Searching for solutions to the Iran crisis
Washington — Some of the most knowledgeable American scholars on Iran suggest that there is no "quick fix" solution to the continuing hostage crisis. They propose instead that the United States undertake long-range, people-to- people diplomacy.
The scholars think such an approach might improve a wide range of relations between the US and Iran, thereby providing the foundation for a solution to the hostage issue over the long term. They believe that the use of military force by the US would produce disaster. Most of them -- not all -- consider the use of economic sanctions against Iran to be "counterproductive."
Five such scholars, who had a chance recently to present their views to State Department officials, propose, among other things, that the US:
* Open new lines of communications to Iran's Islamic clergymen.
* Provide better treatment of Iranians studying in the US.
* Initiate a white paper, prepared, if possible, in Congress and not by the executive branch, that looks to the future of US-Iranian relations and affirms that the US does not desire to overthrow the current regime in Iran or interfere affairs.
At least one of the scholars favors the possibility of reviving the ill- fated United Nations commission on Iran, but only if it is incorporated with other measures. Other scholars think the UN commission looked to the Iranians like too much of a one-sided, American government-initiated idea to be effective.
What the group of five scholars does agree on is the need for a broadened approach to Iran.
"We feel a solution will be a long time in coming, because a basic reorientation is required toward Iran," said William Beeman, an anthropologist at Brown University and a contribution editor to Pacific News Service. "Short-term pressure is not going to work."
Professor Beeman and four other scholars on Iran met with State Department officials to discuss the crisi in an all-day series of meetings April 23. They were advising against the efficacy of military action at the very time when President Carter was launching his abortive rescue operation.
Other scholars in the group were Richard Bulliet, professor of Persian history at Columbia University; Michael Fischer, a Harvard University anthropologist; William Royce, a history professor at the University of Arizona; and Marvin Zonis, a political scientist at the University of Chicago.
The US, Professor Beeman said, tried for some time to find a leader, or an individual, on the Iranian side who would produce the release of the hostages.
"But the Iranian situation is heavily dependent on consensus," Dr. Beeman said. "For Khomeini, the ideology of the revolution is consensus. . . . So the thing to do is to try to affect the broad base in Iran. That will require a radical change in our diplomacy."
Professor Beeman suggested one idea that might help bring the peoples of Iran and the US closer together would be for families of the American hostages to meet with Iranians who had been in prison under the Shah or with families of victims who had perished at the hands of the Shah's secret police. Each side might come to realize that the other has legitimate grievances.
This is an idea that has been favored by a private American citizens' group based in Lawrence, Kan., called the Committee for American-Iranian Crisis Resolution. This group has been attempting to arrange a visit to Tehran by members of one of the hostage families. The rescue operation disrupted their travel plans, and they have subsequently been unable to get US government approval. A high-ranking State Department official said such approval would not be likely to come for some time because President Carter, who has stated publicly his opposition to visits to Iran by hostage families, did not want to be seen to be reversing himself. The President has been accused of making too many reversals of late, the official said.
Something that the group of five scholars and the Kansas group agree on is that Iranians may not be as anti-American as they appear to be on television. They say that many Iranians could like to achieve a reconciliation with the US, but insist that it be on a new basis of equality and respect for Iran's independence.
"When we permitted the Shah to enter the United States, the Iranians wanted to humiliate us," said Professor Beeman. "Admission of the Shah was a symbolic denial of the revolution.
"If they hadn't taken the hostages, they would have done something else. . . . If the rescue attempt had succeeded in saving the hostages, they would have turned around and done something just as bad. To get the hostages released doesn't get at the roots of the problem."
According to Professor Fischer of Harvard, a white paper, produced by the US Senate or perhaps the State Department, would set forth American goals in relations with Iran. But it also would explain in a factual way the American case for intervention in Iranian affairs in the mid-1950s, including an explanation of the cold war atmosphere of those years. It would explain that the US does not stand by intervention in the new atmosphere of today. But it also would point out that the US had some worthy goals in Iran, regardless of their effectiveness, and that they included the encouragement of land reform and a redistribution of wealth.
Ruhollah Ramazani, an Iranian-born American professor at the University of Virginia, agrees that a white paper could help the situation. As he sees it, the US has so far failed even to state, among other things, its case for having the Central Intelligence Agency support a coup that returned the Shah to the throne in 1954. The US, he said, thought it was preserving Iran's integrity and keeping it out of the Soviet orbit. It ought clearly to state as much.
Professor Fischer thinks approaches should be made by Americans to a number of Iranian Muslim clergymen, and not just to Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. But he warns that this will not be a "cure-all" to the hostage problem. Nor will it be easy to make such approaches, says Dr. Fischer, who has done research in the holy City of Qom.
Professor Ramazani would like to see a revival of an idea he presented to President Carter last December. That would be for four or five leading Muslim figures to approach the ayatollah concerning the hostage issue.
The group of five scholars found a sympathetic hearing among State Department specialists on Iran. But some administration officials think they have been, and still are, naive about the potential reasonableness of Ayatollah Khomeini as well as unrealistic about the prospects for a survival of clerical rule in Iran.
One of these officials described James A. Bill of the University of Texas as Austin, who apparently shares many of the views of the group of five, as being an excellent scholar who was closer to accurately predicting the downfall of the Shah than anyone else. But he said the problem with such scholars was that they badly overestimated the ability of the US to reach an accommodation with Ayatollah Khomeini and underestimated what the official described as the ayatollah's hatred and desire for revenge.
"Khomeini has shown his willingness to commit national suicide for the sake of vengeance," the official said. "These scholars are basing their judgment on the feeling that if we somehow make the Iranians understand that we're nice guys , they will behave properly."
Nevertheless, scholars and administration officials seem to have drawn close to agreement on one point: There is a need for a lower profile toward Iran on the part of the administration.