The world's stake in the Iranian hostages

The hostages have now been held in Iran for ten months. The question persists: What is the world going to do about it? The answer, apparently, is very little, and that is not good enough.

The Carter administration has tried several tactics, none of which has worked. It began by seeking to bring pressure to bear on Iran through other countries. There was only a weak response from America's presumed friends, who reacted as though they were more interested in maintaining their oil supplies than in upholding a centuries-old standard of international law. There was no response at all from the Iranians.

The administration froze Iranian assets in the United States and embargoed the import of Iranian oil.It expelled Iranian diplomats. The results were equally negative.

The administration got a resolution from the United Security Council; it won a verdict in the World Court. The court has no power to enforce its verdict. The Security Council, which could if it wanted to, has shown no disposition to take further action.

The administration went along with (and apparently got taken in by) UN Secretary General Waldheim's plan for a UN commission to investigate the misdeeds of the Shah. This was supposed to result in the prisoners' release, but it developed that the release had to await action by the Iranian parliament which at the time had not even been elected. The parliament has been elected now, but it is still trying to organize a government.

Finally, the administration tried its unsuccessful rescue mission. Perhaps the worst effect of the failure of this mission was that it ended what at the time appeared to be stirrings on the part of the Europeans and Japanese to grapple with this outrageous challenge to international law.

Since that time very little has been heard about the hostages from any of the world's capitals, including Washington. The silence in Washington might have been based on the theory that the way to get the hostages back was to let them become unimportant to their captors. The theory has not worked despite the death of the Shah, and the question arises as to how much longer it ought to be tested.

The problem, it must be emphasized, is not only a problem for the US; it is a problem for the world. In every other country subject to terrorism, the government has at least tried to protect diplomats. In Iran, the government -- such as it is -- is on the side of the terrorists. It is perhaps an exaggeration to speak of the Iranian government; but there are people in Tehran who claim to be the government, and we ought to take their world for it.

Throughout this whole affair, the Carter administration has blown hot and cold, its policies running the gamut from military action last spring to the more recent neglect. One can only hope that Jack Anderson was mistaken in his report of plans for new military action in October -- or that, if he was not mistaken, his publication of the plans effectively squashed them.

The matter of what to do next is complicated by the developing political campaign in the US, but that cannot be an excuse for paralysis. We cannot simply forget about the problem or postpone it until we get our own political affairs in order. Election day will be the anniversary of the hostages' seizure. By inauguration day, they will have been in captivity almost 15 months -- longer than a good many street thugs spend in jail in the US after having been found guilty of a crime by a jury of their peers.

Delegates, including a great many foreign ministers, will shortly gather in New York for the regular session of the United Nations General Assembly. the hostages will doubtless be far from uppermost on the minds of most of them. Both publicly and privately the US should make it clear in no uncertain terms that it is going to be very difficult to get along with unless and until it gets more international support on this issue.

The saddest part of this whole affair has been the indifference of the rest of the world. It cannot be emphasized too strongly that the religious fanatics in Iran pose a threat not only to the US and to 52 of its citizens, but to the heart of the system through which diplomacy has been conducted for 600 years.

One of the purposes of law, whether international or domestic, is to protect the weak. The rich and powerful in the US could get along without the Bill of Rights a great deal better than the weak and poor. The US, if it had to, could get along in a world without law a good deal better than most countries. Most countries don't seem to understand that. They need to be reminded.

In this larger sense, they have an even bigger stake in the hostages than does the United States.

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