83. Minutes of a National Security Council Meeting1


  • Iran


  • The President
  • The Vice President
  • State

    • Secretary Vance
  • Defense

    • Secretary Brown
  • White House

    • Zbigniew Brzezinski
    • David Aaron
[Page 218]


After the meeting reduced itself solely to the statutory members, Dr. Brzezinski noted the previous discussion of diplomatic and economic steps and outlined the proposed agenda for this portion of the meeting.

—The military steps that might be required;

—The longer-term political actions which we might take regarding the Khomeini Government; and

—Our future military posture in the region.

Before turning to this agenda, Secretary Vance reported on an oral message to the President on Iran from President Brezhnev.2 He said that the first two-thirds of the message was all right and that the last third was about what could be expected from the Soviets. He explained that it had been given to him by Dobrynin over the phone. Dobrynin has been called home for consultations and Secretary Vance would meet with him on Wednesday, December 5 and review both Iran and SALT.

The President noted that the Soviets had taken a very negative line in TASS. He said the private assurances about their position were of no help. Secretary Vance indicated that he would pursue this issue vigorously with Dobrynin. The Vice President added that a continuation of the Soviet press line will kill SALT.

Turning to the agenda, Dr. Brzezinski said that the principal issue is the relationship between the military and diplomatic steps and the economic measures which we had under consideration. He noted that we had sent the message to the Iranians concerning holding trials of our hostages3 which foreshadowed certain steps that we would take to interrupt commerce with Iran.

More specifically, Dr. Brzezinski noted the decision of whether to deploy the AWACS, whether to deploy F–111s and whether to revitalize planning for rescue operations which had become dormant. Separate from these deployment decisions, he added, were action decisions [Page 219] including several possibilities which Harold Brown would be prepared to present.

In this connection Dr. Brzezinski said we should consider how to address these measures with our Allies to encourage their help on the economic measures discussed previously in the NSC meeting.

Finally, Dr. Brzezinski said there was the question of timing: is time on our side or is there a continuing erosion in our position internationally? He concluded by suggesting that Harold Brown brief the NSC on the military options which he had under consideration.

The President indicated that he first would like Secretary Vance to respond to a question he had asked earlier: what should the U.S. do if the Iranians institute trials. He said that he was at ease about our military preparations and he felt that Khomeini was ill-at-ease. He said the Ayatollah knows that we can blockade Iran, that we can destroy the refineries at Abadan and that we can take out their aircraft and airfields. He noted that we had reached a consensus on the nature of these options within the government but that he would decide when they might be implemented.

On the other hand, there was no consensus on the possibilities that were available to us short of these military actions. He thought that as soon as the Security Council finishes its action and the International Court of Justice renders its decision, the U.S. should proceed to ask for mandatory sanctions in the UN Security Council and call for other countries to join us on a voluntary basis. He said he was not certain exactly when economic sanctions should be applied, but it was clear that if the Iranians start trials, the U.S. should move forward on sanctions. He recalled that we had already informed the Iranians that we would seek to interrupt their commerce if they tried the American hostages.

Secretary Vance said he had no problem with calling for sanctions but he opposed the mining of harbors to achieve an interruption in Iranian commerce.

The President explained that he was not in favor of mining harbors as soon as the trials start as long as the Allies have joined us in imposing voluntary economic sanctions and the Security Council is debating in good faith the possibility of mandatory sanctions. However, if this effort is not successful, he reserved the right to mine Iran’s harbors. He said he wanted Prime Minister Thatcher, President Giscard and Chancellor Schmidt to know that this is an option that we have, and that we are prepared to exercise, if economic sanctions do not work.

The Secretary of State said that he agreed with the President but was against mining.

The Vice President asked whether the concept was that if the Iranians start trials we would immediately move to sanctions and mining. [Page 220] The President replied “No.” We would call for sanctions, but since Security Council debate could go on for weeks, we would accompany this with a call for like-minded countries to join us immediately in applying voluntary sanctions.

Dr. Brzezinski said that if the latter is effective, that would be fine. But if not, we would come to a crunch.

Secretary Brown said that it is quite important what we say to our Allies. If sanctions are called for, but will not be imposed by the International Community or by our friends, it may be necessary to go to unilateral action.

Secretary Vance said that in that case we should be sure to be clear that we are talking about mining and not bombing.

The President agreed that we should make clear we are considering mining or blockading. He added that he would feel better if Thatcher, Giscard and Schmidt understood that this is a likely prospect if appropriate actions through UN sanctions do not materialize. He added that irrespective of UN action, if they kill a hostage, that is a different situation. He noted, however, that if that happens, a step such as bombing might lead to the killing of the other 49.

The President said that his worst period was earlier when the Iranians might have killed the Marine they had captured and we had thousands of Americans in Tehran against which the Iranians could retaliate. He concluded by saying that we should agree on what we will do if trials take place.

Dr. Brzezinski summarized that without trials we would pursue economic sanctions at a slower pace. Secretary Vance agreed that that was the right approach.

The President said that Hodding Carter and Jody Powell should explain what we mean by the economic steps that had been discussed earlier in the meeting. He said they should hone down their arguments and be prepared to make a clear presentation. The Secretary of State said that the concept of cross defaults was not that complicated once it was explained.

The Secretary of Defense said that the real issue is how we can go down the negotiating path without making it harder to use non-negotiating methods. We will confront the argument that if we have gone a month without the Iranians harming the hostages, why not continue to refrain from action.

Dr. Brzezinski said that there are military options that involve additional deployments rather than operations. Secretary Brown said that we already have enough forces deployed to carry out the options we have under consideration.

The President said his approach was to never let the situation freeze up. We must keep taking steps. He said we must not let this [Page 221] become a “normal” situation. We are really skating on thin ice with the American public. The Secretary of State said that one action we could take is to move the Shah to a permanent home. The President agreed.

Dr. Brzezinski said that there were deployment actions, like positioning AWACS in Egypt, that also might be undertaken.

The Secretary of State opposed deploying AWACS to Egypt. He said that we will be pursuing the negotiating track with the Secretary General, with the PLO and others. He thought that the deployment of AWACS to Egypt would put a big obstacle into this track. He thought it would only serve to get the Iranians to rally around Khomeini and toughen up again just when we were hoping to induce them into a more accommodating stance. He said it simply did not make sense to move the AWACS in at this time.

Secretary Brown said that there were considerable difficulties in Libya at the moment and that the movement of the AWACS to Egypt could be related to Libya as opposed to the Iranian situation.

Dr. Brzezinski said that we have followed the two-track approach in this crisis—increasing military preparations and pursuing negotiating efforts. He said the political negotiations will be going forward and that the deployment of AWACS will demonstrate that the military track is moving forward in case negotiations should fail. Secretary Vance disagreed. He said he thought it would block negotiations. Harold Brown recalled that this was what the Secretary of State had thought if a second carrier were moved into the Arabian Sea.

The President said that he did not agree with the Secretary of State. He said that the use of American planes in this situation is a real possibility and we need to prepare for it. He recalled that he had turned down proposals to deploy a third carrier to the region or to put Marines into the area. But he thought the reaction to AWACS would be no worse in Iran than to the two-carrier deployment and that he would feel better if the AWACS were there in case of a conflict.

The Secretary of Defense said that we could get the AWACS there in a short period of time. The President responded that he thought he had decided to do this ten days ago at Camp David. Secretary Vance responded that he had not been a participant in that decision. Dr. Brzezinski recalled that the decision had been taken in connection with the Defense Budget meeting4 and that immediately thereafter, when the Secretary of State had learned about it, had registered his concern.

[Page 222]

The President concluded by saying that he did not agree with the Secretary of State and that Harold Brown should go ahead and put the AWACS into Egypt.

The Secretary of State asked who should be notified and when. Secretary Brown said that the Egyptians would obviously be notified. The Secretary of State added that our European Allies should be notified as well.

The President asked for the status of the deployment. Secretary Brown said that the AWACS can be in Egypt by Friday.5 He added that we can refuel from Mildenhall and not the Azores and so we need not inform the Portuguese. It would therefore be possible to deploy the AWACS on a quiet basis.

The President said that he had no aversion to people knowing about it. Secretary Brown said that it was best to pursue the quiet track and then notify people after we land the AWACS in Egypt.

[1 paragraph (6 lines) not declassified]

The President asked the Secretary of State for his opinion about discussing this issue on a private basis during his visit with Prime Minister Thatcher, President Giscard and Chancellor Schmidt. The Secretary of State thought this was a good idea. He said we have not thought through who are the best people to support and we should obtain our Allies’ thinking. The President indicated that he was particularly interested in the views of Thatcher and Giscard on General Djam and Bakhtiar representatives. The Secretary of State added that we need to do more analysis for a successful operation.

The Secretary of Defense said that we could not wait forever for a perfect analysis. We have links into the opposition and we need to exercise them in order to get more information on its capability. The Secretary of State responded that as the Vice President once observed, the U.S. has a poor record in carrying out such operations and therefore we need better information.

Dr. Brzezinski said he agreed that more information is desirable. He thought that we should talk to the Germans as well. But he recalled the French dictum that to get engaged is to see.

The President said we do not want to do anything until Cy gets back. He suggested that Stan Turner promptly provide CIA’s best assessment of potential successors to Khomeini for Secretary Vance’s use. Dr. Brzezinski thought that in addition the Secretary could explain [Page 223] the program we have in mind.6 The President said that we should get the Allies thoughts rather than lay out a U.S. plan. He also thought there might be a possibility that the French could help provide us information on the Iraqi position and their intentions in this situation.

The Secretary of State said that Dick Cooper had been in contact with oil company officials operating in Iraq. They were all convinced that the Iraqis will invade Iran’s oil fields.

[Omitted here is information on regional security.]

Turning to the question of a permanent location for the Shah, Secretary Vance outlined the situation:

In Argentina, Videla has said “the negative generally outweighs the positive.” The price they want is for the United States to lay off on human rights and to say nice things about their government. They also want the Shah to invest his fortune in Argentina. The President commented that we certainly could congratulate them on their hospitality.

The Secretary said that in Austria, Kreisky is waiting for Arafat’s reaction on the consequences to the hostages should the Shah relocate there. The President asked what Kreisky had in mind. Secretary Vance replied that Kreisky does not want to be responsible for the deaths of the hostages. The President replied that Kreisky could write a letter in advance disclaiming responsibility. Secretary Vance concluded that we will learn soon what the Austrian reaction is.

South Africa wants a request from the Shah in order to consider seriously the possibility of granting him asylum. The Shah has said that he does not like South Africa because they are racists. We are in touch with his people to say that this response is not satisfactory. We understand that the Shah told Peter Tarnoff that he would go to South Africa but that the Shahbanou does not want to go there.

Continuing, the Secretary said that Guatemala too would accept the Shah but they too want a big price. Tonga has volunteered asylum, but the Shah has said he does not like islands. There is even the possibility of Ireland. A church leader in Iceland, speaking on behalf of the Government, has said that he might come there. We have asked our Ambassador to Iceland to assess that possibility. Finally, we know that Paraguay will take him, but he will not go there. Costa Rica has said in the past that they would take him, but we do not know what their [Page 224] present position is and we are concerned that it would be impossible to protect them there.

Dr. Brzezinski said that Guatemala sounded best. The President asked about Panama. Secretary Vance replied that the Panamanians have not made their position clear.

The Secretary of State said that they were trying to get more responsible people to Texas to work on the Shah’s staff. The current key-staff person, Robert Armao, was not helpful and we are trying to encourage Jackson to get more directly involved.

The Secretary asked whether the President had seen the analysis of how long the Shah has to live. Dr. Brzezinski said that the CIA estimated 6–18 months, but he noted that this was an analysis by a doctor who has not been directly involved in the Shah’s case.

[Omitted here is information on SALT II.]

The President then asked about the Iranian diplomats and measures that might be taken against them. Secretary Vance said that PNGing the Iranian diplomats might lead the Iranians to decide that they can do whatever they want with our hostages. However, if we must do something, we should cut down the number of Iranian diplomats and restrict their freedom of movement. He said it was important to keep a handful in this country to service the students. Moreover, in the end, we may want to trade a mutual break in relations as part of the final resolution of the crisis.

The President said that by PNGing he meant he wanted to kick out all of those except those who are needed to take care of the students. Secretary Brown said that if the number of Iranian diplomats was cut in half, that would be a help. The President observed that when we take this action, the American public’s reaction will be—are they still here?

[1 paragraph (4½ lines) not declassified]

The President asked what is the least number with which the Iranians could operate? Secretary Vance replied five. The Vice President asked whether anyone has asked us to remove them; whether there has been any political pressure on this score. He said that he had not sensed that it was a point of irritation with the American people.

The President responded that he wanted Khomeini to know that the situation is deteriorating. He thought that they feared a break because they worry about not being able to defend themselves against Iraq. The President said that he wanted to tighten the noose that Khomeini had tied around his own neck. He asked why it was necessary to keep open any consulates.

The Secretary of State replied that they were the only ones who could deal with the students. Dr. Brzezinski asked why the banks cannot do it directly. The Secretary of State said that the consulates give the money to the banks to give to the students.

[Page 225]

The President asked the Secretary of State to get answers to the question of how the money to the students is distributed and on the number of Iranian diplomats that must remain in the country. He said Khomeini must think that the situation cannot be serious if we are still doing diplomatic business as usual. [4½ lines not declassified] he wanted to see if the banks could handle the students.

The Secretary of State said that Mr. Farhang, the Cultural Attaché at the Embassy, wants to go back to Tehran to see Khomeini before taking the job as head of the UN Mission in order to tell him what a mistake the holding of the hostages has been. If Khomeini still wanted him to take the UN job, then he would come back and do so.

The President asked the Secretary if he could get in touch with Khomeini if he wanted to communicate with him. The Secretary replied that we can do it.

The President asked about Lopez Portillo’s comments and what we were doing about Mexican reaction to our freezing of assets. The Secretary of State said that he would be seeing the Mexican Ambassador the next day.

The meeting then adjourned.

  1. Source: Carter Library, National Security Council, NSC Institutional Files (H–Files), Box 57, NSC 023 Iran 12/4/79. Top Secret; Sensitive. The meeting took place in the Cabinet Room.
  2. The oral message stated that the Soviet Union held “a clear and unequivocal position,” “consistently stand[s] for a just settlement of the conflict to mutual satisfaction of both sides,” has told the Iranian leadership to release the hostages, and hopes the United States appreciates this Soviet effort to relax tensions. The Soviets counseled restraint, particularly should the United States adopt means “which are far from a peaceful resolution of the conflict.” At the top of the paper, Carter wrote: “This is b.s. J.” (Dictated by Ambassador Dobrynin’s Assistant, December 4; Carter Library, Plains File, Box 23, Iran 6/75–12/79) The full message is in telegram 312888 to Moscow, December 4. (Carter Library, National Security Affairs, Brzezinski Material, Brzezinski Office File, Box 54, Country Chron File, USSR 12/79) Telegram 312888 is printed in Foreign Relations, 1977–1980, vol. VI, Soviet Union, Document 236.
  3. See Document 41.
  4. The meeting at Camp David to discuss the Defense budget took place on November 24 from 10:03 a.m. to 1:10 p.m. (Carter Library, President’s Daily Diary)
  5. December 7.
  6. In a December 4 memorandum to Vance and Turner, Brzezinski wrote that when Vance talks to Thatcher, Schmidt, and Giscard, he should “seek their views on the possibility of supporting an alternative to the Khomeini government in Iran. In particular you should ask for their assessment of alternative leaders and rival groups within and outside Iran we well as the most effective strategies for supporting them.” (Carter Library, Plains File, Box 23, Iran 6/75–12/79)