233. Record of an Oval Office Meeting1

PARTICIPANTS

  • PRES
  • VANCE
  • CHRISTOPHER
  • SAUNDERS
  • ZB
  • DA
  • SICK
  • POWELL
  • JORDAN

Mr. Christopher said we had a message from Swiss Ambassador Lang in Tehran that Khomeini was very hard in his speech.2 Bani-Sadr indicated they are ready to transfer control of the hostages, but sets two conditions: first, the definitive release of the hostages could come only after the parliament meets; and second, that the U.S. refrain from any hostile act.3

The Pres said we could delay the imposition of sanctions since they have said they will transfer the hostages.

ZB said we have two options. First, we could say the Iranian response is inadequate and go ahead with the sanctions. Second, that the Iranians have accepted transfer of the hostages and therefore we hold off. He thought the latter could be justified. We could note that [Page 617]the Iranians have responded to the message sent to them on March 24,4 consequently our measures are suspended. We could ignore the conditions they set.

The Pres said it would be better to say that the President of Iran has said that the hostages will be transferred, therefore, we are delaying our actions until a certain time . . .

Mr. Powell said we could say the Iranians say they are ready to transfer the hostages. If they should release them by a certain time . . .

Jordan said we should be careful. It is clear that Bani-Sadr and others are under the gun and have little room for maneuver. We should not put them in a corner.

The Pres said we should acknowledge their decision.

ZB said we should indicate that it was the result of your (the President’s) initiative.

Jordan said he thought we should not mention our message.

Saunders came in after being on the phone. He restated Amb. Lang’s understanding of the Khomeini statement and Bani-Sadr’s speech.

The Pres said we should restate that Iran has announced that the hostages will be released after the Majlis meets. Our statement could say that Iranian officials have stated that the hostages will be released when the Majlis convenes.

Mr. Christopher read a possible draft statement acknowledging the announcement of Bani-Sadr as a positive step, and acknowledging the Iranian Government statement that the hostage issue would be resolved when the Majlis convenes. There was also a statement at the end expressing unity with the families of the hostages.5

ZB said he was uneasy about making too positive a reading of the Iranian position. The President should take credit for the initiative. We should not read too much into their statement. Mention of the decision to be taken by the Majlis prompts a response from them saying that only the Majlis can decide the release of the hostages. We legitimize that position by mentioning it.

The Pres said we are dealing with a crazy group. Bani-Sadr and others are holding on by their fingernails. If we leave out any mention of the Majlis, they could come back to us and demand acknowledgement of their position. He felt it was necessary to mention it in our statement.

Jordan said the decision about the Majlis was already in the public domain.

[Page 618]

The Pres said we could do what John Kennedy did at the time of the Cuban missile crisis when he received two messages from the Soviets: take the best part of the message and ignore the other. We can couple the Majlis acknowledgement with a statement urging the earliest possible release of the hostages.

CV asked Jody Powell for his view about how to handle the Khomeini speech.

JP said ignore it.

ZB said he thought mention of the Majlis weakened the statement.

The Pres said there is no need to keep going around this. He preferred to say something about the Majlis. We could say that the hostages will be released when the Majlis convenes. That is in line with the messages we have received from Giscard.6

Aaron and Jordan said it would be better not to say that they will be released when the Majlis convenes. They have never said this publicly and it could prompt a denial from them.

Christopher proposed wording it that “the hostage issue will be resolved when the new Parliament convenes.” All agreed that this was the best formulation. All agreed to drop the part about unity with the families, etc.

ZB said we would be better off arguing the main point which is the transfer of the hostages.

DA wondered if we should say that the hostages will be “transferred immediately.”

The Pres said he had trepidation about saying more than Bani-Sadr had stated publicly. We should get the announcement out on the wires immediately.

JP wondered if the President should make the announcement on camera.

CV said it would be better for Jody to make the announcement.

The Pres said that this was good news. At least it is better than he had expected from what he read at 6:30 last night.7 (Saunders said that was starting from a pretty low base.) The Pres joked that Rosalynn had gone in the bathroom and thrown up when he read her what Khomeini was saying. He discussed briefly with JP what the effect would be in Kansas and Wisconsin if he made the statement personally.

JP said he did not like the idea of the President personally standing up and accepting conditions.

[Page 619]

The Pres said we should give this the maximum positive twist. It gives Bani-Sadr what he asked for via the Swiss. He asked everyone in the room to make no statements. All statements should come through Jody Powell and Hodding Carter. There will be rapidly changing circumstances. We can expect Khomeini, Beheshti and others to say crazy things in the next few days.

CV said he would contact Senator Byrd and other key congressional leaders.

ZB asked how we respond to the question if we have accepted Iran’s conditions.

JP said we would not address it.

The Pres said we should turn it around, i.e., that they accepted our conditions.

ZB suggested that on background we note that it was the President’s message which set this off.

The Pres said we should ask Congressional leaders to exercise restraint over the next 24 hours. They can say it is a positive development.

ZB asked whether Kennedy and Reagan should be contacted to ask them for restraint.

The Pres said Kennedy was avoiding the issue. Reagan, however, is giving us hell. Last night he (the Pres) had called the three TV anchors (Cronkite, Reynolds, etc.) and had told them on background that we never apologized to Iran and that we never condoned the taking of hostages by the militants.8 He thought the news coverage last night reflected that. He wondered if he should call them again this morning. We could turn around the idea of conditions, to say that it was not we who had accepted conditions. He asked Saunders to thank Swiss Amb. Lang for his efforts.

  1. Source: Carter Library, National Security Affairs, Staff Material, Middle East Subject File, Box 100, Meetings File, 4/1/80 Oval Office re Iran. No classification marking.
  2. On March 31 on the anniversary of the revolution, in a speech read by his son Ahmad and released at midnight U.S. time, Khomeini stated that sending the Shah to Egypt was a betrayal of all Muslims, that Carter’s apologies would not change anything (see Document 226) and that only the Iranian people and their elected representatives in the Majles could solve the problem of the hostages. The speech did not refer to the problem of transferring the hostages to government control and rejected the “so-called honorable solution” proposed by Carter. (Text and commentary attached to a memorandum from Aaron to Carter, March 31; Carter Library, National Security Affairs, Brzezinski Material, Country File, Box 31, Iran 3/80)
  3. In the March 31 speech, Bani-Sadr talked about recent developments, noted that Kissinger was responsible for the Shah’s move to Egypt, and read from Carter’s March 29 letter (see Document 227). He also responded to Carter’s letter as follows: “If the United States were to issue an official statement stating that it will undertake no propaganda concerning the hostages, make no claim, engage in no intrigue and voice no word until the Iranian Parliament comes into being and has taken a decision on the subject, then the Revolutionary Council would accept to take the hostages under its own custody.” (Message from Lang to the Department of State, April 1; Department of State, Official Files of [P] David D. Newsom, Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs, Lot 82D85, Iran Update April 1980)
  4. See Document 220.
  5. The draft was not found. See Document 234.
  6. See footnote 7, Document 231.
  7. Presumably a reference to Aaron’s memorandum on Khomeini’s speech. See footnote 2 above.
  8. Carter spoke to Walter Cronkite, John Chancellor, and Frank Reynolds in separate phone calls between 5:38 and 5:53 p.m. (Carter Library, President’s Daily Diary)