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


  • Gaming a Blockade

The following is a proposed sequence of events to put pressure on Iran. It is high risk, but the risks can be minimized.

1. Convey a very private warning to Iran that we are prepared to keep the door open for a negotiated peaceful settlement until April 15, but if a peaceful settlement cannot be arranged by that date, we will take unilateral action to disrupt Iran’s economy. The allies should be informed as they were before. This should be done as soon as possible.

2. We could use the intervening time to build up the resources we would need to carry out the threat. However, we would probably have to do very little to build a sense of tension since the reaction of the allies and the inevitable leaks could be expected to have that effect. We could, however, begin a program of ship interrogation a week or two before the deadline if some convincing evidence of purposefulness were required.

3. My guess is that the Iranians would not just sit stubbornly and wait for the ax to fall. At a minimum, I suspect they would begin pressing the UN Commission to return, and the pace of the negotiations would speed up. There is no certainty, however, that the hostages would be released by the deadline. We could be faced with the need for a determination at the end of the period whether or not sufficient progress had been made to justify postponing action. A postponement would not necessarily be a failure if our pressure had succeeded in getting real concessions.

4. If we proceeded with the blockade, it should be a quick irreversible act of mining the key ports of entry. Soviet grandstanding would be reduced to bringing in minesweepers, but that would be a lengthy process. Iranian threats to cut off the Europeans would be an empty gesture since pressure on the Europeans could not remove the mines. We could not stop ship traffic through the Shatt al-Arab, but there are very few merchant shipping companies that would rush to the one available port. If we wanted to draw the line more firmly, we could technically interrupt power supplies in Abadan and Khorramshahr, [Page 561]which would give pause to any adventurous merchant captains and would halt port operations at least temporarily. We should make clear that our blockade is aimed only at seaborne supply as a unilateral gesture. We should not attempt to stop air traffic or land traffic. The seaborne traffic is 75–80%, which is enough to make the point.

5. We should use the intervening time before the deadline to get in place the elements of the best rescue operation we can mount. This could be needed as a fallback if the Iranians begin threatening the lives of the hostages as bargaining leverage.

Anticipated reactions:

European Allies. Deep concern, nervousness, strong opposition, and leaks suggesting that the U.S. risks stumbling into a Third World War. Although this will place additional strains on the Alliance at a difficult time, the shock and rumors should help to make the Iranians take it seriously, and it could inspire a fresh round of dedicated efforts by the Europeans to find a way out.

Japan. Extreme nervousness. No action.

Soviets. Increased propaganda about dangers of U.S. imperialist intervention. Efforts to draw Iran closer to its orbit. Increase in naval and air presence in the Indian Ocean. However, any actual military involvement or counteraction is not likely.

Islamic States. They understand the dilemma, and we can help them understand our objectives and the limited nature of what we propose by careful preparation in advance. They will counsel against a blockade, but they will also renew their efforts to persuade the Iranians to be reasonable. The threat—or reality—of U.S. action will breathe life into the Iraqi efforts to get a charter opposing all Great Power intervention. There will be a growing tendency to equate U.S. actions with the Soviet actions in Afghanistan. The April deadline would virtually coincide with the scheduled Islamic Foreign Ministers Conference, which might lead to a new Islamic call for the U.S. to postpone action in order for them to consider possible solutions—not a bad excuse if we need one.

Oil. The threat of a blockade and uncertainty about oil supplies will heat up the market as nations scramble to assure their reserves. Prices will go up and the spot market will thrive.

Risk Assessment. In my judgment, if we are prepared to carry through on our threat, and if we successfully convey that impression, we almost certainly will not have to impose a blockade. By energizing the Europeans and the Islamic states and the UN, a flood of new pressures will build up on the Iranians to do something. The hostage issue is not popular in Iran any more, and it will be difficult to whip up public emotion to a new frenzy on this issue. Even the Iranian man [Page 562]in the street will have to ask himself whether it is worth risking his daily bread just to be able to hold 50 Americans who have become an embarrassment. Everyone will have a strong incentive to find a face-saving solution, and a way will probably be found.

Nevertheless, the stakes are high. The actual imposition of a blockade would color our relations with the regional states AND the alliance for a long time. If we prepared the ground carefully, the net result could be beneficial in establishing U.S. willingness and ability to protect our interests in the region. But if our actions are perceived as aggression or irresponsibility, it could do permanent damage to our relations with the Gulf states and others. The alternative, sadly, is to resign ourselves to the reality of leaving the hostages where they are until at least mid-summer.

  1. Source: Carter Library, Brzezinski Donated Material, Box 14. Secret.