204. Summary of Conclusions of a Special Coordination Committee Meeting1


  • Iran


  • The Vice President*
  • State

    • Secretary Cyrus Vance
    • Warren Christopher
    • Harold Saunders
  • OSD

    • Secretary Harold Brown
    • W. Graham Claytor, Jr.
  • JCS

    • General David Jones
    • Lt. General John Pustay
  • Justice

    • Attorney General Benjamin Civiletti
  • CIA

    • Admiral Stansfield Turner
  • Treasury

    • Robert Mundheim
  • White House

    • Zbigniew Brzezinski
    • David Aaron
    • Lloyd Cutler
    • Hedley Donovan
    • Jody Powell
    • Henry Owen
  • NSC

    • Col. William Odom
    • Gary Sick
    • Jerrold Schecter
    • Thomas Thornton

*Present briefly at beginning of meeting


Dr. Brzezinski opened the meeting by reporting the President’s views that we should undertake a public relations campaign against Iran, that we should impose sanctions,2 and we should build worldwide support for our position. The SCC reviewed the following next steps on Iran:

[Page 522]

1. Return to the Security Council. Secretary Vance reported that Ambassador McHenry was doing a formal paper which would be available in the next 48 hours concerning the pros and cons of raising the Iranian issue in the UNSC.3 We need a report from the Commission to the SC which would report on their reasons for breaking off their efforts. It would not deal with the substance of the charges against the Shah, etc. The report could be done in either closed or open session. The Secretary General probably prefers a closed session report, at least initially.4 Secretary Vance will go to New York, probably on Wednesday,5 to meet with the co-chairmen of the Commission. We will also be in touch through intermediaries on Wednesday for an evaluation of the situation after the departure of the Commission. In Vance’s view, the Commission idea is not dead yet, and going to the Security Council at this stage would only worsen the chances that it can be resuscitated. He recommended that we wait until we have been in touch with the co-chairmen, until we have had a report through the intermediaries, and perhaps until the election is held in Iran on Friday before taking any action. All agreed that we had about a week to ten days before public opinion would begin to demand action, and we should use that time to explore whether the Commission can be revived. (S)

The SCC recommended that we proceed with the report of the Commission to the SC, looking to the Secretary General in the first instance whether this should be in open or closed session. Based on that report and other contacts during the rest of the week, a decision would be taken whether to introduce a new initiative in the UNSC. In the meantime, Ambassador McHenry would submit a memorandum to the President concerning the nature, timing and advisability of such an approach.6 (S)

Approve the above approach.7

Expedite an approach to the SC.

2. World Court. Oral arguments are scheduled to be presented to the ICJ on March 17, leading to a formal decision by the Court condemning Iran’s seizure of the hostages and ordering their return. The SCC agreed that the oral arguments should proceed as scheduled. This would be seen as some pressure on Iran but would not be the kind of [Page 523]high-profile pressure which would be likely to upset efforts to put the Commission back on track. (C)

Approve proceeding with oral arguments as scheduled.8

Postpone oral arguments for two weeks or more.

3. Break Diplomatic Relations with Iran. State is preparing a paper which examines the pros and cons of a formal break in diplomatic relations. This paper will also consider intermediate steps which we could take to restrict the presence and/or activities of Iranian diplomats in the U.S. The paper will be considered at the SCC meeting on Thursday morning.9 (C)

4. Impose Formal Economic Sanctions on Iran. Mr. Cutler had prepared and circulated a draft of the sanctions which the President could impose.10 Secretary Vance felt that immediate imposition of sanctions could interfere with the contacts which are under way, and he recommended that it be withheld until after we had been in touch with the intermediaries on Wednesday. The Attorney General and Treasury noted that the formal imposition of sanctions was essentially a symbolic gesture, since the regulations already in effect have shut off all economic relations with Iran. Dr. Brzezinski said that he would prefer taking a number of steps at once, rather than dribbling it out over time, so he would prefer holding the announcement of sanctions until we were prepared to take steps on diplomatic relations, resort to the SC, and other possible steps. The SCC recommended holding off on any action at this time. (C)

Approve holding off announcement for now.11

Proceed with announcement of formal sanctions.

5. Message to Allies. State was in the process of revising the Presidential message which had been prepared the night before, based on the announcements which the U.S.12 and the UN had issued last night. The message will be available later today and will inform the allies that we are considering the imposition of sanctions and other steps [Page 524]and asking them to cooperate by holding fast on the informal measures embargoing military spare parts and other economic measures.13 (C)

6. Confiscation of Iranian Assets. Secretary Vance had grave doubts about taking this step, which was a major step toward a declaration of war and very difficult to reverse later. Henry Owen noted that it would be extremely sensitive for the oil-producing states. Dr. Brzezinski said that it would imply a degree of fatalism; the families of the hostages would no doubt see it as a declaration that we had confiscated Iran’s assets while they had confiscated our diplomats. It implied that the process was over. The SCC agreed that Justice, Treasury and State would do a brief paper analyzing the steps which we could take and their implications, for consideration at the meeting on Thursday.14 (S)

7. Other Measures. Dr. Brzezinski asked the group to consider what will happen if the negotiating route using the UN Commission takes us nowhere. In effect, we are back to where we were six weeks ago. We are about to resume the strategy of pressure which we were following at that time. He wondered what effect our pressure had had thus far and what would be the advisability or effectiveness of more vigorous action, including a blockade of Iranian ports. Admiral Turner said that a blockade would not bring Iran to its knees unless we were prepared to block exports as well as imports. Secretary Vance agreed, noting that a total blockade would bring severe opposition from all of our allies since it would stop the flow of oil on which they are dependent. It would also increase the tensions in the area and the likelihood of renewed attacks on Westerners. The allies had shown great concern about this in his talks with them. Finally, a blockade would risk driving the Iranians into the arms of the Soviets, since that would become their major source of supplies. Consequently, he had grave doubts about that course of action. (S)

Dr. Brzezinski recognized the validity of these points, but noted that a blockade could also get the allies to line up with us more effectively in bringing pressure on the Iranians. It might be useful for them to recognize that there are unpleasant consequences in the event the crisis is not resolved. He was also concerned about driving the Iranians toward the Soviets, but there are many in Iran who would not want to see Iran move toward the USSR, and this might energize them to resolve the crisis. Under the present circumstances, they can have it [Page 525]both ways and are not required to choose between us and the Soviets. If we can simply sit it out and get a resolution of the problem, fine; but he was worried that the Iranians were not willing to give up the hostages unless they face some difficult consequences. (S)

Henry Owen noted that the effect of cutting off Iran’s 2 mbd. of oil would drive up prices, add to inflation, and create gas lines. Admiral Turner wondered exactly what we hoped to accomplish by our pressure. In the past several days, Iranian behavior had been vintage Khomeini, i.e. total unwillingness to compromise. The objectives which Khomeini takes seriously are: (1) to get the Shah back to Iran; and (2) to avoid seeing his dream of an Islamic Republic crumble out from under him. Secretary Brown observed that the most imminent danger to the survival of the Islamic Republic was a Soviet takeover, and he was unwilling to take that risk in order to scare Khomeini. Dr. Brzezinski noted that assertive U.S. action in the past had achieved results, and he wondered if the kind of lesser steps we were considering would have any real effect. (S)

Mr. Cutler noted that military action would be counterproductive by driving the Iranians closer together. Dr. Brzezinski said he did not agree that that would necessarily be the result. Being forced toward the USSR would be something they would regard as unpleasant. Secretary Vance said he agreed with Mr. Cutler and noted that the risks of any military action were very high. Admiral Turner said that Iranian reaction would be different to a passive form of military action, e.g. a blockade, as compared to the kind of reaction which could be expected from a destructive action such as bombing. (S)

The SCC agreed that a systematic assessment of the potential effects of a blockade was desirable on a very closely held basis. It was agreed that a paper would be prepared, with circulation only to principals, for consideration at the meeting one week from Thursday, i.e. March 20. CIA will examine the respective impact of a limited blockade and a total blockade on the Iranian economy. The NSC will examine the impact of a blockade on Western Europe and Japan. State will look at the effects on the Islamic world, on the allies, and the Soviets. Defense will examine the military risks.15 All understood the dangers of leaks, which could have a disruptive effect on our efforts over the next week, and this examination should be held as tightly as possible. (TS)

8. Public Posture. Secretary Vance will be backgrounding the press today. All agreed that we should take the position that serious problems have arisen but that we are not ready to write off the UN Commission [Page 526]entirely. We should hold out some slim chance, however slight. Vance will announce tomorrow that he is meeting with the co-chairmen of the Commission. Jody Powell said we should brief the editorialists and columnists on a background basis.16 He felt it would be useful to provide them some detail on the scenario for their own information but not for publication. Others felt that we should limit ourselves to confirming that the Commission was to see the hostages but not go into detail about what was to have happened after that. We should maintain that line at least until the end of the week after we have had the opportunity to follow up on our contacts. Admiral Turner will get out through his channels the line that the present Government of Iran is not following Islamic principles.17 (C)

  1. Source: Carter Library, National Security Affairs, Staff Material, Middle East File, Box 99, Meetings File, 3/11/80 SCC re Iran. Top Secret. The meeting took place in the White House Situation Room. Carter wrote “Zbig, J” in the upper right corner.
  2. Carter underlined the phrase “should impose sanctions” and wrote in the margin: “assess only.”
  3. Not found.
  4. According to telegram 1000 from USUN, March 18, Waldheim’s briefing of the Security Council members on March 17 was informal, did not go beyond public statements, and did not include a Commission report. (National Archives, RG 59, Central Foreign Policy File, D800139–0258)
  5. March 12.
  6. No memorandum has been found.
  7. Carter approved this option with a checkmark.
  8. Carter approved this option with a checkmark.
  9. The paper, “Possible Options for Changes in Diplomatic Relations with Iran,” was attached to a March 13 memorandum from Dodson to Mondale, Vance, Miller, Brown, Civiletti, Cutler, Jones, and Turner. For the discussion of the paper at the March 18 SCC meeting, see Document 210.
  10. Not found.
  11. Carter approved this option with a checkmark.
  12. On March 10, the White House issued a statement announcing that the Commission of Inquiry had suspended its activities for several days and would return to New York for consultations with Waldheim. The statement also noted that the Commission was prepared to return to Tehran “when the situation requires.” (Public Papers: Carter, 1980–81, Book I, p. 455)
  13. In the left margin, Carter wrote: “Expedite.” The message to the allies also recounted the history of the Commission’s activities in Iran. (Telegram 65848 to Paris, London, Rome, Tokyo, Ottawa, and Bonn, March 12; National Archives, RG 59, Central Foreign Policy File, P870111–1804)
  14. The paper was discussed at the March 18 SCC meeting. See footnote 2, Document 210.
  15. The papers were discussed at the March 20 SCC meeting. See footnote 2, Document 214.
  16. In the left margin, Carter wrote: “I want key top editors briefed.”
  17. Below this sentence, Carter wrote: “and that real gov’t authority is non-existent.”