Tehran's latest best seller

Revolutionary Tehran's latest paperback smash is reviving a question that has nagged diplomats since Muslim militants captured the US Embassy over two months ago: Did the Americans do enough to prevent the hostage crisis?

The consensus answer is both yes and no. Few analysts, Western or Iranian, think Washington could have foreseen an officially sanctioned attack on the embassy.

It is true the mission had been attacked by a mob in February, 1979. "But as for an occupation with the full and open support of the Iranian regime . . . that was something none of us foresaw," one Western ambassador commented.

Yet most diplomats are shocked at the range of embassy documents and equipment the attackers seem to have seized intact. "Western embassies," one diplomat said, "went through a severe trimming down process after the revolution , so that all sensitive papers and equipment could be quickly destroyed, if necessary."

If embassy documents released by the student captors prove to be genuine -- and most Western diplomats here seem to think they are, despite United States denial -- then they would point to what one diplomat terms "surprisingly lax operations."

A photograph released by the students along with photocopies of some of the documents -- now bound in a minor best seller hawked along with food and a melange of "anti-imperialist" souvenirs in front of the embassy -- also indicates that some equipment was captured intact. The photo shows a telex and communications system. Diplomats say it is impossible to determine how sensitive the machinery is, but that coding equipment may have been compromised.

The purported decuments, under normal international legal practice, are probably more embarrassing than incriminating. If genuine, they would indicate that some American spying and immigration violations were going on. But none of the papers so far released specifically documents "anything more serious than use of a false passport," one diplomat points out.

"Still, at the very least, it seems incredible that documents linking embassy officials, even indirectly, with illegal activities of any kind should have been allowed to survive," a Western political officer maintained. There was a period of several hours between the militants' Nov. 4 attack on the embassy and its final capture.

The Iranian, a centerist Tehran political journal, goes further: "The United States," it says, "should have been aware that any documents, innocent or not, which could fall into the wrong hands would be interpreted at the expense of guiltless citizens of both nations.

"One thing is certain, that had the embassy been as clean as a pin as a matter of routine, lives would have been considerably less at the mercy of irresponsible students and a public . . . hungering for 'evidence' against the US."

Another thing now is certain: The alleged US papers, many of them marked "secret," are hardly secret any more. Some are out in a paperback entitled "Exposing Imperialism." Its cover caricatures a man with the letters CIA in place of a head, in a uniform adorned with American insignia and the Israeli Star of David. At a mere 15 cents per copy, the book is selling almost as fast as the kebab and soup now warming the ragtag winter crowds in front of the embassy.

Remaining documents, photocopied and already issued singly, are to be collected in a second volume.

The documents are old news by now. But as a body they are viewed by many diplomats here as a stunning indictment of American nonchalance.

One, dated 1977, appears on stationary marked as "Optional Form 152a(H) (Formerly FS-413(H)a), January, 1975, Dept. of state."

Ostensibly setting out US policy priorities in Iran, it argues that Washington should "maintain US intelligence gathering privileges in Iran, and continue to provide quid pro quo liaison support in response to these privileges."

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