'THE HAWKS ARE flying," I wrote in a memorandum to Deputy National Security Adviser David Aaron early on the morning of April 4, 1980. "I had two unsoliciated suggestions for a blockade of Iran before breakfast this morning."
President Carter's controversial decision on April 1 to postpone sanctions one more time was as unpopular in the White House as in the population at large. America had turned the other cheek once too often; Iran had gone back on its promises one too many times. There was mounting impatience and anger with a cautious policy of restraint that seemed to produce only failure and repeated humiliation.
The anger and exasperation that I sensed in the first week of April from my White House colleagues was repeated from several other sources, including some unexpected quarters. Three senior American embassy officials, Bruce Laingen, Michael Howland and Victor Tomseth, it will be recalled, had been trapped in the Foreign Ministry in Tehran at the time of the embassy seizure. Despite occasional interruptions and shifting ground rules, these three managed to maintain periodic telephone contact with the Iran working group at the State Department. Unlike the other hostages, they were able to talk to their families from time to time and could share their impressions of the situation with their colleagues in Washington.
On the same day I reported the hawks flying around the White House, Laingen and his two colleagues managed to place a telephone call to Washington. Although they respected the president's decision to defer sanctions and appreciated the priority that had been placed on the welfare of the hostages (notably including themselves), they thought there was a limit to the flexibility the United States could show, and they expressed doubt whether it was a good idea to let the Iranians off the hook one more time.
During this same period I was approached informally by a group of Foreign Service officers who had served in Iran but who had been shunted aside from the mainstream of policy making within the Department of State. One of them argued vigorously that a rescue operation "should be carried out at the earliest practicable moment . . . Rescue of the hostages offers the best chance for getting the most hostages back safely."
Although I was unable to tell them so, their thinking mirrored that of many others in Washington, eventually including President Carter. The military option had been examined in the first few days of the crisis but had been deferred in favor of diplomacy. As the first efforts at negotiations through the United Nations failed to produce any results, interest in military planning revived. The possibility of military action had begun to appear increasingly attractive by the end of December, when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan.
The invasion of Afghanistan in December 1979 transformed the entire strategic environment in the region, and it provided a compelling set of reasons for seeking a negotiated settlement with Iran instead of pressing the situation toward possible conflict. The Soviets, by their actions, appeared to have provided renewed evidence that the United States and Iran shared fundamental security interests, regardless of how much their politics might diverge.
The possibility of military action always lay just beneath the surface of events. As the negotiations faltered, discussion in the Special Coordination Committee (SCC), the cabinet-level group charged with crisis management, would inevitably turn to military alternatives.
On March 11, after the breakdown of the efforts of the U.N. Commission in Tehran, which had been sent by Secretary General Kurt Waldheim to try to negotiate a settlement, there was a heated exchange in the SCC. Secretary of State Cyrus R. Vance argued against the imposition of additional new sanctions against Iran, while continuing to pursue the negotiating track.
National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski recognized the objections to a strategy of pressure, but he thought that nothing less than the threat of a U.S. blockade would persuade U.S. allies to join in bringing pressure on Iran. He thought the Iranians would not give up the hostages unless they faced the prospect of some unpleasant consequences. The outcome of the discussion was inconclusive. However, I thought it was significant that Brzezinski assembled the small military planning group in his office that morning for its first meeting in many weeks.
In the first month of the crisis Carter had been persuaded by the State Department to permit Iran's diplomats to remain in the United States, on the grounds that they provided a potentially valuable channel of communications with Tehran, but now he had run out of patience. Commenting on the list of sanctions developed by the State Department, he wrote: "State's limited actions are worse than nothing. Be prepared to expel all Iranian diplomats."
Brzezinski argued on March 18, as he had on many occasions in the past, that the United States was being "diddled along" by the Iranians and made to look impotent. The international community was full of praise for U.S. restraint, but he detected behind those words a perception that we were weak and indecisive. He argued that an ultimatum should be delivered to Iran that promised unilateral action "highly disruptive of Iranian society" if there was no peaceful resolution of the crisis by a specific date, e.g., April 15.
The frustration and impatience of both Carter and Brzezinski at these meetings reflected an intense awareness that the American public, which had remained remarkably tolerant and supportive during the long negotiating process, was now thoroughly disillusioned and beginning to demand decisive action.
Some other members of the SCC proposed some intermediate steps, such as stopping and questioning merchant ships bound for Iran, to underline U.S. seriousness. Deputy Secretary of State Warren M. Christopher argued that military pressure would not work, that Iranians openly welcomed the chance to become martyrs. Harold Brown remarked dryly, referring to Khomeini: ''A man with a martyr complex seldom lives to be 79 years old."
On March 22, eight senior officials -- Vice President Walter Mondale, Vance, National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski, Secretary of Defense Harold Brown, Director of Central Intelligence Admiral Stansfield Turner, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General David Jones, David Aaron and press secretary Jody Powell -- met with President Carter for a complete review of U.S. strategy toward Iran.
Brzezinski described all the points at which detection of a hostage rescue operation would be possible and said that that was his greatest single concern. Jones said that his level of confidence in the operation fell somewhere between that of the rescue team itself, which was sure that it could successfully free the hostages, and Brzezinski's more pessimistic appraisal.
The rescue effort was designed to be accomplished in a series of related steps, each of which would be reversible without escalation and with minimum casualties should anything go wrong. The need to be able to terminate and withdraw at any point, together with the need for absolute secrecy, added to the complexity and difficulty of both planning and execution.
Jones described the plan to Carter in some detail, noting that it was exceptionally complex. Jones felt better about the viability of each of the parts of the plan, he said, than about the operation in its entirety. Making each of the parts fit together on time gave him the greatest concern.
Brown observed that in weighing the risks of this plan, it was necessary to look at the alternatives. The possibilities of a blockade and mining of Iranian ports had been examined in some detail. However, each of these also had very serious risks, including the possibility of physical retaliation against the hostages, possible widespread political repercussions in the Islamic world, pushing the Iranians into the arms of the Soviets, and the creation of severe difficulties for U.S. allies. Moreover, there was debate about whether such military acts would put pressure on the right people in Tehran. In short, the risks and costs of the rescue mission were comparable to those of other military courses of action that had been considered.
Carter said he did not want to undertake a rescue operation unless there was no choice. He would prefer to wait another 90 days rather than conduct an operation that resulted in the deaths of the hostages. Jones pointed out that the nights were becoming progressively shorter in Iran, thereby reducing the time available to insert the team and conduct the assault on the embassy. As time went on, it would be necessary to begin thinking about a three- day operation instead of the already complex two-day plan.
Carter made it clear that he did not regard the negotiating track as finished. He was not prepared to make a decision on a high-risk rescue venture while there were still opportunities to work out a negotiated release. However, he authorized the taking of certain preparatory steps, including the covert flight of a small reconnaissance aircraft to the secret rendezvous site, necessary to lay the groundwork for a possible future operation.
By the first week of April, all hope of a negotiated release had vanished, and attention turned almost exclusively to the search for new pressure points that the United States could use against Iran.
Three choices were left: The hostages could be abandoned to the vagaries of Iran's internal political processes, recognizing that this would probably mean a minimum of several more months of incarceration for the hostages while the United States confined itself to watchful waiting; second, the United States could dramatically and unilaterally intensify the pressure against Iran by an increased show of force and ultimatums, possibly resulting in the mining of Iranian harbors or otherwise interdicting Iranian commerce, and finally, a rescue mission could be attempted which, while risky, held out the prospect of terminating the crisis without a military escalation that could push Iran toward the U.S.S.R.
On April 7, Carter called a formal meeting of the National Security Council to consider the next steps in U.S. policy toward Iran. The group assembled with unusual solemnity in the Cabinet Room at 9 in the morning. "The only item on the agenda today," the president announced, "is Iran." Carter commented that the last week had shown a profound change in the situation. The militants had again offered to let the government take custody of the hostages, and this time the government had refused. We were close to the point, he said, where we must take forceful action.
We should now urge our allies to break diplomatic relations with Iran, and the United States should prepare for forceful action, including interruption of Iranian commerce. "We have bent over backwards," he noted in a grim voice. "We have been patient and long-suffering, and we could not have been more willing to wait for responsible action by Iran." But now, he said, there were no further options available on the negotiating side. We had an obligation to the hostages. His preferred course of action at this point was to enlist the cooperation of other nations to increase significantly the pressure on Iran or, if they were unwilling to cooperate, to take forceful action on our own.
On April 8, I wrote a long memorandum to Brzezinski entitled "Getting the Hostages Free," outlining what I regarded as the two basic choices remaining. The first was a campaign of escalating pressure, up to and including the mining of Iranian harbors. The alternative, which I favored, was a rescue operation that, if successful, would deprive the ayatollah of his bargaining leverage and would puncture his aura of invincibility. Both were risky, but the rescue operation offered the potential of a quick end to the crisis with minimal loss of life, while a campaign of military pressure risked unpredictable escalation.
On April 9, Brzezinski called me to his office and asked me to redraft the paper as a memorandum from himself to the president. I did so the same day, and Brzezinski forwarded it to President Carter that night with a few additions. The memorandum concluded with the following statement: "In my view, a carefully planned and boldly executed rescue operation represents the only realistic prospect that the hostages -- any of them -- will be freed in the forseeable future. Our policy of restraint has won us well-deserved understanding throughout the world, but it has run out. It is time for us to act. Now."
On the morning of April 11, Carter called another meeting of his National Security Council in the Cabinet Room. The group that assembled there at 11:30 was virtually identical to the group that had met on March 22 at Camp David. Most notably absent was Secretary of State Cyrus Vance, who was represented byDeputy Secretary Warren Christopher. Vance's views were well known, and Carter, who arrived at the meeting with his mind all but made up, had taken them into account in advance.
The meeting was something of an anticlimax. Gen. Jones gave an updated briefing on the mission, and the issues were rehearsed again as they had been on several previous occasions. This time, however, everyone at the table with the possible exception of Christopher was convinced that the negotiating track was entirely dead and that it would be impossible -- politically and morally -- to sit patiently and quietly, hoping for the best, while Iran sorted out its political chaos sufficiently to release the hostages.
Once one accepted the necessity of action, the selection of the rescue mission quickly asserted itself as a logical inevitability. Carter had concluded by April 11 that action could no longer be deferred. From that moment, a rescue attempt was virtually assured. After a little more than an hour of discussion, the president decided that the mission should proceed without delay. The first available date was April 24.
Vance returned from Florida on April 14 and was understandably dismayed that such a momentous decision had been taken in his absence. He spoke to the president privately, and a secret meeting of the National Security Council was convened on Tuesday, April 15, to permit him to express his objections.
Indisputably, the points that Vance raised in objection to the rescue mission highlighted the major risks and imponderables associated with a high-risk venture, and they were issues on which reasonable men could draw different conclusions.
However, the essence of Vance's critique went beyond this catalogue of identifiable risks to the underlying premises of the decision. If the president was prepared to wait patiently for the Iranian political process to play itself out over a period of months, then there was at least a reasonable prospect that the hostages would eventually be released without any need for risky military action.
Vance was prepared to wait. As he expressed it later: "Our only realistic course was to keep up the pressure on Iran while we waited for Khomeini to determine that the revolution had accomplished its purpose, and that the hostages were of no further value. As painful as it would be, our national interests and the need to protect the lives of our fellow Americans dictated that we continue to exercise restraint."
That statement reflected an honorable and very special view of the world, of the United States' role in the world, and of international politics generally. In proposing a U.S. policy of "waiting for Khomeini," Vance focused exclusively on the dangers of direct action and discounted the costs of inaction, except to acknowledge that they would be "painful." Vance's formula could as easily have been turned on its head, stressing the considerable costs of still another endless period in which U.S. policy was held hostage to the whims of Iranian political developments, with its leadership reduced to a state of professed impotence.
The image of U.S. weakness generated by months of humiliating setbacks and frustrations was not healthy for relations with allies or adversaries. In domestic politics, continued passivity not only condemned the president to self-immolation at the polls but it risked generating a popular backlash in favor of forces who opposed everything Vance and Carter represented.
No one who was acquainted with Cyrus Vance could question the depth of his commitment to peace and nonviolence. His reverence for human life shone through every decision he made. Throughout his distinguished service as secretary of state he was absolutely consistent in counseling against the employment of military instruments -- even for purposes of political symbolism. He was prepared to accept temporary political defeats and humiliations rather than set in motion a chain of events that might at some point result in even limited loss of life.
This perspective informed Vance's position on the rescue operation and he outlined his concerns in some detail, but he received no support from the president or any other member of the NSC. The die was cast.