56. Memorandum From the White House Chief of Staff (Jordan) to President Carter1

The longer the situation in Iran drags on, the more complex it seems and the more reluctant I am to try to offer advice. I lack a sure sense of what we should do as we weigh the lives of the hostages against several abstract principles against our country’s interests after the present crisis is over. And although the principles involved are pre-eminent, they are also abstract and easily deferred in their application when the lives of 49 human beings are at stake.

Having established that I am not in a good position to offer advice, I do have some feelings in my gut that I wanted to pass on to you.

First, I agree strongly with your desire to bring this thing to a head. It seems to me that the passage of time makes the situation more difficult for everyone involved:

—The American people, who have been supportive to date, will soon begin to sour on the situation and we will see increased support for extreme measures from giving the Shah back to wiping Iran off the face of the earth;

—The passage of time will make it more difficult for you and Khomeini to find a satisfactory political solution to this problem;

—The passage of time increases the chance that the mobs will overrun the Embassy and do harm to the hostages and/or increases the chances that some of the students will take the situation into their own hands;

—The passage of time will take its toll on SALT II ratification; I do not believe that SALT II will be ratified unless we have a politically [Page 147] satisfactory resolution of this crisis; I know that SALT II will certainly not move ahead in the present atmosphere;2

—The world community which presently supports us will begin to fall off given its heavy dependence on Mideast oil and their desire to avoid an international conflict;

—The crisis is taking a toll on your Presidency and your ability to lead. Politically, a protracted crisis will prevent you from doing the very minimal things that you need to do to win the Democratic nomination;

I don’t have a sure sense of how it is done, but I would argue that there are many good reasons for trying to bring this thing to a head at the earliest possible date. Most of the Iranian/Moslem experts seem to agree that we should wait until after Ashura and the December 2nd Constitutional vote to take those steps. Again, this is a difficult decision, but at some point in time, you are going to have to take some risks and make some very difficult decisions, I believe that the risks and difficulty of those decisions will increase with the passage of time. (You should read the most recent cable from Laingen if you have not already seen it.)3

Secondly, I share your concern about the negotiations and the UN channel. I don’t think that we have much choice but to try that approach, but I personally hope that it does not succeed. Despite our best efforts to explain and defend, I believe that we will be savaged politically for signing a document permitting a trial of the Shah by an international tribunal. Our participating in that exercise comes very close to violating the principles that we have adhered to throughout this crisis.

If those four principles are the basis for the safe release of our hostages,4 it will make it all the more important that we take some punitive steps against Iran. For the balance sheet will not be even, and the UN trial will be seized upon by our critics at home and abroad as evidence of our lack of strength and resolve.

Review with me the results of this crisis precipitated by Iran:

—The national humiliation of our country and its ability to protect our diplomatic interests;

—The crisis has required actions on our part—Iranian oil embargo and the freezing of assets—that will work a very specific hardship on our people and has had some adverse impact on friendly nations (like Saudi Arabia).

—Emotional wear and tear on our people at the Embassy. I saw a “terror psychologist” on television last week who said that a good [Page 148] number of these people will have emotional problems for the balance of their lives because of the extreme strain on their emotions;

—I believe that Khomeini should be held indirectly responsible for the deaths of the two Americans in Pakistan; it was certainly the example of the Iranian Embassy that stimulated the Paks to overrun our embassy at Islamabad;5

—If there is not a successful political solution to this crisis, SALT II will not be ratified, and the cost of not having a SALT relationship with the Soviets will work an additional hardship on our own country not to mention the great threat to the cause of world peace;

If we are ultimately successful in getting our people back via the UN channel, the balance sheet will be far from even. I would argue that we have to do something that is measured and reasonable to meet domestic political pressures and to serve as a deterrent to others who might be tempted to test us in the months and years ahead.

If and when we get our people back safely, there will be tremendous pressure for you to do nothing. People who urge us to do nothing will use the Soviet threat as a primary excuse. But, if after such an outrageous act directed against us by another country, we are compelled to sit silent and not retaliate, then perhaps we really have become a helpless giant.6 There is certainly less respect at home and abroad than there should be for U.S. military and economic strength. We can certainly argue that our nation’s cumulative strength is greatly underestimated but at some point that perception becomes reality.

I believe that a measured punitive act is absolutely essential to your own re-election and to America’s image in the world. I don’t think that the break in diplomatic relations is particularly relevant to the American people and that economic measures are difficult to explain and/or appreciate.

Thirdly, implied in all of this is the fact that we will probably not have good relations with Iran for some time to come. We will obviously have to be concerned about Soviet attitudes and actions in that area of the world, but we will have to accept the fact that it will probably be difficult to have good relations for some time to come. Even after Khomeini falls, his great legacy will probably be that he personally engendered an anti-American xenophobia that will remain among Ira [Page 149] nians for a long time to come. We certainly have to be concerned about Iran post-hostage and post-Khomeini, but we should be realistic about what that means. I am sure that there are people in the middle class in Iran and persons with Western educations that deplore what Khomeini has done and is doing, but those people will be outnumbered by many times by the people whose religious zeal has resulted in a strong anti-American feeling.

I believe that some time soon you should spend several hours with the Iranian experts from State and CIA and talk about Iran post-hostage crisis. We have been focused almost exclusively on the day-to-day situation with the hostages and some of the decisions that you will have to make soon as relates to the hostages will have implications for us in terms of our long-term objectives in Iran.

Fourth, if possible and compatible with the best strategy for safely extracting the hostages, the application of one of the military options resulting in their release is much better than the application of the military options after their release. The best scenario would be that we exercise one of the military options and the hostages were then released. This would show American will and ability to act and would respond to the pressure for us to “punish” the Iranians for their actions. If we have to punish the Iranians after the release of the hostages (which I would strongly favor), world opinion might very well turn against us. At that point, I would say to hell with world opinion.

You know, Mr. President, it is difficult to be the richest kid on the block and also the most popular. As a people and as a nation, we desire to be loved and respected. As a result, we are neither. Looking at the great challenges which face our people in the future, it seems that at this point in time in our history it is much more important that our people have their self-respect and some respect from the international community. If we are not respected around world and at home, there is no chance for us to be loved.

  1. Source: Carter Library, Office of the Chief of Staff, Jordan’s Confidential Files, Box 34, Iran 11/79. Eyes Only.
  2. Carter sent the SALT II Treaty and Protocol and related documents to the Senate for advice and ratification on June 22.
  3. See Document 46.
  4. See footnote 4, Document 47.
  5. On November 21, Pakistani protestors attacked the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad, then broke into the compound, killing one Marine Security Guard. The riots may have been triggered by a radio address by Khomeini alleging that the United States was responsible for the occupation of the Grand Mosque in Mecca on November 20. President Zia ordered the Pakistani Army to rescue the trapped Americans. For documentation on the incident, see Foreign Relations, 1977–1980, vol. XIX, South Asia, Documents 376388.
  6. If we don’t act in such a clear-cut example of international bad behavior, what would it take for our country to act? [Footnote is in the original.]