231. Record of a National Security Council Meeting1

PARTICIPANTS

  • Pres
  • Vance
  • Christopher
  • Brown
  • Claytor
  • ZB
  • DA
  • Jones
  • Turner
  • Cutler
  • Donovan
  • Powell
  • Jordan
  • Sick (notes)

The Pres opened the meeting by summarizing what had occurred with respect to Iran over the past 24 hours. Yesterday at about 2:30 we had heard from Ghotbzadeh via an intermediary that the hostages were to be transferred, at the decision of the Revolutionary Council, from the custody of the students to the Government.2 Bani-Sadr was to make an announcement to that effect at 3:00 a.m. Washington time today. That, of course, had not happened. It was impossible to summarize all the delays and obfuscations which had occurred in the meantime today and all the messages back and forth. Bani-Sadr had evidently met with some of the student leaders, and the Revolutionary Council had just completed a 5½ hour meeting, after which they let it be known that their plan is to transfer the hostages.3 The President read to the group the message which had been sent to Bani-Sadr after the Camp David meeting of the week before.4 In addition to that message, which was sent to Tehran via the Swiss Embassy, there have been a number of messages back and forth through the Swiss which have informed the Iranians that we are not opposed to the Government of Iran and [Page 609]other statements, but no one sent a message to Khomeini such as that which has been published in Tehran.5

Sec Vance noted that our reports indicate that, after 5½ hours of discussion about the modalities of making the transfer of the hostages to the Government, the Revolutionary Council reaffirmed its decision and that this had been agreed to by the students. Reportedly, Bani-Sadr was given two options: (1) for the Government to take over the Embassy and remove the students; or (2) to take joint custody of the Embassy with the students. We understand that Bani-Sadr has had a further meeting with the students and will make a statement tomorrow.

ZB pointed out that the meeting with the students took place earlier today according to Reuters. We also had private reports that Bani-Sadr had rejected the idea of joint custody.

Jordan said he was concerned that, according to the Reuters report, the students had no derogatory comments to make after the meeting, which may indicate that they cut a deal with Bani-Sadr.

CV said we were trying to confirm these reports through the Swiss. We have an open line with them.

ZB said we have a massive credibility problem. For example, Jim Schlesinger called him today and was convinced from the New York Times story that there had been a message from the U.S. along the lines publicized in Tehran. If someone as sympathetic to the Administration as he believes the Iranians, it means that the belief is widespread. With regard to next steps, if we go ahead with our sanctions at this point, we provide Bani-Sadr a perfect excuse to blame us for not taking the necessary steps to transfer the hostages.

Cutler asked if we had any indication that they intend to move the hostages out of the Embassy.

CV said no. Addressing the President, he said it was his view that to go ahead with the three items today would put us in an impossible position. We can wait until tomorrow. He would recommend against acting today.

Sec Brown said he agreed but wondered what we could do to clarify the confusion over the messages. Could we clarify what was in the message which was actually sent to Bani-Sadr?

The Pres said he had met last night with the editors of the Washington Post, the Star, the LA Times, the New York Times and the Chicago Tribune6 and had told them flatly what had happened. They agreed to honor [Page 610]the confidentiality of his words, but to improve the stories they publish to reflect the facts more accurately. There is another development. We have had good support from the European and Japanese allies who have weighed in with Bani-Sadr. The President had talked to Margaret Thatcher (who was with Chancellor Schmidt) and with Giscard yesterday. We also know that the Prime Ministers of Japan and Italy sent strong messages to Bani-Sadr. Giscard reported today that Bani-Sadr told the French Ambassador, “I don’t attach too much importance to threats.”7 But the action of all the allies, the President thought, had made a real impression. Bani-Sadr told us via Giscard that the hostages would be released at the time of the convening of the Majlis and that Khomeini had agreed to this, to avoid long debates on the subject. The Congressional leadership will be here within an hour, and the President intended to bring them up to date in the same way. He saw nothing wrong in informing them of the decisions we understand had been taken in Tehran, indicating that we would monitor developments carefully, with an announcement to be made tomorrow. He thought that would carry us over the night.

ZB said the President should read the message he had sent to Bani-Sadr.

Powell wondered about reading the text.

ZB said they already know the substance.

JP said that parts of it could be turned against us, e.g. the emphasis on American public opinion.

HJ said we are in a hell of a fix when the media believes the Iranians instead of us. We should weigh in officially with the Iranians that joint control of the hostages is unsatisfactory.

CV said we already have but we can do so again.

HJ said the speech at midday tomorrow will force Bani-Sadr to take a position.

ZB said we should be ready to move if the speech is again dilatory.

The Pres asked where we got this latest information.

CV replied from Bourguet. We were checking the information with the Swiss.

The Pres said he had jotted down some thoughts about a statement to the US people to the effect that we had been informed by top Iranian leaders that the US hostages were to be released from the militants . . . it was not yet official . . . we would see it as a constructive step . . . it was necessary to assure the safety and well-being of the hostages [Page 611]. . . if these steps are not taken, we will take additional measures which we have not taken thus far . . . the NSC meeting had been held . . . and the President will make an appropriate announcement tomorrow.

CV said it would be a mistake to refer to it. They were not able to produce in the past. This could create another credibility problem for us.

JP said we need some basis for it.

CV suggested saying that the Revolutionary Council had met for 5½ hours, we have information that Bani Sadr will make a statement at noon their time and that the President will make a statement.

HB thought we should hold off for today, but if the decision is bad it will hurt us.

HJ said we will take a beating tonight if we do not go ahead. We can’t make Bani-Sadr’s statement for him. They say we are giving them no reason to make a statement.

JP noted that we had asked them for more assurance.

ZB suggested saying that the President met with the NSC to review the situation and that an appropriate statement will be made tomorrow. If we say what we are going to do, we give Bani-Sadr an excuse to back out.

LC said if we make a statement we should start with the gist of what we told Bani-Sadr, that there has been a meeting of the Revolutionary Council, we have no report, that we will wait until we hear the speech tomorrow. We cannot make a speech without referring to the confusion over the messages.

The Pres said that would be demeaning. We could indicate that reports from Iran say . . .

ZB said anything could happen today. The Pres could go on the tube tomorrow.

The Pres said we need to be able to tide over until tomorrow.

HJ suggested saying that we have reports from Iran that the Revolutionary Council has met and made decisions concerning the transfer of the hostages. We are also informed that Bani-Sadr will make a speech tomorrow, so the President will make an appropriate statement to the U.S. people tomorrow.

ZB wondered why we should say that. It will be disappointing if the results are not good. Why do we want to put out the story?

HJ said we would take a beating overnight.

DA suggested saying the NSC met to review reports . . .

HJ said if we do not announce our actions, we need to give the reason. The reason is that we have reports that the hostage question will be addressed by the Revolutionary Council tomorrow.

HB wondered about the so-called message to Khomeini?

[Page 612]

JP said we should repeat our denial.

The Pres said he had discussed this with the five guys last night.

CV said the Swiss are prepared to make a further statement.

JP said the problem is that if we say there were no such messages, then the Swiss will say there have been messages from the President. If we say nothing for one day, people will be skeptical.

The Pres noted that the Swiss claim they did not know the content of the messages.

HJ said that is not true.

CV quickly read the second message which had been sent to Bani-Sadr,8 which welcomed his reassurances, noted the things we had done to improve the negotiating situation, that we had tried to make the Shah stay in Panama, that we had not objected to the proposed Senate Foreign Relations Committee study, and that the U.S. had been scrupulous in maintaining its responsibilities under the scenario and hoped that Iran would do the same.

HJ noted that this was the follow-up message sent on Saturday, March 29.

The Pres said there had been a stream of messages from the U.S. to Iranian officials using the UN, the French lawyers, the Panamanians, etc. They had described U.S. attitudes toward Iran and indicated we would not stand as an obstacle against Iran presenting its grievances. Ghotbzadeh said (in the so-called letter)9 that we understand why the militants took our hostages. The Pres had seen that for the first time in the text of the letter in the New York Times. Apparently, Ghotbzadeh had contributed a written answer, using bits and pieces of things we had conveyed and adding embellishments, then delivered it to Khomeini and Bani-Sadr. When the Swiss told Bani-Sadr, he was shocked. This was a Ghotbzadeh contrivance, perhaps in good faith and contrived to be helpful. Calling him a liar and going beyond our present statements could destroy his credibility—if he has any. He had explained this to the papers last night. Today we should repeat our position and read a statement. If there is nothing overnight from Iran, the Pres would make a statement.

HJ suggested 7:00 a.m.

The Pres said it should get on the morning talk shows.

HJ said we must say that joint control is not acceptable, then indicate that here is what we will do tomorrow.

[Page 613]

LC said there were infinite possibilities of possible arrangements for custody of the hostages.

GC said that merely having some students in the Embassy was not so bad. It was their control which was important.

The Pres said Vance should talk to Waldheim.10

ST said we should be prepared if the Revolutionary Council gets into the Embassy they may not find 50 hostages. British Ambassador Graham was just back and talked to us in London. He had been in touch with Entezam in prison who had said that the militants control a section of the prison and there may be Americans in that section.

The Pres said it was the impression when the UN Commission was there that some hostages had been moved back.

HJ said we should maintain flexibility. If the Iranians renege, we should break diplomatic relations.

ZB said it is important that we reject joint control.

The Pres agreed. If the government was in control, we cannot specify exactly what arrangement will be adopted.

LC asked if the Pres wanted a 7 a.m. meeting.

The Pres said that Jody Powell and two or three others should meet with him at 5 a.m.

HJ said that if the news was bad, we could sleep late.

JP asked in the event of bad news, what would we implement regarding the Iranian diplomats.

WC said we plan to call in the Chargé and give him a diplomatic note ordering [that] the 15 diplomats here and 5 others from each of the Consulates were being declared PNG and must leave. State will work with Justice. We would plan loose surveillance of the diplomats between now and April 4. There were 35 diplomats in all. Under the diplomatic note we would be prepared to have 4 in Washington and 1 in each of the Consulates remain for an additional 5 days. We would identify those who could remain. Justice has asked that they be restricted to the Embassy and their homes and a 2-mile radius of the corridor between them. This would be civilized but firm. The diplomats could not claim to be students or have other status which would permit them to remain. The only way they could stay would be to request asylum.

[Page 614]

The Pres said he prefers to assign an extra 15–20 agents and be sure to get them out by Friday morning.11 He did not want to find that half of them had vanished.

ZB noted that we could have tighter surveillance. We could have individual interviews with each diplomat, informing him of his responsibilities by the FBI or State. The police or FBI could take up positions in front of the Embassy and homes.

WC said Justice had suggested that a bus pick them up and take them to the airport. They were concerned about creating an incident.

ZB said each should be informed individually of his responsibilities and there should be some visual surveillance.

CV said they could increase the number of agents and tighten surveillance.

WC said we should let them make individual arrangements since they had to go to banks, etc. This entailed some risk, but they would be restricted carefully.

HJ said it was hard to be sensitive to their personal needs at this point.

ZB said to let an agent go with them wherever they needed to go.

WC said it would take a lot of people.

The Pres said it would only be for 3 days.

CV said State would get together with Justice and work it out.

The Pres said we should be humane, but he wanted them out. He asked if he needed to sign something to order the census of claims.

LC said it would use the same order as before and a new signature was not required.

The Pres said he was to brief Congress and would read the message to Bani-Sadr.

CV said to note that it was from the U.S. Government to Bani-Sadr and that this had been made clear to the Swiss.

ZB agreed that it was important that it be clear that the message did not come from the President personally. Also that there had been no message authorized from the President to Khomeini, whether oral or any other way. People believe such a letter was authorized.

HJ said the PRES should not reveal to Congress his suspicions about Ghotbzadeh. LC agreed.

The Pres noted that Senator Byrd had gone public after his briefing last Saturday.12 This was not like him.

[Page 615]

WC said he could not explain it.

LC said that Congressional leaders should be told that when we get to the next steps, we will need Congressional consultations about imposition of IEEPA.

The Pres wondered if he should mention the question of stopping the $4 million to the Olympics.

LC said that the chances of stopping it by legislation were slim. He had talked to Stevens and Byrd. However, it would depend on Byrd. It would probably be better to prepare a letter to the Olympic Committee and others signed by 88 senators and House members.

The Pres said we want to stop things, not people, from going to the Olympics. Rosalynn had asked if we could stop TV broadcasts of the Olympics. We can stop NBC.

LC said that use of the Export Administration Act was alright to stop NBC if it is not challenged in court. However, we cannot stop news or broadcast of events as news items. Most of the sports federations will go against us. We will work hard over the next few weeks to get a favorable outcome on the Olympics.

DA noted that if we are quiet, others will go against our position.

The Pres noted that NBC is giving us hell on this issue.

WC said the President should tell Congressional leaders what to say to the press after the meeting.

The Pres said the thrust should be that no one in the government sent a message to Khomeini or any apology.

HJ added that they should note that things were at a delicate stage and that the Pres is wise to act tomorrow rather than today.

  1. Source: Carter Library, National Security Affairs, Staff Material, Middle East File, Box 100, Meetings File, 3/31/80 NSC re Iran. Secret; Sensitive. The meeting took place in the Cabinet Room at the White House.
  2. See Document 229.
  3. See Document 230.
  4. See Documents 220 and 217.
  5. See Document 226. The counterfeit letter was also published in full in the United States. (“’Errors’ in the past: Iran’s Version of Carter Letter,” Chicago Tribune, March 31, 1980, p. 2)
  6. See footnote 5, Document 228.
  7. As relayed in telegram 10455 from Paris, March 31. (National Archives, RG 59, Central Foreign Policy File, P900077–1842)
  8. Reference is presumably to the March 29 message; see Document 227.
  9. Carter thought Ghotbzadeh was responsible for the “bogus” letter. (Carter, Keeping Faith, pp. 502–503)
  10. After this sentence, Carter wrote: “If the transfer is made, the Commission could return to Tehran.”
  11. April 4.
  12. March 29. Byrd stated in a news conference that Christopher had briefed him and other Senators on “new measures against Iran.” (Charles Mohr, “Iran Reports Conciliatory Message From Carter, but U.S. Issues Denial,” New York Times, March 30, 1980, p. 1)