Iran and USSR both exploit hostage issue

Both Iran's revolutionary fundamentalists and the Kremlin's aging revolutionaries are working away to muddy United States rejoicing over expected release of the American hostages.

* Iran's revolutionaries seem likely to upstage the US at the moment of presidential transition, grabbing the network television screens both in the US and abroad when viewers otherwise would be concentrating on the Washington celebrations to mark the inauguration of President- elect Ronald Reagan.

This would be part of the pattern, rewarding to Persian self-esteem, which has made Iran much more than a bit player in the entire US presidential campaign. The hostage issue dictated Jimmy Carter's White House rose-garden strategy in the primary campaign against Edward Kennedy. The same issue, according to some of the outgoing President's closest advisers, cost him the election and gave victory to Mr. Reagan.

* The Soviet propagandists are forcing themselves on stage now with their charge that the US was using the final stage of the hostage negotiations as a smokescreen for early American "armed aggression" against Iran. US Secretary of State Edmund Muskie described the Soviet allegation as "scurrilous" and demanded -- through the Soviet ambassador in Washington -- "an immediate end" to this latest propaganda line.

The Soviets' getting into the act revives an oft-used Kremlin pattern: issuing a warning against an invented US threat to a third party to be able to claim credit from that third party for having warded off the supposed threat. One memorable earlier example: Then Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev rattled Soviet rockets in 1956 at the time of the Suez war -- but only after it was clear a ceasefire was about to be signed and implemented.

Both the Iranian clerical revolutionaries and the Soviet leadership may feel the need to squeeze as much propaganda advantage as possible for themselves out of the hostages' release -- and one of the best ways to do so would be to discomfit the US to the maximum.

The Iranians still have Iraqi invaders on their soil, are strapped for cash, and are, in fact, settling for terms short of the extravagant minimum conditions they once laid down to secure the freeing of the captives.

There is no US apology, no trials of hostages, and no hand over of cash from US banks other than that to which Iran originally had title. The demise of the Shah subsequent to the hostage seizure robbed the revolutionaries in Tehran of the opportunity to press for his extradition as a prelude to putting him on trial.

The Soviets have had a vested interest ever since the Iranian revolution two years ago in keeping Iranian-US relations as poisoned as possible. The geopolitical importance of Iran as a sizable piece of real estate along the entire northern littoral of the Gulf makes both superpowers anxious to deny it to the other.

But to undoubted Soviet dismay, the designation of the US by the ayatollahs in Iran as "the great Satan" has not made the Soviet Union even the least saintly in Iranian eyes. It is rather another "Satan" whose time for exorcism by the Iranian revolution doubtless will eventually come.

For most of the hostage crisis, many Iranians -- clerical and secular alike -- have fulminated against Moscow for its invasion of Afghanistan just over a year ago. At the same time, Moscow's role in the Iran-Iraq war is equivocal because of the Soviet Union's treaty of friendship with Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein -- to Iranians a criminal, aggressor infidel.

The pro-Moscow Iranian communists in the Tudeh Party have tried, withouth much success, to improve the standing in Iran of their Kremlin masters by being almost fawningly pro-Ayatollah Khomeini. Small wonder, then, that the Kremlin feels the need to score points now wherever and however it can.

But Iranians, rightly or wrongly, are convinced of their moral and cultural superiority over corrupting, barbarian Russians and Americans alike. Their aim remains to assert and prove it. Both blandishments from Moscow and Inauguration Day in Washington offer them an opportunity to that end.

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