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Thanks--but What Took You So Long? : Iran and Syria could have helped free hostages long ago

The structure of a deal to win freedom for the remaining Western hostages held by Shiite Muslim extremists in Lebanon now seems to be essentially in place.

In a phased exchange of captives for information, Israel reportedly will order the release of a number of Arabs held by its Lebanese Christian allies in southern Lebanon. What Jerusalem wants to know is the status of its seven servicemen missing in Lebanon. Its goal is to get back those who are alive and the remains of those who are dead. Once Israel knows the fate of its missing men it will promise to release other Lebanese prisoners, most notably the radical-connected Sheik Abdel Karim Obeid, whom it kidnaped two years ago. That promise would be met as soon as the Israelis and other Western captives are out of Lebanon.

Barring the kind of hitches that not infrequently hold up complicated deals of this kind, it appears that the hostage drama will probably end fairly quickly.

WHY NOW?: That this terrible and unconscionable ordeal could in fact have been brought to a close some time ago has long been clear. The events of the last week or so only deepen that perception. The prospect of a swap of captives has been implicit for years, at least since Israel snatched Obeid from Lebanon; through back-channel conversations involving Israel, Syria and Lebanese radicals, it may even have been made explicit. Why, then, are active and public efforts to bring this sordid business to a close only now moving ahead?

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The short and obvious answer is that Syria and Iran, for their own reasons, have decided to exert the influence they have always had over Hezbollah radicals in Lebanon to put an end to this matter. Both countries, for their own political and economic needs, now see the value of getting on a better footing with Western Europe and the United States. Both know that the continued holding of hostages by a group that so evidently takes its political guidance from Iran’s clerical regime, and that operates in areas under Syrian military control, is a major impediment to the improvement in relations they seek. Both view release of the hostages--at their well-publicized urgings--as a cheap way for them to claim status as newly responsible members of the international community.

WHAT NOW?: The world being what it is, both countries will probably get much of what they want from the West, beginning with suitable expressions of gratitude for their cooperation and extending in short order to such things as closer diplomatic ties, expanded trade and credits. As it happens, the Damascus and Tehran regimes couldn’t have chosen a better time to try to persuade the West of their reasonableness.

Not long ago both had well-earned reputations as the region’s foremost villains, remorseless in brutally suppressing opposition among their own peoples and a threat to the stability and security of their neighbors. Then two key events occurred. The Cold War sputtered to an end, leaving Syria and Iran unable any longer to play off the Soviet Union against the West. And Iraq’s Saddam Hussein, whose own monstrous sins were too easily disregarded while he battled Iran, overplayed his hand by invading Kuwait. That act provided the chance for both Damascus and Tehran to acquire an unaccustomed respectability, and ultimately to set in motion a new effort--in which Syria prominently figures--to hammer out peace between Israel and its Arab neighbors.

This background is worth keeping in mind when, as almost all hope and pray, the long ordeal of the hostages finally ends. Diplomatic courtesy will require thanking and even rewarding Syria and Iran for their efforts. What honesty requires is facing the fact that what the two regimes are doing now they could easily have done long ago.

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