From the archives: U.S., Iran Extend Diplomatic Feelers

Los Angeles Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON -- The United States and Iran engaged in long-distance diplomacy Thursday over the fate of U.S. hostages in Lebanon, with an Iranian newspaper suggesting that the two nations use Pakistan as an intermediary and U.S. officials calling the report a "positive" development.

Having moved through a stage of initial contacts, both countries appeared to be publicly sounding out each other, trying to establish the ground rules for negotiations.

Bush Administration officials reiterated that the United States would be willing to enter into direct talks with Iran if that nation indicated an interest in doing so and designated an authoritative emissary.

But "we're nowhere near that" now, White House Press Secretary Marlin Fitzwater said. For the time being, any negotiations between the two nations appear likely to be indirect, conducted through a third party.

Prospects May Improve

The prospects for such negotiations may advance as a result of several expected events next week:

-- On Monday, Iran's foreign minister plans to meet in Damascus, Syria, with leaders of the militant Shiite groups that hold U.S. and other foreign hostages in Lebanon. A similar meeting in Damascus last week led to the lifting of a death threat against American hostage Joseph J. Cicippio, U.S. analysts believe.

-- Later in the week, Hashemi Rafsanjani, Iran's new president, is expected to announce his Cabinet, and U.S. analysts expect the announcement to provide indications of the balance of power between hard-liners and pragmatists in the new Iranian regime.

-- And on Wednesday, Pakistani Foreign Minister Sahabzada Yaqub Khan plans to meet in Tehran with Iranian leaders and is expected to discuss the hostage issue.

The Yaqub Khan meeting could be significant because Pakistan is one of the few nations to have good relations with both the United States and Iran. The Pakistani diplomat, who travels frequently to Iran to discuss regional issues, was in Washington last week and met Tuesday with Vice President Dan Quayle, who asked him to aid U.S. efforts to secure the hostages' return.

The Tehran Times, a newspaper with close ties to Rafsanjani, said in an editorial Thursday that unnamed "political observers . . . believe that in the next few days, we should expect certain moves toward mediation." The editorial went on to say that the observers "give the best chance" to Yaqub Khan as a mediator.

U.S. officials, apparently caught by surprise by the editorial, scrambled through much of the day to develop a hopeful but cautious response.

"That may turn out to be what happens," said one senior Administration official, asked if Pakistan would become the central mediator. "We're not at the stage we can call it yet."

'Trial Balloon'

"It's a trial balloon the Iranians are floating," said a senior U.S. diplomatic source in the region. "My guess is that it's going to be a long and complicated effort, and it's probably going to involve the totality of Iran-U.S. relations. It's not going to be easy for the Iranians, after building up the image of the (United States as) Great Satan, to turn around overnight."

"We are being very careful," noted Fitzwater. "There're a lot of unknowns."

The suggestion of Pakistani mediation is "positive," Fitzwater added, "but I wouldn't deal so much with the specifics of it as I would with the general attitude that it seems to indicate an openness to discussion."

U.S. caution stems from several factors.

First, officials remain uncertain exactly what signals the Iranians intend to send and how authoritative those signals are. Assuming that the Iranian newspaper's editorial is a signal from Rafsanjani, officials were surprised that the new Iranian leader would move so quickly and so publicly. The idea of an opening to the United States, they noted, continues to generate strong opposition from some Iranian factions.

As one example of that opposition, Iran's largest-selling newspaper, Kayhan, wrote Wednesday that the United States promotes "crime, treason, mischief and bullying" and that renewing relations "will only defile the immaculate and uncompromising profile of the Islamic revolution in the eyes of the oppressed people of the world."

Domestically, Bush and his advisers are wary of raising expectations too high. The President so far has "avoided going out on a limb" and promising what he cannot deliver--either military retaliation or a swift return of the hostages, noted Bush's pollster and long-time adviser Robert Teeter.

"That's the voice of experience," Teeter said, noting that Bush had seen his predecessor, Ronald Reagan, get into trouble by making promises about terrorism and hostages that often could not be fulfilled.

U.S. officials also do not want the prospect of Pakistani mediation to foreclose efforts being made by other nations, including Algeria and Syria. Having Pakistan as the central focus for negotiations, however, could be fortuitous for the United States. Robert B. Oakley, American ambassador to Pakistan, is a former chief of the State Department's counterterrorism office and one of the government's most respected diplomats. Oakley, who has been in Washington for consultations, plans to return to Pakistan today.

Finally, officials are aware of how quickly developments in the volatile Middle East can upset even the best-crafted plans.

One example of that volatility came Wednesday, when a Shiite clergyman detonated a suicide truck bomb while passing an Israeli military patrol in southern Lebanon. The blast wounded five Israeli soldiers and a militiaman of the South Lebanese Army, which is allied with Israel. Members of the militant Shiite Hezbollah movement told Western news agencies that the attack was in retaliation for Israel's seizure earlier this month of Sheik Abdel Karim Obeid.

Debated Retaliation

On Thursday, Israelis debated whether to retaliate for the bombing. Uri Lubrani, Israel's coordinator for policy on Lebanon, vowed that "their violence shall be answered by violent means."

But other Israelis voiced opposition to a military strike, fearing the impact that it could have on hostage negotiations. "Negotiations are just beginning and Israel will be accused by the United States of exploding or torpedoing them," said Ron Ben-Ishai, military commentator for the newspaper Yediot Aharonot.

The Israeli army "cannot afford to be provoked into an escalating spiral of violence with Hezbollah, which could feed the extremists' fervor and possibly endanger any hostages still alive," the Jerusalem Post said.

Late in the day, Lebanese militiamen from the South Lebanese Army raided houses in Shiite Muslim villages to search for suspects in the bombing and clashed briefly with U.N. peacekeeping troops.

Also Thursday, the Beirut weekly Ash Shiraa quoted unidentified "non-Arab" sources as saying armed women have been moving the Western hostages to new hide-outs in the Lebanese capital and its suburbs.

Catalyst for Events

Obeid's seizure was the catalyst for the events of the last week and a half, and U.S. and Israeli officials continue to hope that he may become the centerpiece of an exchange in which U.S. hostages would be freed.

On Wednesday night, Bush and Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir discussed the hostage situation in a 10-minute telephone call. The call, initiated by Shamir, was the first conversation between the two men since Obeid's seizure.

Shamir's spokesman Avi Pazner said that the two had agreed to coordinate efforts on the hostage issue. Shamir assured Bush that Israel would include freedom for the eight U.S. hostages in Lebanon as part of any swap it offered to Hezbollah.

But Fitzwater, still trying to maintain U.S. distance from any talk of direct negotiations with hostage takers, played down the conversation. Shamir "indicated" that "they intend to consider the hostage problem in terms of all the hostages," he said. "But I'm not aware of any more direct commitment. I would not characterize it as coordination."

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