The distressing and emotive issue of the American diplomats kept as hostages in Iran for six months is itself a symbol of a much larger transformation in the Persian Gulf region.
Two cataclysmic events within one year have profoundly upset the security of the region: the revolution in Iran and the invasion of Afghanistan. The two events have interacted and they reinforce one another. The political condition in Iran is itself the cause of the impasse on the hostages. The vacuum in that beleaguered country after the Shah, with Washington standing by bewildered and powerless, facilitated the invasion of Afghanistan of last December.
As a result of these twin events the balance of power in the region has shifted against the West and Western-oriented regimes. Soviet power is entrenched on the periphery of the region in Aden, Ethiopia, and now Afghanistan. Iran, no longer a buffer, veers between disintegration and the active "export of the revolution" to the rest of the Gulf. Oil prices have doubled within one year, production in Iran is at a trickle, and militantly nationalist pressures threaten continued production at current rates in the other oil producing states.
The issue of the hostages and any proposed solutions to their plight must be seen in the much broader context in which continuing dependence on access to Gulf oil into the 1990s is dependent on the political stability of, and security guarantees to, friendly states.
The European allies, despite their asymmetrical vulnerabilities to economic disruptions with Iran, are at one with the US in seeing the issue of the hostages as an international one, concerning them all. They also largely agree that other measures besides patience and reason are now called for.
Where they differ with Washington is in the proposed remedy, for many of them see the current tough line advocated by Washington as being dictated -- in pace and style -- by domestic electoral considerations. The economic strangulation of the Iranian regime, they feel, may weaken it. But that may only drive it into dependence on the USSR or encourage a leftist putsch within the country.
This is not an argument against a tough line on Tehran but for a policy in which the root causes of the problems are addressed. Having tried to find moderates within the Iranian government, Washington has given up. Perhaps it ought now to look for moderates outside of the government.
If it does so and cultivates them, then, when the economic sanctions and diplomatic isolation begin to bite within Iran, there might exist an alternative to the left in that country.
The hostage question is not a discrete and aberrant episode but rather an intrinsic product of the "revolutionary" regime in Iran. To pretend that its solution will rectify the strategic balance within the region and to base policy on this is both shortsighted and illusory.
The hard fact is that the present regime in Iran is a threat both to its neighbors and international security.
A policy based on a recognition of this fact would stand a much better chance of achieving allied solidarity than a set of open-ended sanctions which establish no plausible link with the release of the hostages, which risk military confrontation, and which ultimately do not address the principal destabilizing element within the Persian Gulf, the Iranian regime itself.