41. Editorial Note

On November 20, 1979, Carter administration officials held a series of meetings to discuss developments in the hostage crisis. The SCC met from 9 to 10:10 a.m. and covered a variety of topics, including preliminary ideas for responses to hostage trials, ongoing consultations at the UN, and a special report prepared by the Interagency Group [Page 100] (printed as Document 40). Vice President Walter Mondale, Secretary of State Cyrus Vance, Deputy Secretary of State Warren Christopher, Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern and South Asian Affairs Harold Saunders, Secretary of Defense Harold Brown, Graham Claytor from the Department of Defense, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs General David Jones, General John Pustay from the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Director of Central Intelligence Stansfield Turner, Frank Carlucci from the Central Intelligence Agency, Chief of Staff Hamilton Jordan, Press Secretary Jody Powell, the President’s Assistant for National Security Affairs Zbigniew Brzezinski, the President’s Deputy Assistant for National Security Affairs David Aaron, and William Odom and Gary Sick from the National Security Council Staff attended the meeting. (Carter Library, National Security Council, NSC Institutional File (H–Files), Box 106, SCC 206 Iran 11/20/79)

President Jimmy Carter, who was at Camp David for the upcoming Thanksgiving holiday, called Powell at 11:19 a.m. and told him to join with Vance and others in an emergency SCC meeting to draft a statement in response to a speech Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini would give that day. (President’s Personal Notes, November 20; Carter Library, Plains File, Box 1) Khomeini’s speech was reported by FBIS at 12:30 p.m. that afternoon. In the speech, Khomeini characterized President Carter and likeminded leaders as a “clique” of oppressors given to the “disease of self-glorification.” He said that Mohammed Reza Shah had “the illness only to see himself and a few flatterers and a number of clowns around him, to see only these people and not to have any consideration for the nation” and that this illness had caused his destruction. Carter, he said, “is afflicted with the same disease, except in a more severe form—the more the power, the more severe the disease.” According to Khomeini, the hostages were spies, and unless the Shah was returned to Iran, the hostages might be tried and then “Carter knows what will happen.” (FBIS 91, 12:30 p.m., November 20; Carter Library, National Security Affairs, Brzezinski Material, Country File, Box 30, Iran 11/17/79–11/20/79)

That afternoon, several meetings occurred to address the issues of the potential trial and execution of the hostages and Khomeini’s speech. From 1:30 to 2 p.m. in Washington, Aaron chaired a brief meeting of the Interagency Group. Policy Planning Staff Director Anthony Lake, Saunders, Robert Komer and Robert Murray from the Department of Defense, Carlucci, and Sick attended the meeting.

The Interagency Group reviewed a contingency paper prepared by the Iran Working Group that delineated U.S. options should a trial occur and/or the hostages be moved to an Iranian prison under Pasdaran Guard control. The last option (Item 31) in the draft plan was to carry out a military rescue operation to save any hostages not [Page 101] executed as the result of a trial. This group dispersed at 2 p.m. so that some of its members could attend the emergency SCC meeting called by Carter. (Carter Library, National Security Affairs, Staff Material, Middle East File, Box 35, Subject File, Iran Cables and Memos 11–12/79)

The emergency SCC meeting took place at 2 p.m. in Washington. In attendance were Vance, Christopher, Carlucci, Turner, Hamilton Jordan, Claytor, the President’s Assistant for Congressional Liaison Frank Moore, Pustay, Mondale, Brzezinski, Aaron, Sick, Odom, and Powell. Carter called Brzezinski during the meeting to say he was leaving Camp David for the White House to hold an emergency meeting of the NSC at 4 p.m. The emergency SCC meeting ended at 3:15 p.m. without a decision, although Vance remained behind to work on the draft reply to Khomeini’s speech. (Carter Library, National Security Affairs, Staff Material, Middle East File, Box 97, Meetings File, 11/20/79 SCC Meeting re Iran)

Carter returned from Camp David and convened the emergency NSC meeting at 4 p.m. in the Cabinet Room at the White House. Mondale, Brzezinski, Vance, Turner, Claytor, Jordan, Powell, Brown, and Jones attended. According to Brzezinski’s Iranian activities log, the meeting “approved key deployments.” (Carter Library, National Security Affairs, Brzezinski Material, Country File, Box 31, Iran 2/80) In his personal notes, Carter wrote that he “directed that another carrier be brought to the Arabian Gulf. That a replacement be moved from the West Coast to Subic Bay in the Philippines. That we build up refueling capability on Diego Garcia. And move some large helicopters there by C5A to be transferred to the carriers.” (President’s Personal Notes, November 20; Carter Library, Plains File, Box 1) No further account of this meeting has been found. Carter returned to Camp David after the meeting.

While principal members of the administration attended this emergency NSC meeting, Aaron, Lake, Carlucci, and Sick concurrently reconvened the Interagency Group at 4 p.m. and resumed the discussion on the contingency paper that had been suspended at 2 p.m. While the Interagency Group was meeting, the emergency NSC meeting concluded and sent to Aaron a “Matching Options” paper prepared by the President, which provided a checklist of possible U.S. responses to hostage trials, including non-specific potential military actions. Later that evening, Sick took this “Matching Options” paper to Lake’s office for incorporation into the draft contingency paper that the Interagency Group had been discussing. Both papers are attached to the record of the Interagency Group’s November 20 meetings. (Carter Library, National Security Affairs, Staff Material, Middle East File, Box 35, Subject File, Iran Cables and Memos 11–12/79) No other accounts of these meetings have been found.

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These parallel meeting tracks resulted in a finalized November 20 contingency paper printed as Document 42 and a White House statement released on November 20. The full statement reads:

There are reports that the American citizens being illegally held as hostages in Tehran with the support of the Iranian Government might soon be put through some sort of ‘trial.’ This would be a flagrant violation of international law and basic religious principles, and the Government of Iran would bear full responsibility for any ensuing consequences. The United States is seeking a peaceful solution to this problem through the U.N. and every other available channel. This is far preferable to the other remedies available to the United States. Such remedies are explicitly recognized in the Charter of the United Nations. The Government of Iran must recognize the gravity of the situation it has created. (Public Papers: Carter, 1979, Book II, page 2148)