220. Summary of Conclusions of a Special Coordination Committee Meeting1


  • Iran-Iraq Conflict


  • State

    • Warren Christopher
    • David Newsom
    • Harold Saunders
    • Reginald Bartholomew
  • Defense

    • Harold Brown
    • Graham Claytor
    • David McGiffert
    • Walt Slocombe
  • CIA

    • Stansfield Turner
    • Frank Carlucci
  • White House

    • The Vice President
    • Denis Clift
    • Zbigniew Brzezinski
  • NSC

    • William Odom
    • Gary Sick
  • JCS

    • Gen. Barrow
    • Gen. Gorman
[Page 705]

Dr. Brzezinski opened the meeting by reporting that the President had approved the cable to Oman which was proposed in the Mini-SCC earlier in the day and that that message had been sent.2 The President believes it is essential to differentiate between actions which are escalatory and those which are essentially defensive in nature. Our objective should be to terminate the conflict as soon as possible, to prevent an increase of Soviet influence, to prevent other Arab states from joining in the hostilities, to preserve the territorial integrity of Iran particularly with regard to the Soviet Union, to protect the hostages, and to work toward the eventual improvement of relations with all parties. The immediate question is what to do with respect to Saudi Arabia which has asked for information which could be useful for offensive purposes and for other help which could involve a U.S. presence. Can we influence Saudi Arabia to exercise restraint while adding to the substance of our security relationship? Additionally, should we consider moving our naval forces to the Persian Gulf to prevent the parties from widening the conflict? The Department of State had prepared a message to Ambassador West in Jidda which served as the basis for discussion.3

Message to Fahd

After some discussion, it was agreed by all members of the SCC that our initial message to Fahd should focus on our concern about the Omani cooperation with Iraq and the danger of escalation and also sound out Fahd about his awareness of and support for the requests for assistance which we have received through Prince Bandar and Prince Turki.4 We will be prepared to respond very quickly if Fahd indicates that these requests are endorsed by the highest political levels in the Kingdom. A copy of the proposed message is attached.

Specific Requests

In preparation for a quick response to Fahd if that is required, the group reviewed the requests as we now understand them. Differences of view on each item are reflected below.

[Page 706]


Dr. Brzezinski proposed the following response to the Saudis if this request is validated: “We are prepared to deploy AWACS as we did before if Saudi Arabia can assure us it will take no steps toward supporting Iraq in the present conflict in a way which would violate Saudi status of neutrality and the SAG will encourage the smaller Gulf states to take the same posture.” Harold Brown supported this, but suggested adding the following: “Four AWACS could arrive within 48 hours. They would require 350 men on the ground and about 12 C–141 flights to support them.” The JCS also supported this approach.

Mr. Christopher proposed the following alternative response to the Saudis: “We do not believe it would be either in SAG or U.S. interest to provide AWACS in the present circumstances. Fahd should recall how conspicuous an AWACS would be, both its actual presence and through its extensive logistic support requirements.” He believed that the introduction of a command and control aircraft at this point would give the impression that we were aligning ourselves with the Arabs vs. Iran. It would not be consistent with our position of neutrality. It would be helpful if we could offer alternative means of providing the kind of early warning information to the Saudis without such a large U.S. presence. Admiral Turner suggested two alternative possibilities: (1) E2 aircraft off the carriers, refueling in Dhahran or other Saudi airfields, then flying reconnaissance in the Gulf over international waters; or (2) placing one of the U.S. destroyers with an air traffic control capability in the vicinity of Dhahran to provide early warning and target location. He agreed with Harold Brown that each of these would be “second or third class” in comparison with the AWACS, but could provide some alternative capability. Harold Brown said the greatest visibility was not the nature of the assistance we provided but the way it is portrayed in the newspapers.

2. HAWK Missiles

Secretary Brown outlined three types of assistance we could provide to the Saudis. We could do any or all.

(1) Provide a command and control team to improve Saudi communications and control between their own sites. This is something they badly need to be effective. In some respects, it is more important than materiel.

(2) Provide U.S. training personnel to replace Saudis who would man operational missile batteries.

(3) Send additional missile battalions to replace those on the West Coast of Saudi Arabia (out of the conflict area) which are now being moved to the northeast.

[Page 707]

Secretary Brown recommended (1) and (2) if the Saudis request assistance. We should reserve (3) since there is no clear evidence they are actually requesting it and because it would be the highest visibility. The JCS and Dr. Brzezinski also supported this.

Mr. Christopher supported (2), and opposed increasing the U.S. presence on the ground. He noted that (1) would make more sense if we decided to provide AWACS since it would enhance the ability of the two systems to function smoothly together. Secretary Brown agreed, but noted that the command and control team would be helpful to them with or without AWACS since it added to the effectiveness of the entire system.

3. Targetting Data

Dr. Brzezinski proposed a formulation to the Saudis as follows: “We are prepared to continue to provide the SAG with intelligence on the progress of fighting between Iran and Iraq and would be prepared to provide information on Iranian targets if Iran attacks Saudi Arabia.” Secretary Brown agreed, but preferred to say that necessary targetting information would be in the hands of U.S. personnel coming with the AWACS and HAWK command/control groups and would be available if required. That, of course, presupposes a prior positive decision on providing AWACS or HAWK assistance.

Mr. Christopher originally proposed to say that we are not prepared to provide specific targetting information. He never expressed a final position, but reserved the State Department position for a subsequent meeting.

Admiral Turner argued strongly for providing the information to Saudi Arabia. He believed the Saudis would see the proposed Brzezinski formulation as not forthcoming. [1½ lines not declassified] The kind of information we propose to provide is not particularly sensitive, since it could be derived from open sources in most cases. This was a litmus test of our relationship with the Saudis, and we should be as forthcoming as possible.

Secretary Brown disagreed that the information was not sensitive since it included radar types and locations and gave locating data on civilian and industrial targets which was, by its very nature, sensitive. All agreed that the revelation of U.S. offers of targeting data—however bland—would be viewed by Iran as extremely serious.

U.S. Action vs. U.S. “Neutrality”

Mr. Christopher argued that the U.S. policy of neutrality is clear. We could not remain consistent with that policy and at the same time assist a party which is aligned with one side of the dispute. Saudi Arabia has publicly identified itself with Iraq, and any U.S. assistance of a tangible and visible nature will be seen as taking sides.

[Page 708]

Dr. Brzezinski maintained that our policy of neutrality is not an end but a means. We have adopted a position of neutrality in order to be able to accomplish certain things, but it is not an end in itself. He agreed that the Arabs have begun lining up with Iraq. However, we have our own vital interests to protect, and we cannot renounce our responsibilities in the interest of maintaining a posture of neutrality.

Admiral Turner said that there was a very real possibility that Iran would launch an attack on the oil installations on the Arab side of the Gulf as a desperation measure to draw in the West and attempt to persuade the West to intervene to stop the Iraqis. We must be concerned with the physical security of the oil facilities as a first objective.

Secretary Brown said that neutrality is important, but not in comparison to the magnitude of the interests involved in the oil flow from the Gulf and the protection of production capacity. Although it could be argued that a U.S. presence would serve to draw Iran into attacks on Saudi Arabia and others, it could be argued just as well that a U.S. presence to assist Saudi Arabia defense itself would act as a deterrent on the Iranians. He tended to the latter view.

The Vice President said that we could not be neutral with regard to the defense of Saudi Arabia and the Saudi oil production facilities, but we should be neutral with regard to the conflict between Iran and Iraq. Our problem was to deal with the first without making it appear that we were abandoning the other. He felt there was a chance that the Iraqis would achieve their principal objectives and stop in the next few days. Then there was a chance of a ceasefire and a reduction of tension. If we appear to be in cahoots with those opposing Iran, we provide a pretext for Soviet mischief-making. The great danger, however, was that Iraq would launch an attack on the islands from Oman, thereby escalating the conflict.

Secretary Brown noted that we are already providing assistance on the ground to Saudi Air Defense. In that sense we are not neutral. He doubted that anyone would suggest that we withdraw our assistance at this point in the name of neutrality. He recognized that the Soviets could portray our assistance to Saudi Arabia as helping the Arab side, but he thought they would be very cautious about that since they are also providing arms to Iraq. They would also be cautious about identifying us with the Arabs, which would leave them the less attractive alternative of appearing to side with Iran.

Dr. Brzezinski noted that Iran may decide to strike at Saudi oil for their own reasons. It is in the U.S. vital interest to preserve that oil, and he thought people would understand that basic fact if we took defensive precautions. If Iran should strike the oilfields, we would certainly not preserve our neutrality, but we might also be too late to protect the fields unless we took certain steps in advance.

[Page 709]

Mr. Christopher said that an Iranian air attack was unlikely to do much real damage. It was more likely to be a symbolic attack by a few aircraft than a sustained attack with massive damage.

Secretary Brown challenged this view, pointing to the damage done to Basra by the Iranian air force. Dr. Brzezinski noted that if Iran hits Saudi oil fields, our position is gone. In his view, we have two objectives: (1) to rein in the Saudis from associating with any escalation of the fighting; and (2) to send a signal that we consider the oilfields a vital zone.

Mr. Christopher said that our actions would serve as a provocation to Iran and would risk expansion of the conflict when our objective was to confine it. Secretary Brown wondered whether a positive signal (action) or a negative signal (doing nothing) was more likely to provoke an Iranian attack.

Admiral Turner commented that Iran did not require a “cause” to strike at Saudi Arabia. Its own desperate position was enough reason to lash out. In the total humiliation of the position they face soon, they could strike at Saudi Arabia, attempt to close the Strait, or take it out on the hostages.

Dr. Brzezinski said we owe it to ourselves to be there to shoot down the planes as they come in. Not being there is a greater danger than being there.

Movement of U.S. Forces

Dr. Brzezinski asked whether we should move our naval forces closer to the Gulf or to the islands as a means of deterring action by Iraq or others in the southern Gulf. Secretary Brown said that our aircraft are already within range, and we have four ships off Bahrain. He did not think that moving our ships would have much effect except to risk greater U.S. involvement in any conflict. He believed that if the Iraqis move to take the islands, we should stay out of it.

Dr. Brzezinski wondered what would then happen if the Iranians launched strikes against the islands or against shipping in the area. Secretary Brown replied that we would then provide escorts for shipping and take whatever steps were required to protect them.

There was no support for a movement of U.S. forces to the Gulf at this time.

Other Support for Saudi Arabia

Secretary Brown noted that there were two other steps which we might wish to take to improve the defense of Saudi Arabia. The Saudis had not asked for these, but we should at least note them.

1. We could provide a command/control/communications and intelligence team which would improve present weaknesses in the Saudi command structure and information handling. This would consist of about 200 U.S. personnel.

[Page 710]

2. We could deploy a U.S. squadron of F–15s to Saudi Arabia. If it became necessary to defend against attacks by F–4s, the F–15s would be far more effective than the Saudi F–5s. This would, of course, be a considerable increase in U.S. presence and would have implications under the War Powers Act.

In addition, he noted for the record that we should consider what kind of quids we might want to ask from the Saudis in return for our assistance. This could provide leverage, perhaps, to get them to address the question of overbuilding their own facilities, to accept U.S. freedom to conduct naval patrols in the gulf with support from Saudi ports, and perhaps even to ask for an increase in oil production. All agreed we should keep these in mind as we proceed.

  1. Source: Carter Library, National Security Council, Institutional Files, Box 116, SCC 344, 9/27/80, Iran/Iraq. Top Secret; Eyes Only. Attached but not printed is a September 27 covering memorandum from Brzezinski to Carter.
  2. Material on the September 27 Mini-SCC meeting on the Iran-Iraq war is in the Carter Library, National Security Council, Institutional Files, Box 123, SCM 147, 09/27/80, Mini-SCC, Iran/Iraq. The war began on September 22 when Iraq invaded Iran.
  3. Attached but not printed is a draft telegram to West providing instructions as to how to proceed regarding the Saudi requests.
  4. West met with Turki on September 27. When West asked Turki if the Saudi Government needed assistance due to the Iran-Iraq conflict, Turki responded that “the matter was being discussed and that probably some assistance was needed.” (Telegram 5840 from Jidda, September 27; National Archives, RG 59, Central Foreign Policy File, P870094–0793)