34. Memorandum From William Odom of the National Security Council Staff to the President’s Assistant for National Security Affairs (Brzezinski)1


  • Strategy for the Persian Gulf in 1980

I promised some ideas on next steps after the present Iranian crisis.2 As a preface, I want to set forth a short assessment of our present position and possibilities in region. That is followed by a list of concrete steps.

Opportunities and Constraints for a US Strategy in the Persian Gulf Region

A number of previous obstructions to an effective strategy are being overcome offering new opportunities for action. The Indian Ocean Arms Talks have been removed as a block to U.S. military power projection into the region.3 We have loosened up the arms sales policy a bit. The present Iranian crisis seems to be creating the chance to begin a serious regional intelligence rebuilding effort as well as a physical military presence. The time for action, therefore, is at hand.

At the same time two objective factors, however, must be recognized as constraints in the development of an effective strategy for the region. First, we have lost Iran for the present. Yet the focus of most of our thinking is on Iran. The most viable and promising U.S. posture will be one built with its center on the Arabian Peninsula. Although we cannot march straight into Saudi Arabia tomorrow, we can keep a Saudi-centric concept as the basis for each small step into the region. Second, to the extent possible, we should separate our Arab-Israeli policy from our strategy for the Persian Gulf. That means, of course, that bases in Israel and the Sinai are not appropriate for increasing our military presence in the region.

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The Strategic Configuration of the Region Today

The Persian Gulf itself has become the “forward edge of the battle area” with the temporary loss of Iran. Our position, if we are to build one, must rest primarily on the perimeter of the Arabian Peninsula.

Iraq, on the north end of this new line of conflict, presents opportunities to turn this flank. Implicit Iraqi cooperation against Iran looks more possible each week. Explicit cooperation is, admittedly, unlikely.

Pakistan, on the south end of the line of conflict, is critical for turning that flank. Not only does it influence Iran, but it is the base for influencing Afghanistan.

Another line of conflict is a circle around South Yemen, Eritrea, and Ethiopia. Somalia, Oman, North Yemen, and Sudan are key locations for influencing the competition in this secondary conflict area.

The friendly states, particularly Saudi Arabia and Oman, are extremely weak in two regards. First, they lack the domestic institutions for an effective military establishment (the confusion in Saudi Arabia during the Mecca incident is an example).4 Second, they have no effective institutions for coordinating a peninsula-wide interstate security system. The Soviets are attacking both of these weaknesses—infiltrating and developing internal opposition movements—and coordinating the interstate actions of Soviet client states—Yemen and Ethiopia.

What the U.S. Must Do

The first step we must take is to create a unified regional command for the Persian Gulf and Middle East. The headquarters must be near Washington at first, in the region after we are invited. Earlier arguments about the adverse political affects of making this organizational step no longer are compelling, if they ever were.

The JCS is still dragging its feet, obstructing movement on this front, but OSD has demanded a recommendation for a “joint task force” organization in the near future. I shall review it with Bob Murray (ISA). He has invited me to comment on it.

Until we have a “regional” approach in our security/intelligence organization, we shall stumble along in the fashion of November and December 1978 and November 1979. Intelligence won’t improve, and our ability to move into the region will not increase. State is delighted to keep it that way. We can only do what we are organized to do, and for the past three years that has been to “send cables,” the only kind of action State is organized to take.

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The second step is an approach to Oman, Saudi Arabia, and possibly to Sudan and Pakistan, asking them what we can do to help. There are several myths about what these countries will and will not accept from us, but General Dick Lawrence, who commanded USMTM in Saudi Arabia, 1975–77, and who took the team to advise on security in Yemen last summer, insists that the Saudis will find a way to let us in if we start by asking them what they recommend. King Khalid likes Lawrence and jokes about his “Lawrence of Arabia.” During his last visit,5 Lawrence got more exposure to close-hold Saudi military plans than anyone before. His team wrote a “national strategy” plan for the Saudis. None existed before; and the Saudis accepted it unaltered!

Oman is asking through various channels for a U.S. move or gesture. The Omani ambassador has used two of my very close friends, whom he knew at Oxford in the 1950s, to convey messages and questions about possible U.S. military assistance. “Does the U.S. ever send assistance without being asked?” he asked. Clearly he is fishing for a U.S. gesture. Lawrence insists that a base is available for the asking in Oman.

The point is, we must open a dialogue, regional in scope, but not at all public, which lets the Saudis, Omanis, and maybe others lead us into closer security relations. The outcome after a year or two, will be a regional security system, de facto but not de jure.

The third step is acquisition of bases in the region. I believe you realize the importance of such bases after the military contingency planning for the present Iranian crisis. Bases must provide us secure areas for staging. They must hold stocks of equipment. And they must increase our intelligence capabilities.

We should seek two categories of bases. First, permanent bases, and second, bases for temporary exercise use.

In the first category, two, possibly three, bases could be acquired soon. Masirah Island, off the Omani coast, is probably available in exchange for some military assistance. Somalia, of course, would like to make a similar deal. I know Paul Henze’s reluctance towards deals with Somalia, but we should not heed him now. Rather we should drive a tough bargain for Berbera or another location nearby. A third possibility is Aswan in Egypt. Naturally this tends to entangle the Arab-Israeli issue with our Persian Gulf posture, but its southern location makes it worth serious consideration.

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The second category, temporary basing, could expand on the PASEX6 arrangements we now have with Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and others. The Emirates, Sudan, and Jordan are possibilities for the second category. Each “in and out” exercise helps us learn the route, know the terrain and facilities, and make our contingency plans more up to date. This second category, of course, is more a long-range matter, one to be expanded or contracted as the political climate allows.

The fourth step is occasional operational deployments of U.S. forces into the region. This could start with P–3 intelligence flights, AWACS, and other small actions.

The fifth step involves intelligence collection and covert action. It goes without saying that we must step up support to the Afghanistan insurgency.7 This helps us with Pakistan, and it will eventually help us in Iran. We must also explore the opportunities in South Yemen. Tribes in the east, near the Omani border, reportedly are crying for help and could tie up South Yemen’s forces for years. If we do this, the threat to Oman is reduced. At the same time, we should look into covert opportunities in North Yemen, Eritrea, Somalia, and elsewhere in the Gulf of Aden region.

Covert action in Iran is a separate matter. David Aaron’s little group’s analysis of the options is relevant but somewhat artificial and misleading about proper choices. Analytically, the choice is between putting a centralizing movement back together or supporting the ethnic minorities and the probable breakup of the Persian state. We must do both, but both are not enough. We have failed to recruit several hundreds of Iranian students in the U.S. as agents. We have failed to recruit hundreds of junior officers in Iran. We are floundering around discussing either the choice of emigre leaders or the Kurds.8 That is not the important choice. Iran’s future depends on who builds a small military organization and intelligence net the quickest. The Bolsheviks could never have survived without the few hundred Lettist Rifles.9 They had bolshevized three battalions by June 1917 in Riga. These troops came to Petrograd in November. They made the difference.

The point is, we must put Iran back together as a state, and to do so, we must dominate the covert action among the centralizing Persians [Page 122] and also among the tribes—Kurds, Baluchis, etc. No ground can be left to the radical left. Seize it all!

Positive intelligence, of course, must be expanded. It is a precondition for CIA efforts as well as all other actions. I only flag it here.

Possible Action for You

The thinking in ISA, particularly by Bob Murray, is similar to what I have suggested above. State, of course, will object. CIA will probably go along. I do not believe we will get movement unless you and Harold Brown take the lead. The President’s instruction to look into bases in the region is sufficient reason to take such a proposal to the President. If you desire to try that, I shall prepare a memorandum from you to Brown soliciting his reaction and support.10

Alternatively, you could put the concept to the President, and if he likes it, he could ask Brown to propose implementing plans.11

  1. Source: Carter Library, National Security Affairs, Brzezinski Material, General Odom File, Box 43, Security Framework [Southwest Asia/Persian Gulf]: 2–12/79. Secret; Sensitive. Outside the System. Sent for information. Brzezinski wrote “good, am proceeding along these lines. Give me memo ZB” in the upper right-hand corner of the memorandum.
  2. Iranian students seized the U.S. Embassy in Tehran on November 4.
  3. See Document 123.
  4. See Documents 201 and 202.
  5. See Document 197.
  6. Brzezinski underlined the word “PASEX” and wrote “what is this?” in the right-hand margin.
  7. Brzezinski drew a vertical line in the left-hand margin next to this sentence and wrote “we are.”
  8. Brzezinski drew a vertical line in the left-hand margin next to this and the preceding two sentences.
  9. Reference is to a Latvian military formation that fought in the Imperial Russian Army during the First World War.
  10. Brzezinski drew a vertical line in the left-hand margin next to this sentence and wrote “yes.”
  11. Brzezinski drew a vertical line in the left-hand margin next to this sentence and wrote “will do [illegible]—will do both.”