Despite obvious disappointment that no Americans were freed, apparent foreign policy shifts in Iran have prompted the Reagan Administration to express cautious optimism for the first time since the Iran-Contra affair about the prospects of freedom for the remaining U.S. hostages in Lebanon.
“Iran has made a decision to move on the hostages,” an Administration official said Monday. “They’ve got all kinds of problems now, and they don’t need this one. The hostages really don’t provide either the Lebanese or the Iranians with any leverage anymore.”
At the same time, however, State Department sources suggested that although Iran may be ready to end the hostage trauma that has been a primary source of tension between Washington and Tehran for nine years, the process could be drawn out over weeks or, more likely, several months.
Timing Up to Them
“The rhythm of releases and timing will be decided only by them,” one official said.
U.S., European and Middle East sources say the changing attitude in Tehran toward the hostage problem has been motivated primarily by Iran’s need to better its relations with the West to increase trade and earn the revenue it needs for reconstruction in the era after the Persian Gulf War.
Recent U.S. actions, including a congressional move to impose sanctions on Iraq, the cutback in the American fleet’s role in the gulf and President Reagan’s condemnation at the United Nations of chemical warfare, also may have encouraged Iran and other Islamic militants to change tactics.
But further releases may be complicated by two problems, Administration sources said.
The first is that the remaining Americans are held by at least four groups, only some of which are believed to have connections to each other under the broader umbrella of Hezbollah, or Party of God.
Each group, moreover, has a different agenda. At least two groups are thought to center on families or clans seeking to win the release of relatives imprisoned in Kuwaiti and West German jails.
According to U.S. terrorism specialists, the group Islamic Jihad is believed to hold two Americans. A separate group, Islamic Jihad for the Liberation of Palestine, held Mithileshwar Singh, who was released Monday, and still has control of three of his colleagues from Beirut University College.
In addition, the Revolutionary Justice Organization has at least one American. And the Arab Revolutionary Cells are thought to have two.
Administration sources also believe that Iran does not have total control--or even equal leverage--over the various groups, and that divisions in Tehran over recent policy shifts, notably on the war with Iraq and foreign policy, may be mirrored by similar splits in Lebanon.
Initially, word spread through Washington that the hostage being released was an American, and U.S. officials prepared to claim a victory for their no-concessions policy. Both the State Department and the White House insisted there had been no direct negotiations or deals between the United States and Iran.
But the surprise release of Singh, who is a U.S. resident but not an American citizen, deflated that possibility.
“This was a tease,” said a U.S. military analyst. “Iran or its Lebanese allies may have been sending a signal, but it had a point: The United States will not get what it wants so easily.”
Other Mideast analysts also questioned U.S. claims of not having made a deal. Every foreign hostage release in Lebanon since 1982 has been accompanied by a political trade-off or a large financial payment, according to European diplomats whose countries have negotiated the freedom of their own nationals held by pro-Iranian groups in Beirut.
One Administration source said that Singh’s release “really did fall into our laps,” and he said that Iran’s role is still unclear. But a State Department official conceded that two American citizens had launched private initiatives with Iran since the summer to win release of the hostages.
The first involved a retired military officer who was reined in after the State Department learned that he had established connections with Lebanese of questionable credentials.
But a second attempt, continuing over the last two weeks by a retired American intelligence official operating in Europe, may be linked with stories in an Israeli newspaper about secret contacts between the United States and the Iran. The newspaper predicted the release of one British and eight American hostages by mid-October.
U.S. officials claim this was a strictly private initiative, however.
In an earlier attempt last spring, Algerian diplomats in Beirut secretly initiated contact with Islamic Jihad in an effort to free American hostage Terry A. Anderson. The Associated Press correspondent, who has been in captivity 3 1/2 years, has been held longer than any other.
The Algerians managed to strike a tentative deal with Imad Mughniyah, the shadowy Islamic Jihad leader, according to Middle East sources familiar with the case. But the accord fell apart.