No ransom to Iran

The heart of America goes out to the families of the US hostages in Iran. So much expectaion has been raised in recent weeks and days that the frustration and disappointment over the latest turn of events must seem deep indeed. Yet we cannot think that the families themselves would expect or even want their government to bow to Iran's latest demands for release of the captives, for which there can be only one word -- outrageous. It would disserve the American people and the interests of the United States to pay what would in effect be ransom and blackmail to the Iranians. This would not only demean America's image in the world. It would be a sure invitation to others to use similar terrorist tactics in their dealings with the United States.

Certainly the US ought to be willing to return, on a phased basis, the Iranian assets which where frozen at the time the Americans were incarcerated. This money belongs to Iran and, after the hostages are freed, there is no impediment to returning whatever portion remains once the claims of American companies and citizens against the assets are resolved. The US can also honorably agree to help Iran go through the American court system to locate and try to obtain the late Shah's fortune. But, aside from the moral question involved, it is not at all certain that President Carter has even the legal authority to deposit billions of dollars in frozen assets in Algeria as demanded as well as funds representing a "guarantee" that Iran will recover the Shah's wealth. Bending as much as possible to Iranian concerns should not mean violating America's own standards of justice and legality.

Thwarted so many times by what seems to be the Iranians' deviousness and tendency to manipulate, the Carter administration could not be blamed if it threw up its hands and decided to leave the matter for the new president. Yet the task of diplomacy must go on. The hopeful element in the situation remains the fact that the Iranians are indeed negotiating for release of the hostages -- not directly with the US, to be sure, but at least in what appears to be a serious effort to resolve the crisis. That the situation has not been solved apparently stems, as it has so often in the past, from the chaotic conditions in Iran and the still-unresolved struggle for power between the fundamentalist Islamic clergy and such moderates as President Bani-Sadr -- struggles the Ayatollah Khomeini as trying desperately to mediate. The latest demands on the hostages would seem to reflect the unwillingness of forces within the new government in Tehran to take responsibility for a hostage agreement which might be seen as a capitulation to the United States.

That is Iran's problem. It may be wise for the US to compromise on an agreement which would prevent the present Khomeini-backed government from unravelling and plunging the country into even greater turmoil -- something which would not aid the hostages. But it is clear Washington cannot go so far as to impair the American national interest. More and more it is coming to be recognized that the US government's public concentration on the hostages, especially in the early days, was excessive and counterproductive, permitting the Iranians to exploit the issue. The time has come to make clear to the Iranians that the US cannot be pushed beyond a certain point, even if this means continued captivity for the Americans. Once the hostages are put in the perspective of total US foreign policy interests, the Iranians themselves may be more inclined to be reasonable.

President Carter's posture in the recent weeks of negotiation has been properly low-key. But one suggestion from an experienced diplomat deserves consideration. That is that the American people be told more about the Iranian demands as the negotiations go on. All the information comes from the Iranian side, while the US remains silent precisely because it wants to avoid generating undue tension and publicity. Yet the President may need a public mandate for his actions and this would be more forthcoming if the public were better informed.

These cannot be easy days for the President or for the forbearing families of the hostages. Despite the sense of urgency which has built up around the matter , however, it is to be hoped the United States will maintain its rectitude, its dignity, and its calm as it continues patiently to seek a way out of the impasse. At stake are not only the 52 hostages -- but the lives and well-being of all men under the rule of law.

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