Now that the Iranian people have elected their first president, the responsibility of outsiders is not to undercut the nation's recovery from turmoil by repeating their errors of the past. In the most obvious terms, this means refraining from the kind of overt or clandestine interference that has been abandoned over the years by Britain and the United States but not by the Soviet Union and some Arab neighbors. More subtly, outsiders must turn from displaying the insensitive attitudes that serve neither the constructive forces in Iran nor, finally, the interests of outsiders with a stake in Iran's oil or stragetic utility.
Thus it has been unfortunate for some in the United States to suggest that the US would have endorsed the candidacy of Abolhassan Bani-Sadr if it could have. The implication was that he would best serve US purposes in the continuing hostaga crisis. An apparent result was that Mr. Bani-Sadr, who was overwhelmingly elected, had to compensate by seeming to harden his position on the hostages, making the resolution of the crisis dependent on America's forsaking "its expansionist policies" and respecting "the sovereignty of other nations."
The point is that support for Mr. Bani-Sadr -- or any other Iranian figure -- ought to be based on what's good for Iran, not some other country. It is the stability of Iran, achieved in its own independent way, that will most effectively ensure its playing a responsible role in the international community.
In these terms, the President-Elect remains a promising choice. Indeed, the news is not only that he was elected but that revolutionary Iran held an election at all. To many Westerners, for example, the prevailing images of Iran have been mobs, extremists, chaos, and who's-in-charge-here?
Yet the election went ahead as scheduled. Ayatollah Khomeini resisted clerical sentiments for postponement after the main "religious" candidate had to fall out of the race. And, aided by his seclusion for health reasons, the ayatollah appeared steadfastly neutral as he had promised. It looked as if he were willing to let secular government come to the fore in running the country, with religious leaders serving as advisers and watchdogs, as he had outlined earlier. Such would represent a settling of the historical pendulum in the realm of balance between secular and religious control which had been interrupted by the secular swing under the Pahlavis.
The election of "secular" candidate Bani- Sadr is persuasively identified by some in Iran as a sensible thrust by the people toward a secular-religious balance. They also seemed to see in Mr. Bani-Sadr, as an economist, an appropriate leader out of Iran's severe economic stresses. With parliamentary elections still to come, he will need confirmation of the kind of broad mandate initially demonstrated if he is to restore the nation's shattered institutions.
President Carter, spurred by the Soviet presence in Afghanistan, wisely revised his policy toward Iran in a way that could make it easier for Mr. Bani-Sadr to help restore the hostage situation. Instead of speaking of penalties for Iran even if the hostages are released unharmed, Mr. Carter told Congress in his written State of the Union message:
"We have no basic quarrel with the nation, the revolution or the people of Iran. The threat to them comes not from American policy but from Soviet actions in the region. We are prepared to work with the Government of Iran to develop a new and mutually beneficial relationship."
Such conciliatory words display an appropriate attitude for negotiation. The reference to the revolution is a step toward that US recognition of the legitimacy of the Iranian revolution which seems a minimum prerequisite for release of the hostages. Some concrete gesture no doubt also will be required, possibly US cooperation in setting up a United Nations tribunal to consider the grievances of the Iranians under the US-supported Shah.
Mr. Bani-Sadr seemed disposed to negotiate during his brief term as acting foreign minister. He speaks encouragingly now of such matters as freedom of entry for foreign reporters "even if they tell lies." He favors free expression for the captors of the hostages, too -- but not interference in government by them. He wants one government, as do all those who deal with Iran. The way will not be easy. A little empathy, or at least tact, from outsiders won't hurt.