A drama is unfolding in Washington. We on the outside are watching a story of what happens when the national interests of a nation push the President in one direction and domestic politics and public emotions push him in the opposite direction.
To begin, first identify the national interests of the United States in current events in the Middle East.
The first such national interest is unimpeded, undisturbed access to the oil of the Middle East. Anything which disturbs, reduces, or threatens to block access to that oil is bad for the United States and for its friends and allies of the modern industrial world. Equally, any action or course of action or policy which tends to stabilize and protect that access is good for the United States and for its friends and allies.
Hence policy should be directed at easing and reducing tension between the United States and any and all of the oil-producing countries of the Middle East.
That relationship has been disturbed throughout the whole of the year 1979 by the overthrow IN Iran of the Shah whom the United States had long supported. He was replaced by a revolutionary Islamic regime which resented that past US relationship and suspects the US of wanting to put the Shah back in Tehran. The suspicion was inflamed when the former Shah was brought to New York for medical treatment. That in turn triggered the seizing of the US Embassy and the holding of some 50 members of its staff as hostages.
The problem is how to remove the tension, friction, and suspicion which have damaged US relations with Iran. Part of that problem is to obtain the safe release of the hostages because any harm to them would increase the tension and defer an ultimate solution. But the release of the hostages is part of and subordinate to the main problem of ending the friction.
The main problem (the friction) cannot be resolved without safe release of the hostages, but the holding of the hostages is a symptom, not the cause, of the problem. There was friction before the hostages were seized, and it could continue after their safe release.
Getting those hostages released in a manner which reduces friction between the United States and Iran rather than increasing the friction is of first importance.
There was no clearly visible way of managing such a constructive release until the Soviets invaded neighboring Afghanistan. The friction which was intensified by the seizing and holding of the hostages had become a domestic political asset to Ayatollah Khomeini and his leading Islamic revolutionaries. They had needed a "foreign devil" to keep their revolution going. They were having trouble forging both a governing machine and a unified national constituency. Anti-Americanism became a major asset. They can't really afford to let it go without a substitute.
There is an available substitute now. The Soviets are the visible real danger to the indepenence of the Middle East and to the Islamic revival which the Ayatollah has set off. But it takes time to substitute one "foreign devil" for another. Give the Ayatollah Khomeini time and he will manage that transition. But he needs help. Every threat against him and his regime, every effort to mobilize an embargo against him, makes that transition more difficult. His whole propaganda operation is tuned now to the doctrine of an American foreign devil. It has to be turned around and reshaped.
US foreign policy should be keyed right now to helping in that process of reshaping. The best way to help is to play down the hostage issue and play up the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. But President Carter is being put under a drumfire of political pressure to "set a deadline" for release of the hostages, and "do something" to get them out. The best "something" he could possibly do would be to help the Ayatollah Khomeini to see more quickly and clearly that his real enemy is in Moscow, not in Washington. And the best way to do that would be to refrin from any threats against him of the military, economic, or political variety.
It took the late great Chou En-lai and Henry Kissinger a long time working together to persuade both Mao Zedong and the Washington politicians that Moscow,m and vice versa. The Ayatollah KhomeinI'S PERCEPTIONS OF THE outside world may be even more opaque than be gained by threats or blockades or embargoes or UN Security Council resolutions. Such measures may stave off US political pressures. They also make it harder for the Islamic leaders in Qom to distinguish between real friends and real enemies.
Which will win out, the US national interest or the pressures on the President to do the wrong thing?