U.S. Not Hopeful on Other Hostages; Lauds Iran, Syria
The Bush Administration expressed its gratitude Monday to both Syria and Iran for helping win freedom for hostage Frank H. Reed, but U.S. officials conceded privately that they do not anticipate another imminent release.
“It looks like the well will be dry for awhile,” said a source close to the hostage crisis.
Indeed, within hours of Reed’s release, the battle lines of Phase 2 of the hostage release drama appeared to be taking shape.
An editorial in today’s Tehran Times warned: “Now the ball is in the court of the United States and the Western countries. . . . Without an appropriate response from the West, there is no chance for the continuation of Iranian mediation and requests.”
But at a White House ceremony to welcome returned hostage Robert Polhill, President Bush ruled out any improvement in relations with Iran or a reciprocal gesture to any party until all Americans are freed.
“We’re not, in a piecemeal basis, bidding for human life,” he said.
In an earlier written statement, the President pointedly noted that six other Americans and at least eight foreigners remain hostage in Lebanon.
“Their predicament weighs on our mind and tempers the joy we feel today,” he said.
The President did go further in acknowledging Iran’s role in Reed’s release than he did in last week’s reaction to Polhill’s freedom. In the written statement, he thanked Tehran for “using its influence to help bring about this humanitarian step.” In contrast, he thanked Damascus only for “facilitating” Reed’s freedom.
The statement indicated that the Administration believes that Iran played the more pivotal role. But the Islamic republic made clear that words will not suffice.
In the Tehran Times editorial, Iran for the first time claimed credit for the release of the two Americans within nine days.
“Something miraculous has happened,” the Tehran Times said, because Iran “put in months of hard effort” and “used its maximum power and credibility” to free the first American hostages in more than three years.
The English-language Times, which is considered the mouthpiece of Iranian President Hashemi Rafsanjani, said that the next “appropriate” step would be for the release of “a significant number of hostages including a few Iranian hostages and Sheik Obeid . . . so that we can celebrate the year 1990 as the end of the hostage crisis.”
The demand was a reference to an estimated 400 Shiite Muslim and Palestinian prisoners under the control of Israel or the pro-Israeli militia in southern Lebanon and to four Iranian hostages abducted by a Christian militia outside Beirut in 1982. Sheik Abdel Karim Obeid, a prominent Shiite sheik, was abducted from his home in southern Lebanon by Israeli commandos last July.
The editorial also described the Bush Administration’s reaction to the first hostage release as “not likable and very unexpected,” and it denounced the congressional vote last week that endorsed Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.
A U.S. counterterrorism official responded to the editorial’s demands by saying that the Administration has no intention of backing down from its position of “no deals.”
But he conceded that some “fancy footwork” will be necessary to win freedom for the remaining six Americans. At this point, the Administration is hoping that Israel will contribute to the new momentum with a release, however token, he said.
Although the Israeli government has made several offers of a swap in the past, its terms include the release of three soldiers captured during Israel’s occupation of Lebanon.
President Bush said he has “no knowledge” of any deal that would involve Israel releasing prisoners under its control in exchange for U.S. and other hostages. But he later added that he would have “no objection.”
White House officials have repeatedly tried to signal a desire to see the Israelis free some prisoners without directly calling on Israel to do so.
“The problem boils down to who takes the next step--and how to avoid it from being seen as part of a deal,” said the source close to the hostage crisis.
As in the case of Polhill, U.S. officials had no idea why Reed was picked for the second release. They had, however, anticipated further movement. When the Syrians first approached the U.S. Embassy in Damascus 12 days ago, they told American diplomats that they expected two to come out. When only Polhill was freed, the Syrians offered reassurances that another would be freed soon.
At the White House today, Polhill told a Rose Garden press conference, “I sincerely hope that Frank (Reed) is Step 2 in what will be a continuing release of hostages and bringing us all back.”
Of the reasons behind his release, he said, “You may be surprised but I really don’t know very much about what was going on around me.”
But U.S. officials confirmed that Polhill did have a message for Bush from his captors, a message he had refused to divulge to his debriefers during the stopover in Germany last week.
After the Rose Garden ceremony, Polhill, who is expected to undergo a biopsy this weekend for a growth in his throat that developed during his 1,183-day captivity, met with the President, Secretary of State James A. Baker III, National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft and others to relay the message. U.S. officials refused to disclose the contents.
Polhill’s White House reception and Reed’s release came on the day the State Department published its annual report on terrorism, which lists both Iran and Syria among six countries still involved in state-sponsored terrorism.
“A number of states involved in terrorism, including Libya and Syria, remained wary of getting caught sponsoring terrorists and reduced their support. Iran was a notable exception,” the report says.
Although Tehran’s involvement in state-sponsored attacks decreased slightly in 1989, it concludes, “Iran continues to provide Hezbollah with money, weapons and training and has approved--and in some cases encouraged--the kidnaping of Western citizens.”
Hezbollah is a pro-Iranian Shiite group in Lebanon thought to be an umbrella organization that includes several of the groups holding foreign hostages in Lebanon.
The report adds that Iranian intelligence has been used “to facilitate and in some cases conduct terrorist attacks.” And it reports extensive support for terrorist groups even after the death of the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in June, 1989.
The State Department survey said Syria has not been linked to the planning or execution of incidents outside Lebanon since 1987. But Damascus has not been taken off the list of sponsors because it provides support and safe haven to groups such as Hezbollah, the Japanese Red Army and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command.
The report was deemed sufficiently sensitive that the White House ordered all copies, scheduled to be released Monday morning, delayed until after Reed’s release was confirmed. U.S. officials said they did not want Tehran or Damascus to balk at the last minute.
In general, however, the report concludes that international terrorism declined sharply, by almost 38%, worldwide in 1989.
Times staff writers James Gerstenzang and David Lauter also contributed to this report.