94. Memorandum From Gary Sick of the National Security Council Staff to the President’s Assistant for National Security Affairs (Brzezinski)1


  • Iran—Next Steps

The situation in Iran is building toward an explosion. Khomeini must take most of the responsibility for that, but our firm stance in the hostage situation and particularly our military presence has given heart to some who would not have been willing to stand up otherwise. Although an explosion of the internal situation is not without its risks to our interests and to the lives of the hostages, it is nevertheless true that the present impasse can be broken only by some significant change in the internal power structure of Iran. In a revolutionary situation, change is unlikely to occur peacefully or incrementally. The building pressures must therefore be regarded as an opportunity.

The Constitution

I continue to be persuaded that the central issue is the constitution. Not only does the constitution define the future shape of Iran and spell out in some detail what the revolution was about, but it has acquired special significance as Khomeini’s personal life testament. Very much in the sense of a biblical prophet, Khomeini is driven by a dominant inner vision—an idea to which he has dedicated his life. The peculiar expression of clerical rule under a sort of philosopher king (which is how Khomeini must see himself) is the outcome of a lifetime of cloistered thought in medieval settings. It is his divine destiny and he is willing to risk everything to achieve it.

His technique has been very simple. At each turning point Khomeini has identified a tangible enemy which could rally public unity and deflect criticism. In the late summer, the enemy was the Kurdish rebellion and the threat of Soviet involvement. He used that as an excuse to proclaim himself commander in chief, to close down the press, to terminate all opposition political activity, and to attack the Soviets and their minions. At the same time, he packed the membership of the Council of Experts and, while people were distracted, mandated [Page 246] them to systematically gut the liberal draft constitution and replace it with a document more to his liking.

As the Kurdish problem wore on, it lost its crowd appeal. The attack on our embassy came along just as he faced the next great test of the referendum. He may or may not have engineered it, but he has exploited it to the limit. Recognizing this, we anticipated a change once the referendum was over. We may have been right, for there are clear signs of a new willingness on the part of many in Tehran to get this monkey off their back. But the process is complicated by the power struggle that is raging just below the surface and by the unexpected demonstration of weakness by Khomeini in the referendum itself. Despite heroic efforts to whip up religious and political frenzy, he could manage to get only 70% of the eligible voters to back his version of the constitution—and that is by his own count.

The Emerging Opposition

Khomeini is aware that the longer he waits to implement his ideas, and the more people have an opportunity to think about [what] they mean for Iran, the less likely they are to accept his vision of an ideal Islamic state. So he intends to cram it down their throats while he still has the power to do it.

But the referendum was a curious watershed. Instead of demonstrating strength and sustaining momentum, it brought a sizable opposition out of hiding for the first time and forced them to realize that they had to act soon or not at all. Shariat-Madari is the key. Previously he had kept his own counsel, but the referendum was too much for him to swallow and he began to speak out. That gave heart to others. Khomeini has lost his aura of invincibility. When he left his house to call on Shariat-Madari, he admitted to vulnerability for the first time. When the Imam himself is perceived as fallible and vulnerable, it is the beginning of the end.

Iranians everywhere seem to sense this tidal change. The coffeehouse chatter is beginning to turn into serious purpose. As you know, I am in personal contact with several senior Iranians who have considerable networks of influence. Within the past week, one of these men has identified high level channels directly to Admiral Madani in Khuzestan and to Shariat-Madari. For the moment, [2 lines not declassified]. But the moment of truth is at hand.

The Need for a Decision

If Shariat-Madari, Madani, and others who share their abhorrence of a theocratic dictatorship under Khomeini—and who may potentially be willing to risk their lives to oppose it—if they are to move, they are going to need more than kind words of reassurance from us. They do [Page 247] not want—in fact they fear—any direct action on our part which would make them appear to be imperialist tools. However, Khomeini’s henchmen are ruthless, the left is seeking an opportunity to assert itself, and they badly need evidence of support.

The Saudis are contributing through Bakhtiar. The Iraqis have made an offer. The forces of moderation in Iran are now coming to us.2 If we merely equivocate, they may go ahead on their own; but we must realize that the absence of any policy decision on our part is going to make them more cautious and increase their proclivity to look for allies among the radical opposition. This is not a situation where outcomes are neatly predictable. However, the general trend of events is clear.

If we sit on our hands and refuse to establish the beginnings of an operational relationship with those who hold the only promise of a moderate future for Iran, we must recognize—and accept responsibility for the fact—that we are prolonging Khomeini’s rule, the continued polarization of extremism on the left and right, and the likelihood that the left will increase its strength and legitimacy. We are coming to the point where no decision is in fact a decision.3

At this stage, what is required is a clear decision that we cannot accept Khomeini as the arbiter of our future relationship with Iran. We must be willing to recognize that the longer Khomeini remains as the supreme power in Iran, the more likely we are to have a takeover by radical elements of the left. We must be clear in our own minds that the risks of an early breakdown of authority and struggle for power are less than the risks of prolonged manipulation by Khomeini which will eventually lead him into a coalition with the left and with the Soviets in order to maintain himself in power.

What is required is a quiet signal through available channels to the people who are beginning to act that we support their efforts and will quietly back them up through political efforts and with some financial support. We can put limits on our support, but we must declare our intentions.4

The very act of decision will free us to talk operationally with the Saudis and other friends in the region. It will give us the basis for a serious relationship with the Iraqis—[less than 1 line not declassified]. It will provide an order and structure to our actions. In short, it will provide a policy rudder to guide us through a dangerous and tumul [Page 248] tuous time. Without a decision we are merely adrift and prey to the currents of the moment.

It is in our deepest national interest to see a moderate government of the center emerge in Iran, a government which expresses the national aspirations of the Iranian people for independence and sensible economic development.

We can leave that to chance or we can help the Iranian nationalists who are beginning to act. It is time we made up our mind.

  1. Source: Carter Library, National Security Affairs, Staff Material, Office File, Box 64, Outside the System File, Iran: Non Meetings Hostage Crisis 11/79–12/79. Secret; Eyes Only. Carter initialed “C” in the upper right corner.
  2. This sentence was underlined. In the left margin, Carter wrote: “Who? When? How?”
  3. The second half of this sentence was underlined.
  4. In the left margin, Carter wrote: “This needs to be expanded & clarified.”