Iran's broken faith

The United Nations commission seeking to solve the US hostage crisis has carefully avoided saying that the breakdown of its mission was due to Iran's failure to permit its five members to see the captives. That was the reason why the commission returned home, of course. But it is clear that it wants to do or say nothing which would close the door to further negotiation. Its cautious stance is appropriate. The next step is to reassess the situation with the UN Secretary-General and explore where diplomacy can go next.

To many, it may seem utterly futile to suggest that diplomacy can in fact go anywhere. This is but the latest in a whole series of disappointments, and the American people cannot be blamed for a growing sense of frustration over what can only seem a cruel game played by Iranian rules of deception and double-dealing. However, as members of Congress commented after a briefing with the President, there is little choice but to await the resolution of events in Iran and patiently persist in the search for a diplomatic breakthrough. This is a painful trial, to be sure, but the goal of the safe release of the US prisoners must continue to guide international action.

What has happened is that Iranian President Bani-Sadr has not been able to consolidte his position sufficiently to surmount the threat to his authority from other power centers. The primary aim of the Ayatollah Khomeini, it must be rmembered, is not to resolve the hostage predicament. It is to preserve Iran's revolution. As Monitor correspondent Geoffrey Godsell has written, the religious leader stepped into this latest round of the political struggle in order to prevent a forceful showdown between the student militants and the government and thus preserve the essential unity of the revolutionary forces despite the deep conflicts among them.

If there is a thread of hope in this evolving drama, it lies in the fact that Mr. Bani-Sadr and his Foreign Minister, Sadeg Ghotbzadeh, still want a way out of the impasse, which they see as an obstacle to getting back to the task of rebuilding Iranian society along new lines. They have not said anything that would jeopardize a resumption of the UN commission's work. We have, too, the ayatollah's earlier statement that the crisis can be resolved by the new Iranian Parliament, elections for which begin this week. If Mr. Bani-Sadr emerges triumphant in the voting, this could set the framework for a negotiated solution.

All this, of course, is reasoning according to a non-Iranian view of things and herein lies the difficulty. The question which the American people, and indeed many other nations, now inevitably ask is whether there are any internationally accepted principles which Iran's Islamic leaders accept and which will make it possible for Iran to deal constructively with the rest of the world. Does Islamic law in fact guarantee safe conduct for non-Muslim diplomats? Does it permit a twisting of diplomatic agreements for the convenience of internal politics? It is not insignificant, perhaps, that Iran's betrayal of its pledge on the hostages was a slap less at the United States than at an international body which, for all its weaknesses, is endeavoring to foster an orderly and law-governed world -- one in which all once-oppressed peoples can work out their future without fear of interference. Is Iran turning its back even on this?

Beyond the turbulent and complex struggle for power in Tehran therefore loom some profound moral questions. Iran's new religious leaders should know that the Iranian people's revolutionary aspirations command much sympathy among Americans and others who have undergone their own purifying revolutions. The latter have been willing to be patient. But these sympathies will soon fade if it is perceived that Iran has placed itself outside the bounds of a world community which can only function and progress under universally upheld principles of lawful behavior.

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