Carter and the 52

The nation's calmness, dignity, and quiet prayers are called for as the US hostage crisis seems to be reaching a denouement. So often have hopes been falsely raised in the past, so often has the United States been manipulated by forces within Iran, that prudence dictates wariness. Yet it is clear that the Iran-Iraq war -- together with the presidential election in the United States -- has produced a genuine opening for resolution of the year-long crisis.

Much is being said about whether President Carter has made some sort of deal with the Iranians in order to secure release of the hostages or promises of such by election day. It will probably be impossible to sort out the whole episode until it is well over with, but we feel the public should keep cynicism in check as long as the facts are not known. No doubt Mr. Carter hopes to benefit politically by a favorable development. Any leader would. But it also true that he has sought for a year, through what seems every conceivable diplomatic means -- and even through a military effort -- to win the Americansh freedom. It should be presumed that he is motivated by a desire to protect human life and defend the US national interest.

One can more reasonably argue that the Iranians themselves are exploiting the presidential election in order to win the best deal possible. There seems to be a feeling in Iran that chances for this are better now then they might be under Ronald Reagan. Indeed the militant Islamic judge Ayotollah Khalkhai has admitted this is an opportune time in the US to wring concessions. But the important point is that Mr. Carter was stymied in the crisis until Iran was ready to move -- and it now appears so.

Two factors seem to have brought things to a head. One is that even the right-wing Islamic clergy realize that the hostages have served their purpose and that the longer they are held the more isolated Iran becomes in the international community. The second is the recognition that Iran's capacity to withstand the military attack by Iraq is limited. The nation needs military equipment from the West as well as a stance which will help unify its fighting forces.

It is far from clear how firm the Majlis commission is in the four conditions it has laid down for release of the hostages. The United States could not, for instance, return the late Shah's wealth to Iran as demanded, although it presumably could elaborate on its statement that it would not stand in the way of normal court action to secure its return. Similarly, it could not just drop all economic and financial claims against Iranian assets, but it conceivably could seek to detach the pending American suits from the frozen assets. There certainly would be no problem about promising not to interfere in Iran's internal affairs, or in principle about unfreezing Iranian assets. Thus, while the nuances of the conditions are not known, the demands themselves do seem open to reasonable negotiation and compromise, if the Iranians are acting in good faith. More of the Iranian position needs to be spelled out, however.

What should be totally unacceptable to President Carter, in any case, is a partial settlement that would mean release of the hostages in stages. No group of hostages is any less important than any other, and the United States must demand no less than the safe return of all 52. The deal should be all or nothing. This is the first time in a year that the US has leverage in its dealings with Tehran, and it must use that leverage for the only just out- come -- the full, simultaneous freedom of the imprisoned Americans. The Majlis commission's statement that the Iranian government will free a group of hostages whenever one of the conditions is met is fraught with mischief. We can imagine the Iranians dangling the issue indefinitely if they are permitted to continue holding some of the hostages. Yet it is Iran which is in violation of international law, and this fact ought not to be forgotten, however much the US bends to acknowledge Iran's grievances.

This could not be an easy time for the President -- negotiating over the hostages and running for re-election. The temptation to take political advantage of the situation is strong, specially when his detractors, too, are playing politics. But we trust he remains circumspect, statesmanlike, and firm. Certainly he can count in this crucial matter on a unified nation reaching out earnestly for divine guidance and support.

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