For President Carter in Washington the limit of endurance was reached last Monday (April 7). On that day hopes for the rescue of the 50 American hostages through negotiation and diplomacy had been dashed once more. One man had spoiled weeks of patient work by dozens of diplomats and statesmen.
The official government of Iran, led by President Bani-Sadr, had recommended that the hostages be taken over by its own forces from the militants at the US Embassy in Tehran. The militants appeared to agree to the transfer. A majority of the Revolutionary Council, which is the main instrument of government in Iran , had supported the proposal for the transfer.
But on the decisive Monday of this week Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini brushed aside all the careful and patient arrangements and the inevitable humiliation to President Bani-Sadr and just said "No." Obviously, he felt that his revolutionary cause would prosper from keeping the hostages where they were, but might lag and wither were they to be transferred and then released.
It was one of those events that had within itself the inevitability of classic Greek tragedy. The Ayatollah apparently feared he would lose control of his revolution had he done otherwise. But it forced President Carter in Washington to take a step, equally decisive, that he had been trying for weeks to avoid. Neither Mr. Carter nor the Ayatollah felt he had a choice.
So it came about that on that same Monday President Carter broke off US diplomatic relations with the state of Iran, imposed a list of sanctions against Iran, and asked friends and allies to support him in this program. And back in Tehran all factions were forced to applaud the Ayatollah's decision, bend the knee to his will, and turn their faces toward the backward course that is implied by a breach with the outside world.
This sort of thing has happened before, Mahatma Gandhi urged his followers to spin their own cloth in order to free India from dependence on British textile mills. He preferred a primitive India to one tied with machinery to the culture of the modern industrial world. Chairman Mao Tse-tung of China did the same thing, in essence, when he launched his great Cultural Revolution in China.
The Ayatollah, the Mahatma, and Chairman Mao all shared an urge to uncouple their countries from the modern industrial world and get back to a simple society in which earlier values existed and during which their countries were independent of the West and its influences.
And what does the modern, industrial world do when that backward urge takes over? It has no choice. It must stand aside. It must allow time to temper the bitterness of the break, and then try to work out a new relationship with the breakaway country.
Britain had to grant independence to India -- and then Jawaharlal Nehru laid the foundations of the modern Indian state. The outside world had to stand clear of Mao's China until his regime had been supplanted by the present one founded by Chou En-lai and carried on into these times by Deng Xiaoping.
In today's case of Iran and the United States, it is not President Carter personally who has been rejected by the Ayatollah, but everything Western. Mr. Carter personifies to the Ayatollah the machinery, the gadgetry, the change in culture and life style that descended on his country during the days of the Shah.
The Ayatollah rejoiced when he heard the news of the break in relations. He called on his people to "celebrate." He had what he wanted, a sundering of the ties between his country and all that in his mind and from his point of view has diluted and undermined the values of a true Islamic culture.
What happens to the oil and the oil wells?
The Ayatollah does not care. If Mr. Carter blocks the straits and prevents anyone else from taking oil from Iran -- so much the better to the Ayatollah. His people will have to go bck to their farm lands, and raise their own food, and travel on foot, and listen to the ayatollahs and mullahs -- as they did in the old days before the oil spoiled all that and brought strangers and infidels and their ways in to corrupt the faithful and undermine Islam.
But will it work out quite that way?
No, of course not. The enthusiasm for the old life style will wear thin after a time. There will be a Chou En-lai or a Nehru in Iran. Like India and China the pendulum will swing back.
In the meantime there must be problems, as there are today. President Carter has no choice but to push ahead with sanctions and pressures. American public opinion would not stand for anything less. He must keep on trying by any and every possible means to obtain release of the hostages. He must draw his allies along with him to the best of his ability.
In effect, the American President has to make political war on the Ayatollah. He might even have to take some military measures, although they would probably benefit the Ayatollah more than anyone else.
There is danger from Moscow. The men of the Kremlin are deeply concerned about events along their southern border. They may be tempted to intervene. The act of breaking with the West, which the Ayatollah has initiated and forced upon President Carter, upsets the whole area.
Will Iraq make war on Iran? And will the Ayatollah make war in return on Iraq? And, if those two start fighting, which of them will turn to Washington and which to Moscow for help? The supreme irony would be for Iraq, long considered a client of Moscow, to ask Washington for arms, thus forcing the Ayatollah to turn to Moscow.
Mr. Carter has one advantage. The breach has come after Americans began using less imported oil. US consumption is well down. World oil production is running well ahead of demand. Oil tankers are sloshing around at slow speed all over the seven seas, waiting for a chance to unload. Spot oil prices are coming down. And Iran is producing only a fraction of its potential output. If Iran stops pumping or shipping oil, the world will manage -- in fact, other oil producers will welcome some relief from the glut.
And the hostages?
Any hope for their early release must be put aside. But in one sense they are less important now to the Ayatollah. He has what he wants most, a break with Western culture and Western influences. American hostility is firmly entrenched. It no longer depends on keeping the hostages.
Just conceivably, Mr. Carter's breach could help the hostages more than his previous restraint; not because the Ayatollah would give way under pressure, but rather because he needs them less than he once did as a symbol of his rejection of the West. No one doubts that any more.