Hearts and hostages

Americans have understandably been cautious in reacting to the recent developments on the hostage issue in Iran. They have heard so many reports of contradictory words and actions over the past long months. Now within days they have had another example: Ayatollah Khomeini omitting a US apology for past interference in Iran from a list of conditions for release of the hostages -- and the speaker of Iran's fledgling Majlis (Parliament) saying that such an apology would indeed be among the conditions for release.

Yet caution should not lapse into fatalism. This week's decision by the Majlis to name a special commission on the hostages may seem like one more delay of full-scale parliamentary action. On the other hand, for the body to have pulled itself together even this much in the midst of post-revolutionary turmoil is something not to be belittled. It holds promise of progress toward orderly consideration of a matter no less controversial in Iran than in the United States. The Iranians have much to work out for themselves, a process more likely to go forward without US politicians adding their own fireworks.

President Carter has given an unfortunate impression of placing the spotlight on or off the plight of the hostages in keeping with campaign purposes. But he has been offered a vote of confidence by a spokeswoman for hostage families, and it is good to have reassurances from Secretary of State Muskie that vigorous efforts to bring about negotiations between Washington and Tehran continue behind the scenes.

The possibilities can only be enhanced by the people-to-people steps being taken by the hostage families. Their letter to the Majlis speaker makes plain that these Americans most grieved by the hostage-taking are willing to help the conciliation process in any way private citizens can. They recognize they cannot enter into diplomatic negotiation. But just possibly their attempt at heart speaking to heart could ease what scholars have seen to be the genuine fears of the Iranian people about American intentions.

For Washington the best course remains not to give in to threats but to stand ready to grant what it could reasonably have granted if Iran had not taken hostages. Some argue that this could include some expression of regret for bygone interference in Iran which many Americans deplore as much as the Iranians do. It is short-sighted for the President or any other candidate to foreclose such an option.

When it comes to a matter like restoring to Iran the booty of the late Shah, Washington cannot be expected to conduct raids -- only to reassure Tehran that the US court system is freely and fairly available. The unfreezing of Iranian assets also would probably require court action in view of claims made on them. But here again Washington could assure Iran of access to the justice system.

It may still be premature to speculate on such matters. The Majlis may come up with demands that have not surfaced before. Or it may moderate demands in the light of an increasingly counterproductive lingering of the hostage issue when Iran has so many other problems to solve. Among reported Iranian concerns are the continuation of reduced oil production, the possible Soviet exploitation of unchecked instability, the state of the Ayatollah's health, the uncertain effects of a possible change of US administration.

All Americans can join those hostage families in doing their part to create a climate of thought and feeling for a constructive diplomatic outcome.

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