Save the hostages -- and let the credit go

There are many unfortunate aspects of our difficulty with the Khomeini government, but one of the most serious is the personal dispute between the ayatollah and President Carter. Acrimonious public exchanges between the two leaders, egged on by our TV media, have made it practically impossible for the two governments to examine the hostage problem in a calmer atmosphere which would contribute to finding a rational way out.

It is clear enough that emphatic verbal blows have merely evoked harsh replies that have added to the bleakness of the immediate future of the hostages. It is equally certain that the ayatollah is not at all likely, as matters stand, to do anything constructive about our 50- odd countrymen if, by so doing, he will advance the political future of President Carter. This factor is important. It greatly complicates our problem and those of the many Iranians who would like to see the ayatollah divest himself of the hostages and get down to the very difficult task of pulling their country together.

The United States has a perfectly good case to stand on: it is contrary to international law and custom to seize and hold members of an embassy staff as hostages. That tenet should be restated without embellishment as often as necessary, while in the meantime we continue to have recourse to legal bodies and legal measures. When both parties permit their views to be submerged in invective, the essential matter -- the liberation of the hostages -- is obscured and delayed.

Perhaps there is more recognition in Washington than we realize of the need for an intermediary like Kurt Waldheim. He has been rebuffed, but there will be others following him and we can hope that Hamilton Jordan and Jody Powell will stand aside and let them work without worrying about who will get the credit, if and when the matter is appropriately settled. This year the matter of who will get the credit looms larger in the minds of the administration, naturally enough , than to the American public who quite simply want the hostages returned safely to the United States.

The lack of clarity in Washington with respect to the names and functions of those in the hostage group has not enhanced the administration's image, but I believe our official posture of reticence on this subject is the correct one. Given the threats of the Khomeini government about trial by "grand jury" and constant talk of spies, the State Department sees no advantage to detailed identification of those involved. Also, it is quite possible that the department does not know who, in addition to the regular staff, was in the embassy at the time it was assaulted. There is, however, likely to be occasion later to look into such matters.

Eventually, the origins of the US-Iranian dispute will be the subject of intensive investigation by Congress, but that will not occur before the problem of the hostages is regulated. All branches of the US Government involved in foreign operations will participate, especially in the light of the Iranian experience. One can hope that the Congress would assign to a "blue ribbon" panel (noncongressional) the task of looking into the subject and of forming recommendations instead of asserting its own investigative function, but with the 1980 election looming that is probably too much to expect.

The nation appears to be gravely disturbed by the international scene though Congress, especially the House International Affairs Committee headed by Rep. Clement Zablocki, has stoutly resisted all suggestions that the conduct of US foreign policy, especially in the Mideast, be the subject of a comprehensive review. Mr. Zablocki's position, he assured ths writer, is that such an effort would be without value because it would be too "academic" in nature to be useful.

But perhaps Mr. Zablocki and his counterpart in the Senate, Frank Church, will not remain the arbiters of this matter much longer.

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