61. Memorandum From the President’s Assistant for National Security Affairs (Brzezinski) to President Carter1


  • Iran: What Next?

I enclose today’s SCC minutes.2 As you will see from them, we appear to make useful current decisions, but it is extremely difficult to get the group to focus on any strategic goals or steps. I again tried to push the participants to reflect on the needed steps if our current “litigational” approaches fail. I asked, what will we do if the Security Council’s resolution is defied? What will we do if the World Court’s ruling is also defied? There simply was no predisposition to answer these questions.

As a result, we are locking ourselves into a litigational approach, which is fine if our strategy is to transform the crisis into a prolonged malaise. But we need to ask more directly whether that is what we want. More specifically, Iran poses for us three interrelated dilemmas:

1. How to get the hostages out;

2. How to get rid of Khomeini—or, in other words, how to save Iran for the West;

3. How to get on with the Moslem world.

What are the implications of the above and what are some of the contradictions between them?

Patience and Litigation

The easiest way might seem to be by peaceful means. We are trying that now. But it may not succeed. In the meantime, however, we might lock ourselves into a pattern which increasingly excludes the use of force. I can see us sliding already into the usual litigational mode to which there is no end and from which there is no easy extrication (because a peaceful solution is always around the corner). Meanwhile, our domestic support will gradually fragment—with some howling for military action and others engaging in a do-it-yourself diplomacy. Our international support is also likely to be dissipated in the context [Page 160] of prolonged litigation, with more and more states focusing not only on the hostage issue but increasingly on Iran’s alleged grievances.

If, in the end, we do get our hostages back through accommodation, we still run the risk of jeopardizing our electoral chances if the public perceives us as having been intimidated in some fashion. From every public contact I have had, I sense a strong desire for U.S. honor to be reasserted and for American power to be demonstrated. Moreover, the Moslem world, and especially those Moslem states most dependent on us, will become increasingly convinced that the United States can be coerced. This will make our friends more insecure and our enemies more assertive, and thus it will also jeopardize goal #3 (a respectable relationship with the Arab world).

A punitive post-release strike, in my judgment, will not correct the above deficiency. It will be seen by much of the world as a petulant and perhaps even cowardly act, and it would almost certainly precipitate an explosion in the rest of the Moslem world. (In this connection, it is useful to remember that Shi’as number 55% of the population of Iraq, 51% of Jordan, 55% of Bahrain, 51% of Oman, 25% of Turkey, and about 18% of Pakistan.)

The only acceptable outcome of the peaceful route would be some formula along the lines that we discussed at Camp David:3 release of our people concurrently with a UN discussion of Iran’s other grievances, perhaps also accompanied by the Shah’s voluntary departure. We could follow that by severance of all diplomatic and economic relations with Iran. We could then also quietly pursue objective #2 (getting rid of Khomeini), though he would be fortified in the meantime by what in Tehran will appear to have been a successful humiliation of the U.S. All in all, this particular outcome—if accomplished without humiliating conditions—still remains the least risky and the best possible one, all things considered.

The Risky Alternative

The other alternative is to increase pressure on Iran and on the international community, once we have had recourse to all the peaceful options. The best means to do so would be to blockade Iranian ports while announcing:

1. They will stay closed until our people have been released;

2. That massive and instant retaliation will follow any harm to any one of the hostages.

The above will involve a high-risk strategy. It could result in the forfeiture of the lives of the hostages. Nonetheless, such an action [Page 161] would be understandable to much of the international community, especially if the UN/International Court options were exhausted. I suspect that it would also prompt a less hostile reaction from the Arab world than a punitive post-release strike, since Moslems generally respect firm action based on clear legal/moral principle.

Such an action could also contribute to Khomeini’s eventual fall. If he were to back down and release our hostages, he will have been humiliated. If he did not, the cumulative effects of the blockade as well as the punitive strike would encourage Iranian internal opposition, especially if we were to couple such action with more direct appeals to Iranians to overthrow his regime. Many Iranians are concerned that Khomeini is jeopardizing their chances to enter the 20th century as an independent and viable nation.

Finally, I believe that this course of action, though inevitably risky, would be politically more appealing. The public senses that our position is 100% correct on grounds of principle and that a strong reaction is justified. It would support it.

To conclude, I see us facing three possible outcomes:

1. A positive solution by peaceful means. If accomplished without too much humiliation, it is the best course of action, especially if followed by political/economic sanctions against Iran. We should know in a week if we can get it.4

2. Endless litigation, transforming the crisis into a prolonged malaise. This seems to me to be the worst outcome possible, for reasons already outlined.

3. The application of military pressure, which involves very high risks but which historically and politically is a preferable course to #2 above. Moreover, the paradox of the situation is that increasingly evident willingness to use military pressure may actually hasten a peaceful outcome, because it is likely to generate greater worldwide desire for a rapid termination of the crisis.

  1. Source: Carter Library, National Security Affairs, Staff Material, Office File, Box 17, SCC Meeting #211 held 11/27/79. Top Secret. Carter initialed the memorandum in the upper right corner.
  2. Attached but not printed. For Carter’s handwritten comments on the SCC Summary of Conclusions, see Document 62.
  3. See Document 51.
  4. An unknown hand, presumably Carter’s, underlined “in a week.”