Impact of foul-up: fewer US options, strained allies

Failure of the American rescue operation in Iran carries impact far beyond the question of the new plight of the American hostages. The toll, in brief, appears to be this:

* Another blow to American credibility in the Middle East.

* Additional strainon US relations with West Europe and Japan.

* A further narrowing of the options available for American action against Iran.

The United States is returning for the time being to economic and diplomatic actions against Iran. At a weekend meeting in Luxembourg, the West European allies were expected, despite their misgivings over the abortive rescue operation, to reaffirm their support for such actions against Iran. But few specialists seem to think this will result in an early release of the 50 American hostages.

A senior White house official argued that the Iranians now must realize how serious the US is about securing the freedom of the hostages. This view was supported by former Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger. But a number of independent experts on Iran think that the unsuccessful rescue effort has actually undercut the Iranian "moderates" who want to negotiate release of the hostages and strengthened the "hardliners," including Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.

"There is no reason to believe that Khomeini will be any more inclined to moderate his view," said William B. Quandt, former chief specialist on the Middle East for the Carter administration and now with the Brookings Institution.

"This rescue operation was fantastic for Khomeini," said Mr. Quandt. "As far as he's concerned, it's one more humiliation for the United States."

Whether this would immediately redound to the profit of the Soviet Union was less clear. But the fear all along has been that a weakening of the Iranian moderates and a strengthening of the extremists would eventually pull Iran apart and allow the Soviets to come in.

Despite all this, it has come as no surprise to political analysts that in the immediate aftermath of the unsuccessful mission into Iran, many Americans expressed support of President Carter and his decision to make the raid. They recall that just after the abortive Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba in 1961, President John F. Kennedy's popularity increased markedly.

A Newsweek-Gallup poll released April 26 found that 71 percent of the Americans surveyed approved of the raid. The poll also showed that 46 percent approved of President Carter's overall handling of the Iran crisis, 42 percent disapproved, and 12 percent had no opinion.

But the analysts say that there is a natural tendency to rally to the President's support in a crisis. They doubt that the support shown in the immediate aftermath of the rescue raid will translate into any lasting support for the President, particularly after it becomes apparent that the raid may have made any future rescue effort or release of the hostages by the Iranians more difficult.This appears to be all the more true in light of reports from Iran that the hostages now are being dispersed to locations outside Tehran.

Similarly, analysts of European affairs expect the West European allies to be largely supportive of Mr. Carter in the early stages of reaction to the abortive rescue effort. The President's national security adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski, told the ABC television network April 27 that the President had received a number of "warm messages" from allied leaders. But the analysts are concerned that the long-term effect of the raid may be to reinforce the impression among some Europeans that President Carter is an uncertain leader who lacks the skills and experience to carry out an effective foreign policy. Other analysts think the US has suffered a blow as well to its credibility among Middle East nations outside Iran.

But in order to buy time and prevent President Carter from taking more extreme measures, the European allies and Japan are expected to continue to go along with ecomains back to Tehran."

Also underscoring a seemingly growing irrelevance of "moderates" such as Mr. Bani-Sadr was the announcement by the embassy captors that all 50 hostages there had been scattered outside, a maneuver requiring an operational alliance with revolutionary guards controlled by Ayatollah Khomeini and other Muslim hard-liners.

By late April 27 there was growing circumstantial evidence that hostages had indeed been shunted elsewhere, virtually ruling out a further American rescue operation. But there was no concrete proof of this.

Among the evidence was the militants' insistence the transfer had been completed, the presence of ambulances and vans at the embassy April 25 and 26, and the erosion of security reinforcements effected when news of the failed US rescue broke on Tehran radio April 25.

In what is surely the most grostesque media event in a crisis which has had more than its share, Ayatollah Khalkhali directed Revolutionary Guards to pick over the remains of the individual Americans. He looked unmoved during most of the performance, but at one time even cracked jokes.

Before the militants showed the perished Americans April 27, the sprawling embassy compound looked once again a little like an exclusive -- if somewhat shabby -- country club, with the militants' privileged supporters banging lightly on a padlock marked "Made in USA" in order to gain entrance.

A few revolutionary guards, looking only slightly more alert than before the US rescue bid and occasionally smiling good naturedly at American reporters, lolled by an outer wall bearing faded slogans like the elusive "Yankee, go home" President Carter had so wished to implement.

Diplomats felt it was virtually certain that at least some of the hostages had been moved from the embassy. Some ambassadors had privately predicted the move from the moment they learned of the aborted US military effort. Yet a number of foreign envoys suspected not all of the captive Americans had left, if only because this might provide ammunition for what the militants term "counter-revolutionary forces" to press for evacuation of the prime symbol of the students' power.

Former US charge d'affaires Bruce Laingen and two other "forgotten" hostages outside the embassy when it was seized and held ever since at the Foreign Ministry, appeared still to be there. A ministry spokesman, while not directly confirming this, said, "They are safe. They are comfortable. They are under our protection."

But "comfortable" can be a slippery word. The Monitor learned from well-informed Iranian and diplomatic sources that treatment of all the hostages, even the relatively "lucky" prisoners of the Foreign Ministry, has varied with the temperature of Iranian-US relations.

One downturn, for instance, is said to have occurred following the Canadian-sponsored escape some three months ago by six Americans who had eluded the militants' grasp.

Diplomats feared that the militants, who said they were accompanying the hostages to new places of confinement throughout Iran, would now tighten the reins again. At the very least, International Red Cross requests for improvement of an embassy routine providing hostages only 25 minutes of fresh air a week were seen as virtually sure to be ignored, given heightened Iranian-US tension and the students' presumed preoccupation with the secrecy of new hostage locations.

In any case, compliance would be impossible to vetify. The students made it clear they were scattering the hostages to keep Washington from mounting a second rescue mission. Diplomats, who had been trying with an agonizing lack of success to arrange regular visits to the embassy hostages, felt it was unlikely that such visits would be allowed to the new hostage sites.

Mail deliveries, the captives' lifeline with home, will also be more difficult to arrange with the hostages confined to separate locations hundreds of miles apart.

The militants, while not pinpointing the new sites, did mention at least two cities where they were situated: the Muslim religious center of Qom, south of Tehran, and the northwest city of Tabriz. Shiraz, near Iran's southwest coast, was mentioned as another possibility.

The transfers could well end in a spy trial after the sitting of a still unelected parliament empowered by Ayatollah Khomeini to decide the fate of the hostages. That will not happen before mid-May, at the very carliest.

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