U.S. Hostages in Iran: Recommended Next Steps - Memo to Secretary of State Cyrus Vance, 12/28/1979

Blind folded hostage

Memo Review by Anna Lipscomb, HKS MPP

On November 4, 1979, a group of Iranian college students stormed the U.S. Embassy in Tehran and seized over 50 U.S. hostages. This December 28, 1979 memo assesses the state of the Iran hostage crisis nearly two months later and recommends next steps to Secretary of State Cyrus Vance.

Anthony Lake, director of the Policy Planning Staff, starts by introducing three option tracks (pressures on Iran, public statements on our position, and private approaches). The memo is written with the Secretary of State in mind, making clear the current level of domestic and international support and public opinion, and ongoing challenges to move Khomeini to release the hostages. Lake provides evidence of the insights the U.S. had gained thus far in the crisis, with special attention paid to the way that Khomeini and stakeholders in Iran perceive U.S. actions and statements. These considerations are significant because they deepen the audience’s understanding of the policy problem and how these dynamics may influence the U.S. strategic approach. According to the author, the U.S. must: (a) create the kinds of pressures that have meaning for Khomeini and will make him look for an out; and (b) without seeming to plead or concede, make it clear that some of his concerns could be met if the hostages are released.

Lake transitions into the first option track – pressures on Iran – to discuss multiple diplomatic, economic, political, and military levers. Under each lever, he describes the action, the expected impact, and possible risks. He also addresses the audience’s likely concerns about sequencing and flexibility for future moves, noting that the U.S. may want to save some actions such as breaking diplomatic relations as future leverage should the hostage situation worsen. Next, he outlines Iran’s conditions for release of the hostages vis-à-vis the U.S. position, which had not yet been fully defined. “Now is a good time to convey a fuller message,” writes Lake, “If there is a gap between a Security Council vote and the time sanctions come into force, the Iranians should know our position as they ponder their course of action.” Finally, he talks about private approaches that might involve a non-American or a prominent private American to deliver a message to Khomeini and indicates his preference for a non-American messenger.

In his conclusion, Lake weighs the tension between slowly escalating pressure against Iran and wanting to resolve the situation quickly to avoid effects on other international issues. He settles on the relatively faster course and recommends four concrete actions to be taken immediately or in the near term. He ends the memo: “It might not work...[but] I don’t think we would lose anything by trying. And whatever happens, we might later feel remiss not to have made such a move at about this stage.” Ultimately, the crisis was not resolved immediately. The hostages were finally released on January 20, 1981.

Overall, this memo effectively addressed the concerns of the audience and provided a clear sense of the policy problem. However, it could have been more concise, particularly in the earlier sections of the memo. While the author thoughtfully presented all options and considerations, he should have dedicated less space to options not chosen and more attention to the four policy recommendations made in the conclusion. Another weakness is that the author did not sufficiently address the positions of other stakeholders. Outlining key stakeholders and players in the beginning would make it easier to understand different interests at stake among the United States, Iran, and the international community. For example, when he introduced potential political or military options, it would have been more credible and persuasive to include the positions of the Department of Defense and related government agencies because their assessments of the situation may differ from the Department of State.