President Carter has gained something by his actions of April 7 against Iran. He has temporarily appeased or at least partially disarmed his political critics at home by "doing something." The break in diplomatic relations made headlines. Some of his fellow citizens felt better when one State Department officer lost patience and used a rude expression towards a departing Iranian diplomat. Mr. Carter has gained a little time.
But he would be beter off had he omitted the last sentence of his announcement. After outlining the steps he had ordered that day (the break in relations, the ban on US exports, the freeze on Iranian assets and on visas for Iranians) he asserted that:
"Other actions may become necessary if these steps do not produce the prompt release of the hostages."
That concluding warning or threat has led to columns and columns of speculation about a possible blockade of the Iranian coast by US naval forces. It has also kept alive the theory that by "doing something" it may be possible to compel the Ayatollah Khomeini to decide to order the release of the hostages.
There was never the slightest reason to expet that such an implied threat of military or quasi-military action would have any influence on the Ayatollah. There has not been the slightest scrap of evidence since that it has done anything but delight him. The one thing it has done is to dismay friends and allies overseas. It also tends to raise unfounded hopes at home.
The hostages will be released some day, provided no one involved does anything foolish. But it is silly to talk about "the prompt release of the hostages" and at the same time break diplomatic relations and imply the possibility of military action. The release will come if and when it serves the Ayatollah's purposes to release them, or the more moderate political elements in Iran get the upper hand over the Ayatollah. The release will not come because of diplomatic and economic sanctions, or military threatS.
Quiet diplomacy goes on behind the scenes. The President is in communication indirectly with various political elements in Tehran through the good offices of various friends and allies. These exchanges can become productive if and when one of the two circumstances cited above develops. Right now it suits the Ayatollah's interests to keep the hostages and use the distress of Washington as evidence of his own independence from Western "materialism" and domination. It is as popular for him in Iran to defy Washington's sanctions and threats as it is for Mr. Carter to brandish those sanctions and threats.
That condition need not and probably will not prevail indefinitely. And the Ayatollah's dominance over the politics of Iran will not prevail indefinitely. Sooner or later the attempt to turn the economic clock back will run its course. Sooner or later the modern political elements in the community will tire of the revived influence of the mullahs.
But one or the other of those changes may be a long time in arriving. The most painful prospect of all for anyone at the White House is that it may not come before election day in November after which it would be too late to help Mr. Carter at the polls.
The essential fact about the problem of the hostages is that the Ayatollah at present has more to gain from keeping them than from letting them go and is himself immune to US economic and military pressures.
Mr. Carter has every reason to yearn for a "prompt release" of the hostages. It would be a triumph for him at a moment when Sen. Edward Kennedy's fortunes seem to be picking up in the primaries. But the very need for a foreign policy success is a weakness. It leads Mr. Carter to do things for domestic political reasons which he would not be doing if his domestic political condition were solid and secure. In effect gives the Ayatollah the superior bargaining position in that Mr. Carter needs the release of the hostages more, by far, than the Ayatollah needs anything from Washington.
Another way of saying the above is that the Persians (which the Iranians have called themselves over most of their long history) have once more outmaneuvered a great outside power. It may not be much comfort to Mr. Carter, but in modern times they similarly outmaneuvered the British (in 1951) and the Soviets in (in 1946). In earlier times they protected or rescued their independence from Russians, Turks, and Arabs by diplomatic skill rather than military power. They are extremely successful at getting their own way.
Mr. Carter is only the last in a long line of outsiders who have failed to bend them to his wishes.