elites i.e. the clergy and the bazaar merchants? Is it instead a process which will eventually revamp Iran’s entire social structure by instituting radical income and land redistribution policies, as well as bringing to the forefront a new leftist-oriented elite? Or is it some combination of religious fundamentalism and reform?

These complex questions pit the religiously-oriented ruling entourage against various leftist groups. By and large, the dominant clerics are satisfied with the revolution’s principal achievement: the ousting of the Shah and his “henchmen”. Beyond re-establishing the predominance of Islamic law those clerics have little genuine interest in fundamentally altering Iranian society. The leftists, however, see the Shah’s fall as the first step in a process which will throughly restructure the Iranian socio-economic order. Bani-Sadr is in the middle between these two positions and is often attacked by both.

A second question is simultaneously being debated within the current governing entourage: who will rule post-Khomeini Iran? In that connection, an intense power struggle has emerged, primarily between the young hardline clerical fundamentalists and the “Islamic technocrats” (i.e. those individuals who have been secularly educated—often in the West—but who claim to be devout Moslems). The leftists are not so directly involved in this question, preferring to bide their time for now.

This framework helps to explain the seemingly incoherent twists and turns in Iran’s domestic politics: most of these machinations are part of the attempt to answer definitively the two previously mentioned questions. Even so macabre an issue as the return of the American dead, for example, is related to the second question: if President Bani-Sadr favored sending the bodies back to the US, then as a matter of principle, the fundamentalists would have to oppose his policy or risk a loss of prestige in their continuing struggle with the President over future pre-eminence.

The Key Actors: Several actors are participating in this on-going drama. Ayatollah Khomeini, of course, remains the Revolution’s pre-eminent figure and the final repository of revolutionary legitimacy and [Page 770] authority. No important decision can be made without first ascertaining his view. Khomeini’s power and influence, however, are not absolute. He has always been careful to assure that his pronouncements are in accordance with popular opinion. In this respect, Khomeini is as much a follower of public opinion as he is a shaper of it. He will avoid at all costs making an unpopular decision.

Three competing factions surround Khomeini:

—The Islamic technocrats led by President Bani-Sadr. Bani-Sadr also has been able to forge links with some of the moderate clerics;

—The hardline fundamentalists led by Ayatollah Beheshti. Beheshti heads the Islamic Republican Party, sits on the Revolutionary Council and has been appointed to the Supreme Court.

Ahmad Khomeini (son of the Ayatollah) and supporters at the Qom Theological School. Ahmad, who is attempting to carve out a sphere of influence, has supported Bani-Sadr one day and Beheshti the next.

The embassy militants occupy a unique position within the political matrix. While not a part of the ruling entourage, they are able to project enormous influence into the political arena by virtue of their forceful character and as symbols embodying all of Iran’s revolutionary aspirations. They are committed to keeping the Revolution “on track” by eliminating all US influence in Iran and establishing a thoroughly (but as yet undefined) revolutionary society.

Although all of these factions (with the possible exception of the Embassy occupiers) are united in their determination to prevent a leftist seizure of the Revolution, they are split over the issue of who will receive Khomeini’s mantle following the Ayatollah’s death.

The leftists represent the greatest single potential threat to the ruling entourage; at present, however, they are not prepared to challenge Khomeini. Instead, they ride his coattails where they can and strengthen their own position for the longer run. They are already represented in several key places, including the student movement and the oil workers.

Three leftist organizations are particularly significant:

Fedayeen-al Khalq: These secular Marxists have broken with Khomeini. Their activities are considered illegal, their headquarters have been raided and closed, and their leaders, for the most part, are underground. Individual members may be associated with the Embassy occupation. Some Fedayeen members have actively supported the Kurds in their struggle with the Tehran government.

Mujahiddin-al Khalq: These Islamic Marxists are also estranged from Khomeini. Like the Fedayeen, they have been attacked and criticized. However, they have not gone underground; some of their members have been elected to the new Parliament.

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The Tudeh (Communist) Party: This party, now reportedly legal, supports Khomeini and carries on various activities, such as organizing meetings and publishing a newspaper. The Tudeh has probably concentrated most of its activities in oil, military and bureaucratic circles. Its membership strength has not been accurately gauged.

The intense competition among the basic three competing factions has increasingly radicalized the Revolution. Any individual who has tried to take a moderate stand on relations with the West and/or the US has been tarred as being anti-Islamic and anti-revolutionary. President Bani-Sadr could be the latest victim of this on-going, devouring phenomenon.

Enter the Hostages: It is against this volatile, fragile, extraordinarily complex political background that the hostage issue must be viewed. Essentially, the hostages are involved in three levels of competition.

First, they are pawns in the continuing overall struggle for power. For President Bani-Sadr, the hostages are a liability because the crisis has prevented him from consolidating his political position and moving on to his social and economic programs. By thwarting Bani-Sadr’s efforts to unilaterally solve the hostage crisis, Ayatollah Beheshti has kept Bani-Sadr off-balance and over the past three months has gravely weakened the President’s political position. Beheshti’s Islamic Republican Party won over half of the seats in the first round of the Parliamentary elections and should capture a majority of the remaining seats in the second round on May 9. As a result, Beheshti probably will be in a position to decisively influence the approval and eventual power of the new prime minister and cabinet.

In an atmosphere charged with anti-Americanism and chaos, the left has openly thrived. All leftist factions have supported the Embassy seizure. In the process they have worked to expand their influence and strength. It was probably fear of the left’s growing influence which recently led the hardline clerics to attack and oust them from their university strongholds.

As long as the hostages remain an asset for a majority of Iran’s clerically dominated factions, it will be difficult to devise a formula for their release. Moreover, any formula which is eventually negotiated must be the result of a consensus building process within Iran. Of course, the eventual consolidation of power by one faction would facilitate the possibility of negotiating a settlement.

Second and on a deeper level, the hostages are living symbols of a perceived US policy which exploited and dominated Iran. Revolutionary Iran believes that the US used the Shah as its instrument to pillage Iran’s economic resources and rob it of its cultural heritage. The seizure of the Embassy is, according to this line of thinking, the result of 35 years of pent-up moral outrage. Thus, for the Iranians, the hostage crisis [Page 772] is a moral issue, rather than one of international law and diplomatic immunity and can only be resolved when the issue is addressed in those terms. At a minimum, Iran is demanding that the US acknowledge the justice of this moral indignation.

Third, the hostages are probably serving as insurance against possible US retaliation. When the hostages were first seized, Iran was not concerned about this insurance issue, but as the crisis has dragged on, it is becoming an increasingly important factor. The Iranians are riding a wild tiger on which they cannot safely remain, but from which they are equally fearful of dismounting.

The Course of Events: Because Khomeini has decreed that the Iranian people acting through the Parliament must decide the hostages’ fate, no real progress toward resolving the crisis can be expected until that body convenes. The final round of elections will be held May 9. Optimistically, the new legislature will meet by the end of May and begin the hostage debate by the end of June. (The intervening month will be used by the Parliament for organizing internally and the selection of a new cabinet.) The hostages debate could easily extend through the summer, particularly if legislative sessions are suspended during the holy, fasting month of Ramadan, which commences on July 17.

If Khomeini dies or is totally incapacitated soon, the prospects for a negotiated settlement in the intermediate future will be almost nil. Without Khomeini’s legitimizing influence, a weak coalition composed of Iran’s various competing forces will not be able to reach an authoritative decision on this issue. Thus, the hostages will have to wait until a new, dominant power center is established which will have the strength and legitimacy to find a solution to the hostage problem. That process could, under the best of circumstances, take several months to come to fruition.

Implications for the US: The previous discussions suggest several conclusions:

—The crisis is essentially self-contained and not subject to manipulation by an outside force. Although outside power and pressures can be projected into the political arena, they will have little impact on the key players. This is particularly true if the reward for releasing the hostages is the mere cessation of outside pressures, such as the current economic measures taken against Iran.

—The hostages are intimately linked to the domestic political process. When a majority of the key players believe the hostages are a liability, a framework for negotiations can be established; however,

—No single individual has the authority to negotiate on this issue; therefore, it is a mistake to look for such a leader with whom normal diplomatic relations can be initiated and pursued. What is needed is [Page 773] broad consensus building around the concept that holding the hostages is no longer to the advantage of Iran or any of the competing political groups.

—Although the Parliament has been given the assignment of solving the crisis, it will not make a decision until it has received the “correct” signal from Khomeini. It cannot be expected to act on its own initiative;

Khomeini will send the “correct” signal when he senses the public is ready to end the crisis. This perception, in part, will be generated by the advice he receives from his close confidants and advisors.

  1. Source: Department of State, Records of David D. Newsom, Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs, Subject Files, 1978–1981, Lot 81D154, Data on Hostages. Secret. Drafted by Grummon. In the upper right corner of the memorandum, an unknown hand wrote: “Mr. Newsom has seen May 12, 1980.”