Backstage efforts to solve hostage crisis stumble on Iran, US politics

Underlying, and to a degree explaining, the latest contradictions over the American hostages in Tehran are the following pressures: First, both President Carter and Iranian President Bani-Sadr are trying desperately to edge toward a compromise acceptable to their respective public opinions yet involving an early release of the hostages.

Second, both Mr. Carter and Mr. Bani-Sadr are in the throes of an election campaign -- for the presidency in the United States, for a parliament in Iran -- in which each is fighting for his survival.

Third, both Mr. Carter and Mr. Bani-Sadr correctly see themselves as vulnerable from the right to the charge that each is "soft" on the hostages -- Mr. Carter by not being tough enough on Iran, Mr. Bani-Sadr by not being tough enough on the United States.

Fourth, both Mr. Carter and Mr. Bani-Sadr find themselves caught up in an emotional scenario where it is hard to separate fact from fiction. Both are trapped in the often unfathomable dissimulations that are part of Persian history and thinking.

Whatever the facts and whatever the fiction in the latest American -Iranian exchanges, there is at least prima facie evidence that messages have gone back and forth between Washington and Tehran over the past week aimed at providing Mr. Bani-Sadr with a formula for a new and positive move on the hostages. The minimum goal seems to be to get the 50 hostages out of the hands of their Islamic leftist captors in the US Embassy and into the custody of somebody more responsive to Mr. Bani-Sadr.

At time of writing it was not clear whether the leaking in Tehran of news about the exchanges was aimed at hindering or helping Mr. Bani-Sadr. At first sight, it seems more likely that the leak was arranged by Iran's religious fundamentalists to head off any new move toward compromise by the Iranian President.

On the other hand, Mr. Bani-Sadr may be able to use the leak as an indication to his domestic foes that he is managing to get new concessions from President Carter.

From the American viewpoint, the leak could play straight into the hands of Mr. Carter's domestic foes and thwart whatever positive or constructive moves might have been under way.

According to the text of the purported letter released by Ayatollah Khomeini's office March 29, Mr. Carter had: (1) spoken of American democracy's being able to recognize its mistakes or condemn them; (2) offered to agree to a joint US-Iranian commission to review "the problems of the two countries"; (3) mentioned the possibility of a separate US congressional investigation of past US involvement in Iran; (4) made all this conditional on a transfer of the 50 US hostages from the student militants to Iranian government custody.

White House new spokesman Jody Powell said later March 29 that no such message was sent to Ayatollah Khomeini by President Carter, and that no such message was sent by any administration official to any Iranian official.

But Reuter quoted a Swiss government spokesman as saying March 30: "I can confirm that there was a letter transmitted by the Swiss Embassy in Tehran from Carter to Bani-Sadr a few days ago. . . . There was no other letter. It was a letter from one president to another, transmitted directly to President Bani-Sadr by our charge d'affaires in Iran."

Reuter also quoted "a senior administration official" in Washington as saying: "There have been communications between Iranian and American officials, and the purported letter to Ayatollah Khomeini does contain ideas that have been raised in the course of these communications."

Also March 30, President Bani-Sadr was quoted by the official Iranian news agency as saying: "Mr. Carter's message to the Imam [i.e. Ayatollah Khomeini] and myself was delivered simultaneously through the Swiss charge d'affaires in Tehran."

Foreign Minister Sadeq Ghotbzadeh, after praising the alleged Carter message as "constructive" and "balanced," told an American televison panel that the US denial had vitiated much of its positive effect. He said, however, that the Revolutionary Council would again take up the question of transferring the hostages to the council's custody late March 30.

Against the background of this purported exchange, US Secretary of State Cyrus Vance's agreement last week to the proposal that the US Senate prepare a historical document on US-Iranian relations becomes relevant.

The gloomier interpretation of what has happened in Tehran over the weekend is that the religious fundamentalists and political radicals in tandem have played a card, at a crucial moment, intended to head off any movement toward resolving the crisis. Whether they can succeed in prolonging the crisis, and the ordeal of the 50 American hostages, is yet to be seen.

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