As the Tehran hostage episode begins to wind down, the nations of the world must renew efforts to restore respect for the vital tradition of diplomatic immunity so flagrantly flouted by the Iranians. Here it was superpower America's embassy that was violated. But elsewhere the embassies of other countries have been invaded before and since. The enormous attention paid the United States ordeal ought to be used to enhance the security of all rather than allowed to encourage embassy takeovers as a handy form of protest.
Iranian President Bani-Sadr made a start in the right direction by asknowledging the wrongness of the Tehran seizure: "From the humanitarian point of view the action was deplorable. From the legal point of view we have violated the international rules." He went on to say that, from a political point of view, it was the United States that began violating international rules and brought on the present consequences. But, even if the new United Nations fact-finding panel should support Mr. Bani-Sadr in such a political interpretation, the way to protest any US violations was not to attack the foundations of that diplomatic immunity to which civilized nations have subscribed, even in wartime, for centuries.
The record of safeguarding envoys goes back to the tablets of the Assyrians. Modern forms of diplomacy emerged in 15th-century Europe. Protections for today's diplomats and embassies were spelled out in the 1961 Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations. They include:
* "The premises of the mission shall be inviolable. The agents of the receiving State may not enter them, except with the consent of the mission."
* "The receiving State is under a special duty to take all appropriate steps to protect the premises of the mission against any intrusion or damage and to prevent any disturbance of the peace of the mission or impairment of its dignity."
Nothing could be clearer. What makes the Iranian situation especially ominous for the tradition of immunity is that the government itself supported the violation of an embassy.
The recent flurry of embassy invasions in Latin America is another sharp warning. The embassy as sanctuary has had a long history there. Controversial political figures have found asylum for years behind embassy walls. Now in Guatemala, El Salvador, Mexico, embassies of various countries have been taken over, sometimes "peacefully," sometimes with tragic results.
Elsewhere, in Libya, Pakistan, India, embassies have been mobbed or occupied. Memories go back several years to the grim invasion of the Saudi Arabian Embassy in Khartoum and the killing of one Belgian and two American diplomats.
May the trouble in Tehran give the world the impetus it needs to stop today's momentum against the safety of embassies and the human beings inside.