Ghosts of Iranian Hostage Crisis Could Haunt U.S. in Beirut Standoff
In the Beirut hostage crisis, President Reagan faces a problem much like the one that bedeviled his predecessor, Jimmy Carter, in Iran five years ago: What began as a confrontation with a handful of Shia Muslim terrorists has become a frustrating, dangerous struggle in the cross-currents of radical Muslim politics, making the military and diplomatic power of the United States seemingly ineffective.
The White House is negotiating for the hostages’ release with Lebanese Shia leader Nabih Berri, but senior Administration officials confess that they do not know whether Berri--a relative moderate--has full control of the young militants who hold the more than 40 hostages from TWA Flight 847.
“He has said he is responsible for (the hostages),” White House spokesman Larry Speakes said Monday. “We hope that is true.”
“We believe he has influence” over the militants, a senior State Department official said. “The degree of control, the degree of influence is very difficult to assess.”
Indeed, in stepping into the spotlight in the TWA hijacking, Berri has taken a gamble with his own political future by assuming responsibility for the hostages, Administration officials and scholars agree.
If Berri can negotiate a solution in which Israel releases the 700 to 800 Shia detainees the terrorists are demanding, he wins. Yet his leadership of Lebanon’s Shia community was already under attack by more radical factions, and if he cannot gain the detainees’ release, his position may be in danger.
Fear of Parallels
This entanglement of American power in the tortuous strands of Muslim religious politics has led some Administration officials to fear parallels with the Carter Administration’s long stalemate in Iran, where 52 U.S. Embassy staff members were held hostage to an internal power struggle for more than 14 months before they were finally released.
“Iran is obviously on people’s minds around here,” a State Department official said. But officials say the Administration has put to use one clear lesson from the Iranian hostage crisis of 1979-81: Reagan is maintaining a low profile, to minimize the buildup of political pressure on the White House at home and to avoid giving the hijackers the sense that they have achieved great leverage over the United States.
White House spokesman Speakes and other aides made a point of describing Reagan as carrying on business as usual. Reagan did not alter his schedule of appointments and plans to travel later this week to Indiana and Texas as well as to meet the press at a scheduled news conference tonight, Speakes said.
“The President certainly has deep concern for those who are being held,” he said. “At the same time, there are a lot of other items on the agenda that he’s concentrating on. . . . The President is perfectly capable of dealing with this situation and carrying on the business of government, which he intends to do . . . however long this takes for resolution.”
In 1979, then-President Carter canceled a series of trips and announced that winning the Tehran hostages’ freedom would be the first priority of his Administration. Carter later said he regretted that decision, because it focused national attention almost exclusively on the crisis and suggested to the Iranian militants that the United States considered the hostages of such value that it might give in to their demands.
“If we had known that the situation was going to last a year or more, our reactions would have been very, very different,” Carter’s deputy adviser for national security, David Aaron, said Monday. “We ought to prepare ourselves for a very long, drawn-out process. . . . The more patient we become, the stronger our bargaining position.”
The State Department has reactivated the same task force that monitored the Iranian crisis, with some of the same people manning its round-the-clock desk. The Defense Department has reportedly dispatched its Delta Force to the Middle East, the same unit that launched an abortive mission to rescue the hostages in Tehran.
And, as in Iran, the United States is negotiating with a relatively moderate Shia Muslim leader in hope that he can both make a deal and persuade his militant followers to accept it.
Radicals Attack Berri
Berri, the 46-year-old leader of the Shia organization Amal, has long been under attack by more radical, pro-Iranian Shia factions.
“Berri is a very responsible guy and a pro-American guy, even though his rhetoric has been getting more radical . . . to appease the other factions,” said Judith Kipper, a Middle East expert at the American Enterprise Institute. “To what degree he controls the crazies is not clear.
“If he can get this to work, if he can work out a swap (of the hostages for the Shia detainees), there will be calls to make him president of Lebanon,” she said. “If it doesn’t work, he could get swept away.”
But officials and scholars said it was a hopeful sign that the hijackers allowed Berri to get involved in the negotiations in the first place.
Administration officials said they are still not certain who the original hijackers were, although they do not believe Berri was involved from the start. “That would be out of character,” one said.
But the fact that the hijackers asked for representatives of Amal to come to the airport appeared to be a sign that they owe some allegiance to the mainstream Shia movement--whether or not they are members or former members.
“It may well be that since they called Berri into this that they look to him for leadership,” said Rashid Khalidy, an Arab scholar at Georgetown University.