Despite the release of an Indian hostage, the United States remains unwilling to negotiate with Iran on the fate of nine American captives in Lebanon, the White House said today, calling the release an “obvious ploy” to manipulate the news media.
President Reagan, in an exchange with reporters, did not explain how the freedom of Mithileshwar Singh, a Beirut University professor who is a legal resident of the United States, was obtained.
But he again ruled out any U.S. deals with the captors, believed to be a pro-Iranian Islamic group.
He said trying to secure the release of the nine Americans held in Lebanon “has been a great problem for us and it’s very much on our minds.”
‘Policy Has Not Changed’
The White House, meanwhile, tempered expressions of pleasure at the release of the Indian in Beirut with “the knowledge that nine innocent Americans are among those still held hostage in Lebanon.”
“We will not be manipulated,” White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater said. “Our policy has not changed.”
Fitzwater, briefing reporters the day after Singh’s release, said that while the Reagan Administration believes that Iran has “considerable influence” on the hostage takers, U.S. officials will make “no deals” with the Tehran government and continues contact only through the Swiss government and other third parties.
U.S. officials intimated that in choosing not to free one of the nine U.S. citizens held in Lebanon, the kidnapers may merely have intended to exert additional leverage on the United States, rather than signal any significant change in what for Reagan has been a frustrating status quo.
‘Influence the News Media’
Indeed, Fitzwater called the selective release of Singh “a rather obvious ploy to manipulate and influence the news media.” He complained that the captors’ decision to release a photograph of Singh bidding farewell to his three fellow hostages “certainly plays on the sympathies of Americans and on the media attention that they were receiving.”
Noting also how some news reports Monday had indicated that the freed hostage might be U.S. citizen Alann Steen, who was held with Singh, Fitzwater admonished reporters to heed “some of the lessons that they should have learned from Iran-Contra, just like we remembered our lessons.”
“And that is,” he said, “that everyone is subject to some manipulation here and we need to be very careful.”
“We are taking a strong stand on this because we think it’s the way to deal with Iran,” he said, “and history has shown that it is.”
With the election approaching, the political dimension of the hostage situation has received increased attention, just as rumors of a possible release of the American hostages in Iran loomed as a much-feared “October surprise” for Reagan in the final weeks of the 1980 campaign.
For his part, Fitzwater would not even entertain questions today about the political implications of whether additional American hostages are freed before Election Day, insisting, “We don’t judge it in political terms.”
Reagan was not so reticent about confronting the politics of the hostage crisis that threatens to drag on unresolved toward the end of his presidency.
When asked by a reporter during a meeting with Republican congressional leaders whether the kidnapers might be trying to manipulate the election through the timing of their actions, Reagan evoked laughter with his reply: “Well, if they are, I hope they’re on the right side.”