51. Minutes of a National Security Council Meeting1


  • Iran


  • The President
  • The Vice President


  • Secretary Cyrus Vance
  • Warren Christopher


  • Secretary Harold Brown
[Page 134]


  • General David Jones


  • Admiral Stansfield Turner


  • Zbigniew Brzezinski
  • Hamilton Jordan
  • Jody Powell

The President: Need to reasses where we are. We cannot let the Iranians decide the pace. We may need to bring the situation to a head. Should the Shah leave? How can we expedite it? What can we tell Khomeini about the consequences of a trial, of harm to hostages? Harm to even one is the same as to all.

There are two military options: mine three ports; destruction of Abadan refinery. How do we get Khomeini to realize that we will do this without having him lose face? That is something we need to resolve. When should we exercise that option?

We should try to get our allies to do more. They have not done enough. They have not really reacted. We might call to stop all shipping.

What terms through Waldheim would be acceptable? They could have recourse through our courts but that and international review of the Shah’s policies would be seen as a political defeat for the United States. Our hostages have already been punished—we have already been abused.

Should be restrict or expel Iranian diplomats? We should kick them out. These diplomats are of no use to us here.

To what degree should we consult our allies on our options? If they knew we might mine ports, it might spur them into more action.

Secretary Vance: PLO and UN are our main channels. UN exploring the four-point proposal that you and I have approved.2

The President: And Zbig.

[Page 135]

Secretancy Vance: Clark spent four hours with the Iranian emissary. The emissary asserts he has Khomeini’s approval. McHenry thinks we should go to the Security Council on Monday3 with a three-point resolution:

(1) respect for diplomatic immunity and release;

(2) U.S. and Iran peacefully to resolve differences;

(3) Secretary General to offer good offices.

The PLO channel was helpful in the release of the 13. I believe one must test fully the UN channel.

The President then reviewed the four points that “Cy, Zbig and I” went over last Friday.4 The Iranians sense their increasing vulnerability.

(Discussion of the four points—what do they mean?)

General Jones: Point 4 rules out punitive action.

The President: It would not prevent breaking diplomatic relations.

Dr. Brzezinski: The mining then wouldn’t make much sense; a single punitive strike would be better.

Hamilton Jordan: Our signing a document like this will cause a domestic outcry.

The Vice President: We may have to sign to get our people out.

Secretary Brown: How about substantial economic warfare and substantial military presence?

Admiral Turner: Is there a moral difference between violating the agreement and publicly doing something?

Dr. Brzezinski: We should act in a way that retains international respect for ourselves; a punitive strike after signing an agreement would be counterproductive.

Point #2 to be interpreted as including Khomeini, and this woud be made clear on the first day of the debate.

Jody Powell: This means we have accepted preconditions. We claimed before that we wouldn’t.

Dr. Brzezinski: Suggest second sentence of #2 be amended.

The President: “None of the interested parties.” (Changes in #3 dictated by the President; #4 slightly amended to permit breaking of diplomatic relations.)

Hamilton Jordan: If it looks like we ate crow and then diplomatic relations are broken, it will sit badly with the American people.

[Page 136]

The President: Fairly severe punishment—diplomatic and economic relations broken.

Admiral Turner: The results would not be that bad; embargo without international cooperation would not be that bad.

Dr. Brzezinski: argues that we should accompany the negotiating approval with a credible threat that we will mine if trials are held and will do more if our people are harmed. If peace succeeds, we could let it be known that we made a credible military threat.

Secretary Vance: (Recounts how bitter our people are against the press.)

Hamilton Jordan: If the mining could be done prior to release, it will look better.

Secretary Vance: We shouldn’t act unless our people are hurt. (Cites Truman with Angus Ward and Johnson with Pueblo.)5

Dr. Brzezinski: The public and world are now much less certain about the United States; hence this is not the same situation.

The President: Go ahead and negotiate—and plan punitive action.

Assuming the above doesn’t work, what about the Shah? How authentic is the PLO claim? If the Shah goes and our people are released, we would free to take punitive action. Mining appeals to me.

The Vice President: We don’t know the basic facts.

The President: Zbig, how do you feel?

Dr. Brzezinski: It depends on how it is perceived. If it looks like we contrived it, it will look bad. If the Iranians are against it, it looks less bad. But I am skeptical that we can avoid such an impression. Also, I don’t think we would then take the punitive action that we would need to take.

Admiral Turner: A high risk for our hostages if he leaves. Could we negotiate with the Iranians?

The President: That would be the worst. Now it would be a blow to Khomeini if he went to Mexico. Should ZB talk to David Rockefeller?

(Discussion of contacts)

[Page 137]

The President: Authorization of telephone tap through Attorney General. Newsom to talk to Reed about the Shah leaving.6

What means should we use to warn Khomeini of consequences of trial?

Dr. Brzezinski: What is the message?

The President: We should say: (1) any trial would result in interruption of Iranian commerce; (2) any harm to any one would result in direct retaliatory action.

Secretary Vance objects to the first.

The President: How can I sit here as President and watch the trials?

Dr. Brzezinski: Either the Iranians understand we will do something, in which case it is a useful repetition; or they don’t, in which case they need to be told.

The President: We need to put more pressure on our allies. We should communicate the foregoing also to our allies.

General Jones describes modalities of blockade; also it variants. Mining best.

Secretary Vance objects to threats.

Secretary Brown supports Secretary Vance. You have a bigger effect by military deployments.

Dr. Brzezinski: So far they have done daring things without advance warnings from us. So we know they do outrageous things if or when not warned by us.

The President asks the Vice President.

The Vice President: It is very difficult.

The President: This puts our allies under pressure. There is no way I could sit here. We would have to take action if there is public trial.

Secretary Vance: You would not be ruling it out.

Admiral Turner: Khomeini said you have been bluffing. You need to make it clear.

The Vice President: Might not this threat imperil the success of the negotiating track? Might not a few days be needed—then if hostages are hurt, national honor will come first.

The President: National honor comes first.

Jody Powell: The longer we wait, the less we deter.

[Page 138]

Dr. Brzezinski: Suggest that we leave the UN channel only for negotiating; and that we ask the French to carry the threat to Tehran.

The President: I would prefer to tell the chargé, and we notify the French, British, Germans, etc. I want to stop the trials. You decide, Cy, how to get to Khomeini. My decision is as indicated above.

Secretary Vance: Ambassadors will call on heads of government in Paris, London, Bonn to carry out. Who will tell Waldheim?

Dr. Brzezinski: How do we convey it to Khomeini?

Admiral Turner: Entezam could be a channel.

Dr. Brzezinski asks should we separate the negotiating process from the Shah initiative? Both together might be too much.

The President: The negotiating process won’t work.

On diplomats, I feel strongly, but will defer to Cy. On punitive steps later, Jody’s idea of closing down their ports for how long the prisoners were held is good.




Points Given Iranian Envoys by Rafi Ahmad 11/17/79

1. Release of personnel held in the United States Embassy in Tehran and permission to leave the country immediately for all U.S. Government employees.

2. Establishment of an international commission to enquire into allegations of grave violations of human rights in Iran under the former regime.

3. The Government of the United States will raise no objection to any legal recourse in the courts of the United States by Government of Iran in relation to its demand concerning assets which in its view have been illegally taken out of the country by the Shah.

4. Affirmation by the Government of Iran and the United States to abide strictly by the declaration on principles of international law concerning friendly relations and cooperation among states in accordance with the charter of the United Nations, and by the provisions of the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations.

[header and 4 paragraphs (21 lines) not declassified.]

  1. Source: Carter Library, Plains File, Box 7, NSC/SCC Minutes, 11/15/79–12/12/79. Top Secret; Sensitive. The meeting took place at Camp David.
  2. See attachment. In his memoir, Vance wrote that on November 17 (Vance, Hard Choices, p. 379), he handed the four points to Waldheim, who then handed the proposal to Iranian representatives at the UN. (Saunders, “Diplomacy and Pressure,” American Hostages in Iran, p. 84) Salamatin arrived in New York on November 16 to request a formal meeting of the Security Council in order to “set forward” Iran’s views and to help the Iranian government deal with the students in control at the Embassy. Salamatin told Security Council President Palacios that “the present situation is such that in order to release the hostages the govt would have to kill the students.” (Telegram 5344 from USUN, November 17; National Archives, RG 59, Central Foreign Policy File, D790535–0354)
  3. November 26.
  4. November 16.
  5. In November 1948, U.S. Consul at Shenyang Angus Ward was placed under house arrest by Mao Zedong’s People’s Liberation Army. Ward was ultimately arrested, brought to trial, and deported in December 1949. During the crisis, Truman and his advisors discussed but rejected the option of a rescue operation. The USS Pueblo was captured by North Koreans in January 1968. Eighty-two crew members were held as POWs and tortured by the North Korean government for 11 months. To gain the hostages’ release, the Johnson administration issued an apology in December 1968, admitted the Pueblo was spying, and assured North Korea that the United States would not spy again. There were no rescue attempts. The apology was rescinded after the crewmen were released.
  6. Reed told Newsom that the Shah intended to leave for Mexico if his scheduled surgery was successful, wanted advice, and was embarrassed by the problems resulting from his presence. (Memorandum from Newsom to Vance, November 23; Department of State, Records of David D. Newsom, Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs, Subject Files, 1978–1981, Lot 81D154, Misc on Shah)
  7. Secret; Eyes Only; Highly Sensitive Sources. Carter initialed the first page.