Washington — United States officials are cautious about the possibility of freeing the American and other hostages in Lebanon. Iran's decision to accept the United Nations peace plan is a positive sign, say officials who follow the hostage situation. But it does not mean Iran is willing to use its influence to free nine Americans held, without preconditions.
Recent public statements by US officials and commentators may have raised hopes too high, say a number of well-placed officials privately. They welcome pressure on Iran by UN Secretary-General Javier P'erez de Cu'ellar and others to free the hostages. But they are not pleased by Jesse Jackson's unilateral offer to help secure their release.
Aside from what some see as grandstanding by Mr. Jackson, others worry that his offer and public eagerness could play into the hands of those Iranians and Lebanese who want to use the hostages to secure US policy concessions.
A senior US official dismisses as ``old stuff'' this week's offer by Iran's parliamentary speaker, Hashemi Rafsanjani, to seek the release of US hostages in exchange for freeing Iranian assets in the US. ``Maybe Rafsanjani had to try one more time,'' he says, but Iran knows very well that the US will not bargain for hostages.
The US position on restarting a bilateral dialogue and releasing hostages hasn't changed, he explains, and so far the Iranians haven't accepted it. More broadly, another senior official says the US policy of waiting for Iran to alter its behavior is working, and it will continue to bear fruit if the US holds the line.
US specialists continue to believe that Iran could secure the release of US hostages in Lebanon if it desired. In the recent release of French hostages, they say, Iran imposed an accord on the Lebanese Hizbullah captors. Tehran apparently added a sweetener of up to $30 million, they say, but it nevertheless got its way.
There have been some positive signs, say informed US sources. Before the downing of the Iran Air jet, for example, there were unconfirmed reports that one or two hostages might be released as a gesture to get a bargaining process started. There were also offers purportedly from Hizbullah to talk about hostages. Some specialists currently speculate that a hostage could be released in hope of increasing US willingness to deal for the rest.