President Carter is under mounting pressure to "get tough" with the government of Iran. Some even say he ought to declare war on Iran. Republican candidates Ronald Reagan and George Bush have of recent days built their campaigns around this theme. The easiest way to neutralize such campaigning is to do it. "Getting tough" seems to be politically popular right now.
Well, why not?
It would be easy enough to declare war, seize the Iranian diplomats, toss the Iranian students into concentration camps, send the fleet into the Gulf to blockade the seacoast of Iran, and shut off all seaborne trade between Iran and the Western world. It would probably be popular, at least for a while (until the fallout drifted down). It might well rescue Mr. Carter from the low point at which his campaign appears to be settling in the wake of the New York and Connecticut primaries.
But, who besides Mr. Carter would benefit?
The prime beneficiary would be the Soviet Union. The Iranians would have to turn to Moscow for protection, guns, and sympathy, all of which Moscow would be delighted to provide. The results would be one of the cheapest extensions of Soviet influence since Moscow went into the empire-building business. It would be cheap because Iran would become a client of the Soviet state without a single Soviet soldier having to be sent into Iran to risk his personal welfare.
A secondary benefit would accrue to Moscow. Since Iran is a Muslim country most other Muslim countries would tend to sympathize with Iran and draw farther away from the United States. Moscow suffered through-out. Islam from having invaded Afghanistan. Even if no actual military hostilities occurred, a US declaration of war against Iran would tend to neutralize the harmful effect of that invasion and rehabilitate Moscow in Muslim eyes.
Another prime beneficiary would be the Ayatollah Khomeini. At home he would be the patriotic leader who had defied the capitalist infidel. Those Iranians who presently doubt his sanctity and wisdom would be forced by patriotic pressures to rally behind him. The moderates represented by President BaniSadr would be discredited. The ayatollah would have it all his own way.
The hostages would not be on the list of beneficiaries. Their lives would certainly be in greater danger than at present, although probably they would be kept alive as pawns for future possible use.
So far it seems unlikely that Mr. Carter will go so far as to declare war. More likely, he will only resort to financial and economic sanctions, although a blockade of the Iranian seaports is mentioned as a possibility.
The effect of sanctions short of war would be the same as a declaration of war, but in lesser degree. Any attempt at coercion of Iran would benefit primarily Moscow and the ayatollah; not the hostages or the US or its allies.
Iran is not now self-sufficient in foodstuffs. The withholding of US grain would work a hardship. But Iran used to be self-sufficient in food. Until fairly recent times and the lax habits induced by the export of oil Iran produced all its own foods except for tea and sugar. It even exported rice. Iran could be ome self-sufficient again in foodstuffs, if it had to do so.
A US blockade could, in theory, deprive Iran of oil revenue from the West. But that would not be a long-term hardship. Moscow is beginning to run short of oil. There is already a gas pipeline from Iran into the Soviet Union. Moscow would probably be delighted to become the main importer of Iranian oil. But before that happened America's allies would have something to say about a blockade. Any imposition of such a blockade would put a dangerous burden on the alliance.
As a practical matter there is no sanction Mr. Carter can impose on Iran which would benefit the hostages or the general welfare of the Western world. The use of sanction is disapproved by the allies and would only worsen the plight of the hostages.
But at home it might take some of the political heat off of Mr. Carter and tend to neutralize the present campaigning of Messrs. Reagan and Bush.