75. Memorandum From Secretary of Defense Brown to President Carter1


  • The Dynamics of the Hostage Situation

Pursuing the diplomatic options and applying the pressure of world opinion to the Iranians is clearly the right approach over the next several days. The question of the Shah’s departure from the U.S., the UNSC and ICJ proceedings, the religious fervor of Muharram, the Iranian vote on the new constitution, the continued international perception of the U.S. as the aggrieved party—all argue that it is too soon to move to “other means.”

But as time goes on, the Iranians, and the world—though not the American people—are likely to begin to see the holding of the U.S. hostages as the natural state of things, rather than as an abomination. There may then be more international pressure on the U.S. to “confess our sins of espionage,” and to promise amnesty to Iran, than on the Iranians to release the hostages. At home, the general support for our policy (strong pressure with peaceful means, holding military action in reserve) will begin to fragment. On one side there will be calls for extreme military actions, on the other for meeting some or all Iranian demands.

Your press conference of Wednesday evening2 (the most effective of your Presidency thus far) has held the situation together for an extra week or so. Early in the week of Dec. 3, I believe it will be time to push our Allies and friends to adopt some of the strongest economic measures we can devise. Apparently action by the European and Japanese banks similar to our own—blocking, defaults, etc.—would soon have increasingly severe effects. But those countries correctly view such action as risky and painful to themselves. They will take it, if at all, only if they believe the alternative is military action by us that is even more risky to them in economic and political terms. We must be prepared to threaten such action.

If we cannot persuade them to take such economic and political action, or if it fails to secure release of the hostages, we will have to [Page 190] consider military options very seriously. Our approach should be to make it painful to Khomeini to hold the hostages (so far it hasn’t been painful—world public opinion doesn’t bother him much), and prospectively much more painful to him if they are harmed. Then he may be pushed toward a face-saving solution (e.g., expulsion with or without a quick trial). Though many suggest blockade, mining of harbors through which most Iranian imports flow is clearly, to my mind, less risky and less escalatory. With mining, we need not stop ships with our own ships; our forces are there to be shot at only briefly; and ships which might be sunk must themselves take the last move that has that result. Mining is the mildest military action I have found. We are seeking others, for example various acts to demonstrate how we could damage Iran, but I doubt that we will come up with any that are effective without being at the same time more escalatory.

Mining, like blockade, is an act of war—though a bloodless act of war, like invading an embassy and taking hostages. There would be a real risk of upsetting our Allies, and a greater one of upsetting or even severely alienating other Muslim states in the Gulf region and elsewhere.

It could derail the negotiating process, such as it is, although it might also revive that process. And it would certainly increase the risk to the hostages—probably severely, for a time, though not as likely fatally so as a rescue attempt would do. But it would show we are not to be trifled with and that we will not accept a status quo that has some of our people hostage without corresponding pain to those who hold them hostage. It would avoid a situation that might otherwise drag on, where the U.S. is hurting and Iran—or at least the Iranian leadership—is not. Mining would—over a couple of months—affect the Iranian economy significantly. It would, by the implicit threat of further escalation, get the attention of Iranian leaders, and convince them we are not bluffing, much faster than that.

The question on which your advisers will probably divide is “when?” That judgment will turn on: our estimates of the likely course and outcome—both for the hostages and for perceived American standing in the region and elsewhere—of diplomatic negotiations that last for months; whether the hostages are put on trial; the outcome of UNSC and ICJ proceedings; the willingness of others to join us in non-military actions and the effect thereof on the Iranians; how well we think we can make our case to the moderate Muslim countries.

My own judgment is that we can go for a period of ten to fifteen days along the diplomatic/economic route, if it appears to be moving in a promising way, and if there is not evidence or grave suspicion that any hostages have been harmed. If strong economic measures against Iran are taken by our key Allies acting with us, that might give [Page 191] us another week or so. But even then I do not think we can delay facing up to at least the mildest military actions for more than about a month from now.

Harold Brown
  1. Source: Carter Library, National Security Affairs, Staff Material, Middle East File, Box 35, Subject File, Iran [Cables & Memos] 11–12/1979. Top Secret; Eyes Only. An unknown hand wrote at the top of the first page of the memorandum: “Bootleg non-paper.”
  2. See footnote 9, Document 67.