Hostages and Hostility

In Beirut the other day a Lebanese cleric closely linked to the group that is holding American and other Western hostages confessed to feeling "pain" over their plight, and suggested negotiations to resolve their ordeal. In Tehran a few days later another prominent Shia clergyman and national leader indicated that Iran would help win freedom for the hostages if the United States released long-frozen Iranian assets. The sources for these offers--in Lebanon Sheikh Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah, the "spiritual adviser" to Hezbollah, in Iran Hojatolislam Hashemi Rafsanjani, speaker of the parliament and chief of the armed forces--certainly are authoritative. Are they also believable?

Probably they are, not because either man has suddenly been overcome by humanitarian impulses but because Iran's practical interests now require that it try to reduce the animosity toward it that hostage-holding keeps alive. In recent months Iran has been brought face to face with the reality of failure in its war with Iraq. In recent weeks, in the U.N. Security Council debate over the American shooting down of an Iranian airliner, it has had to confront the bitter truth of its international isolation. Against this background Iran may well try to ease its confrontation with Washington, not because its basic convictions have changed but because it realizes that it has more to lose than to gain from unremitting hostility.

The Reagan Administration's response to these signals this time around has been the right one. It is ready to talk, but not to make any deals. Iran's frozen assets, mainly a military sales escrow fund set up under the late shah, are a negotiable issue, but not in the context of bargaining over the hostages. What White House and State Department statements emphatically suggest is that only after Iran's clients in Lebanon free the hostages can other matters be taken up. The pre-condition is implicit: First end the great wrong of hostage-holding, and then other steps may be possible.

Offer made, response given, and now the next move is up to Tehran. It might seem inconceivable that Iran would order the hostages freed without a visible quid pro quo, but two weeks ago it was equally inconceivable that the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini would announce that Iran was throwing in the towel in its war against Iraq. Until the hostage issue is disposed of, Iran has no chance to get on a better footing with the United States. For a while it may go on trying to obtain something tangible for their release. In the end it will probably have to recognize the weakness of its bargaining position, and realize that only when this barrier is removed might the road to better relations be opened.

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