There is little doubt that President Carter stands to gain politically by reactivating the issue of the American hostages in Iran. But this does not deny the wisdom of the State Department's new low-key diplomatic demarche to Iran. With the formation of a new government in Tehran, it was logical and fitting for Secretary of State Muskie to write Iran's prime minister asking for parliamentary action on release of the 52 captives. This quietly puts the Iranians on notice that the US looks for a resolution of the crisis. It also assures the American public of continuing US concern.
Whether the diplomatic initiative will do any good or not of course remains to be seen. Over the past few months the US had lowered its voice on the assumption that nothing could be done until the political dust began to settle in Iran. The abortive American rain in Iran left the Iranians especially resistant to US pressures and, in any case, the Ayatollah Khomeini himself announced that the fate of the hostages would be decided not through such diplomatic efforts as the UN commission which visited Tehran last February but by the Iranian parliament. Now that parliament is finally in place. And it, too, has taken up the hostage matter in order to respond to a letter from members of Congress appealing for a solution of the impasse. The time thus seems opportune for a renewal of diplomacy.
The evolving make-up and coloration of the new Iranian government cannot but be disquieting to many people, however. In the intense power struggle that has been going on ever since the fall of the Shah, the Muslim fundmentalists who favor a theocratic state have been winning out over the secular republicans who are prepared to use modern technology and ideas to run the state. President Bani-Sadr, the standard bearer of the latter approach, remains in office but has clearly lost authority. Foreign Minister Ghotbzadeh, a moderate who has long backed early release of the hostages, has been replaced. The new Cabinet is dominated by supporters of the hardline Islamic Republican Party. So is the new parliament. The fact that many of the new men in the power structure, besides having extreme fundamentalist views, also are inexperienced in governing further reduces confidence that diplomacy can move very quickly.
It is an extremely difficult situation for the US, which finds itself unable to use its vast power to bring about Iran's compliance with international law. Yet in the circumstances the only viable policy continues to be one of patient waiting and restraint. Inasmuch as the hostages have been used as a convenient tool in Iran's internal political struggle, it can be hoped that when the Iranians realize they have wrung everything possible out of the issue they will be willing to release the hostages as no longer politically useful.
The only sensible course for the US is therefore the low-key one which Secretary Muskie has adopted. Any threat of compulsion is bound to be counterproductive. This is why the recent report by Washington columnist JAck Anderson that the US was preparing another invasion of Iran was a disquieting development and, if not confirmed, irresponsible. Such a move, experts warn, would merely reignite the flame of the value of hostages to Iran -- turning them into literal as well political hostages as the issue of Iran's safety and security was raised. In Iranian eyes, it would be impossible to negotiate release of the hostages in the face of a US military threat. This would demean Iran's Islamic as well as national image.
The need now, in short, is to give the new Iranian government a diplomatic nudge in expectation of moving the issue off dead center. That is what the US has properly done.