THERE is a right way and a wrong way to work out differences with an unfriendly country. Henry Kissinger in opening contacts with China in 1974 and Warren Christopher in negotiating with Iran in 1981 did it the right way. They worked through friendly governments, Kissinger through Pakistan, Christopher through Algeria. These governments were, in turn, in touch with officials in China and Iran.
Officials in the Reagan administration, in endeavoring recently to reestablish contacts with Iran, did it the wrong way. They dealt with private individuals who claimed to have access to the power in Tehran.
During the first few months of the Iran hostage crisis in the Carter administration, US officials tried the same approach. Then, as now, there seemed no dearth of volunteers who presented themselves to assist the United States with its problems.
Attempting to deal through private individuals entails at least two serious risks. The first is that the would-be mediators will manipulate a frustrated administration to pursue their own ends. To do this effectively they will speak the lines and play the parts that will hook the US.
To be effective, a private intermediary must gain access to the center of power: in the case of Iran, Ayatollah Khomeini. Except for a very few in the Ayatollah's inner circle, access comes through bringing favors. What more effective favor, for a nation at war, than the promise of weapons and equipment from its historic supplier, the United States!
Rarely does the voluntary mediator begin with the impulse to help the US. In a country where the US remains the Great Satan, that can be dangerous. The volunteer almost certainly has another objective: either the hope of a lucrative contract or the desire to further a political ambition. Such a personal motive is a safer and more plausible explanation to the Ayatollah and those around him.
But the voluntary mediator must also seem plausible to the Americans. To do this he may pose as a ``moderate'' and profess a desire to help the release of hostages and to stem the possibility of increased Soviet influence. He will make promises he has little chance of keeping.
When the self-appointed interlocutor reaches the center of power, the Ayatollah and his inner circle are almost certain to see the possibility of extracting still more favors. The intermediary returns to the Americans with more demands.
In the case of the Reagan representatives, the approach was further complicated by a mixture of objectives. If the desire to reach ``moderates'' was more than a rationalization of a hostage arrangement, the prospect of achieving that goal through arms merchants was probably remote. Genuine opponents of the regime - the sought-after ``moderates'' - probably take a long-term view; short-term bargaining for hostages would seem contrary to their interests, entailing risks and exposing them as friends of America.
Various official channels exist for a US administration to explore the prospect of better relations with Iran. These include third-country officials and, possibly, even the Iranians who meet with US representatives in the claims tribunal in The Hague. Such channels would almost certainly provide more accountability and responsibility than those that were attempted.
It may be pointed out that a third country, Israel, was involved. Israel, however, has no official relations with Iran and must itself deal with Tehran in shadowy ways. It hardly qualifies as an official channel.
Anyone who has been in the midst of a hostage crisis can understand and sympathize with the President's heartache and frustration. A closer examination of historical precedents, however, would have raised a flag of caution in responding to offers from private individuals.
David D. Newsom, associate dean in the School of Foreign Service, Georgetown University, was undersecretary of state during the Iranian hostage crisis of 1979-81.