Carter told: shift focus off hostages

By , Staff correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

President Carter is being increasingly advised, from both at home and abroad, to assume a lower profile on the hostage issue and to place it in a larger context.

This is what many among America's allies in Western Europe and Japan would like to see done. But it also seems to be part of a growing sentiment among American senators and congressmen.

Their concern is based on two considerations: First, that by focusing on the hostage issue, President Carter has neglected wider issues -- involving Middle East oil, war, peace, and the Soviet Union -- and, second, that the focus on the hostage issue has merely whetted the appetite of Iranian "militants" and caused them to concentrate on using it to their advantage inside Iran.

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The paradox, some say, is that by focusing less on the hostage issue, the President may stand a better chance of eventually setting the hostages free.

No President could admit he is putting such an issue on the back burner, certainly not in an election year. But some see the President's announcement April 30 that he is lifting his self-imposed ban on travel and campaigning as a sign that he accepts such a view.

White house officials have denied that the President's decision to resume traveling indicated any change in his approach to the hostage question. Indeed, shortly after last week's abortive rescue mission revealed, one senior White House official argued that the option of holding back on the hostage issue in the hope of cooling tensions and finding effective negotiating partners in Tehran was not feasible. The official said that while this might have worked in the case of the USS Pueblo crew captured in North Korea, it would not work with Iran -- in part because the American press constantly dramatized the hostage issue, thus creating demands for results.

What the official did not mention is that President Carter himself has until now dramatized the issue through his own statements and actions.

A congressional staff specialist on foreign affairs said that, for the time being at least, President Carter really has no alternative to a low profile approach to the issue. The Western Europeans and the Japanese will decide May 17 whether to go ahead with new economic and diplomatic measures against Iran.They have been strongly advising President Carter not to use military force.

"The Japanese are really frightened, and for good reason," said an American working with the Japanese government on foreign policy issues. "Japan depends on Middle East oil for 56 percent of its total energy. . . . The comparable figure for the US is 6 percent."

Japanese Prime Minister Masayoshi Ohira, in Washington for a meeting with President Carter May 1, was expected to stress his country's belief in the need for a peaceful resolution of the hostage issue.

"I think the President now sees that the biggest threat is that Iran might go over to the Soviets," said one Middle EAst specialist. "And there are a fair number of people in the Congress who see it that way."

One of them is Sen. Henry M. Jackson (D) of WAshington, who is most often cited for "hawkish" foreign policy views. In a breakfast meeting with reporters May 1, the senator said he was opposed to any plan to mine or blockade Iranian ports and favored a return to quiet diplomacy.

Senator Jackson said he was afraid of "born-again hawks" in the Carter administration but thought that the administration had, in fact, abandoned the ideas of mining Iranian ports or of a naval blockade. He said he does not expect the hostage question to be resolved under any circumstances before the US presidential election in November. But he thinks a lack of publicity helped in securing the recent release of hostages held in Bogota, Colombia.

"If you keep the hostage issue on the front burner, you play right into the hands of the militants and right into the hands of the Russians," Senator Jackson said.

"The radicals . . . have used the hostages to do irreparable harm to American policy all over the world," he said. "It has provided a cover for the Russians to soften up Iran."

The senator said the first priorities for the US should be to acquire access to bases in the Middle East, to strengthen the American presence there, and to reach a security agreement with the oil-producing nations of the region.

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