Iran's intransigence and political disarray -- along with President Carter's diplomatic break and other responses -- must not be allowed to slide into the grave confrontation which some fear that they foreshadow. What can be done to prevent such an outcome, with all its threats to international stability, including the possibility of a reluctant Iranian turn toward Moscow? The answers have to come from both sides:
* Unfortunately it has to be assumed that Iran will not take the one step that would resolve the situation and open the way for the Iranian revolution to resume international respectability. This, of course, would be to end Iran's egregious defiance of law and humanity by immediately releasing the american hostages.
In the absence of such a redeeming gesture, the Iranian government ought to pull itself together enough to speak clearly about what moves by the United States and/or international organizations would improve the chances for release of the hostages.
To be sure, the world can hardly expect a revolutionary transition period without politically contending forces. Indeed, apart from the hostage situation , Iran has emerged from oppression and violence more positively than many had expected. Though economic troubles have been serious, and the Ayatollah Khomeini has loomed over all, democratic processes have gotten underway with the election of a President and the beginnings of electing a Parliament. What is needed is some focal point for reliable dealings with the US and others.
Iran must know that bluster about still demanding the return of the Shah cannot be realistically seen except as a public posture. It needs to let the US know in specific terms what its actual aims are.
* For the United States the central challenge now lies in the sentence with which President Carter concluded his statement announcing the expelling of Iranian diplomats, trade sanctions, and other retaliatory measures. He said: "Other actions may become necesary if these steps do not produce the prompt release of the hostages."
Few if any international observers -- or people in the White House, for that matter -- assert that the present steps willm produce the prompt release of the hostages. If the hostages remain, the question then becomes what "other actions" might be taken. The White House has not announced what they might be. But various voices have suggested measures in the vein of a blockade of Iran or even a minign of its harbors.
The danger is that such provocative moves might be taken not for sound tactical reasons but out of impatience and the desire to appear to be doing something. Mr Carter might be pardoned for feeling that patience has not been rewarded. America as well as other nations affected by what happens in Iran ought to give him every credit for remaining patient as long as he has while pursuing possibilities for negotiation and redress in international bodies.
Yet patience was never seen as a solution in itself. The Iranians appear to have patience and to spare. If the President wants to act, it should not be at the sacrifice of the qualities that have given America the moral and legal advantage in the present situation if not in its dealings with Iran under the Shah as perceived by Iran under the ayatollah. It would be hazardous for Mr. Carter to snap back with undue vehemence in reaction to a sense that his moral position has been taken advantage of. People who know him from Georgia say that such a Carter response would not be unprecedented.
But the kind of "other action" that is needed is the kind that will contribute both to solving the present situation and repairing relations with a crucial Middle east country after the crisis is over. While Mr. Carter has said he would never "apologize" on behalf of the US for its role in imposing the Shah on Iran, it has been pointed out that "apologies" are normal in international law. The US has made many of them over the years. From an Iranian point of view, an apology is often simply the way to get together to start a serious negotiation. To some -- such as Roger Fisher, Harvard specialist in conflict resolution -- it would be possible to give Iran an acknowledgment of US mistakes not because the Iranians demand it but because they are entitled to it whether they demand it or not. Such an attitude could help to budge the current stalemate.
As it is, the "tough" measures are analyzed as making it easier for Iran to propagandize about the US as the bully and to strengthen the hand of hard-liners in Iran. These are matters for Mr. Carter to consider as he decides what to do next.