Fifty US citizens were seized by Iranian militants at the US Embassy in Tehran on Nov 4 of last year. They are still being held as "hostages" by the same militants in the same place. Their loss of freedom is now at the four and a half month mark.
Their detention is illegal under international law. It is a fearsome deprivation of freedom. It causes anguish to their families and friends. It pains all of their compatriots. It frustrates their government. There is no possible justification or excuse in morility or in law for what has been done. They would be released tomorrow if the officials of the government of Iran were capable of doing so.
To put this is iny context other than that of an illegal and immoral detention of hostages cannot mitigate the pain, anguish, and frustration, but it might clear thinking about the matter and thus make it easier to proceed towards such steps as may be necessary to obtain the earliest possible release of these people from their prison.
I use the word prison deliberately because in fact they are being held as prisoners. There is no formal declaration of war between the United States and Iran. But in the minds of the militants at the US Embassy in Tehran, and in the minds of many of the revolutionaries throughout Iran, there has been a civil war in their country in whic the United States sided with their enemies. Their government never declared war on the United States but they, the revolutionaries , regarded themselves as being at war with the United States. To them, the ardent, militant revolutionaries, all Americans are their enemies. These 50 whom they seized at the US Embassy are their prisoners to be held until such time as a peace treaty is negotiated and signed.
This is the factual though not the legal context of the situation. These 50 are just as much prisoners of war as were those many more who were held under miserable, indeed inhuman, conditions in North Vietnam. Compared to those Americans captured and held in North Vietnam these 50 are fortunate.
At the end of US involvement in the Vietnam war, and only after a formal peace treaty had been signed, the North Vietnamese released 490 surviving American POWs. At that time, 1359 other Americans were listed as still missing and unaccounted for. Of those released, the average term of improsonment had been four years. A fifth of them had spent from one to two years in solitary confinement.
The best known case is that of Vice-Admiral James B. Stockdale, USN, recently president of the Naval War College, now president of the Citadel military academy. On Sept. 4, 1965, then Commander Stockdale flew his Skyhawk jet from the USS Oriskany off the North Vietnam coast. He was shot down. He was released from prison on Feb. 12, 1973 -- 7 1/2 years later. He spent four of those 7 1/2 years in solitary confinement. He was denied adequate treatment for a knee wound. He was awarded his country's highest decoration, the Medal of Honor, for extraordinary heroism during confinement. He refused to bow to his captors. He upheld the morale of his fellows.
The United States was in fact on the losing side in the Iranian civil war. It backed the Shah with money, weapons, and encouragement. Presidents Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, and Carter, all praised him lavishly. No serious attempt was made to persuade him to treat dissenters with tolerance. He was Washington's most favored ally. And he was overthrown.
Every official in Washington wants peace with the new Iran, and a safe return of the hostages. But, as in any war, there has to be a peace treaty before an exchange of captives. Peace treaties are based on factual situations. The factual situation bearing on any formalized peace between Washington and Iran is to the advantage of Iran.
Washington wants from Iran the hostages, access to their oil, and Iran as a member of an anti-Soviet coalition in the Persian gulf area. But Iran wants nothing from Washington which it cannot get just as well from others. It can sell its oil anywhere. It can buy weapons anywhere. It can make a better mutual defense arrangement with its neighbors without Washington than with.
The factual situation bearing on Iran is as unfavorable to Washington now as it was towards the end of the Vietnam war. In such cases the best thing to do is to recognize the facts, and make the best deal which can be negotiated, no matter how unfavorable.