America's hostages: homeward with honor

Buoyant joy and prayerful gratitude well up in the hearts of the American people. The freeing of the 52 US hostages from their long incarceration not only brings tearful relief to their forbearing families. It puts a lump in the throat of each and every American, who deeply felt the outrage of an act of international lawlessness and the seeming impotence of the world's most powerful government, and indeed the entire world community, to deal with it. The jubilation over the end of the crisis reflects a bolstering of the national spirit as much as a thankfulness that 52 Americans are safe and sound.

Indeed the American people have reason to be proud. Their government, despite one aborted attempt to use force, maturely chose the way of restraint, moderation, and patience throughout these many long months and thereby set a standard of peaceful resolution of conflict which all nations can usefully emulate. It is a credit to President Carter that he did not succumb a second time to a military option.Historians will probably write that he made mistakes, including, first, letting the hostage issue become such a public preoccupation of US foreign policy, thereby enabling the Iranians to exploit it for their own domestic ends and, second, using it himself for political purposes. Yet his basic instincts were right and paid off.

The American people can be doubly pleased that the US agreement reached with Iran is, as far as is known, an honorable one. The US national interest is not compromised. No ransom has been paid. No uncomfortable precedent has been set. The US simply returns to Iran those assets which it impounded when the hostages were seized -- in other words, property that belongs to Iran. The sticky Iranian demand for return of the Shah's wealth, which the US was in no position to fulfill; was virtually dropped.

It is clear that Iran, no longer having a political use for the hostages, and with the war with Iraq straining its resources, wanted to be rid of the problem. The frenetic pace of negotiation at the last moments of the Carter administration probably points less to a fear of what Ronald Reagan might do militarily to free the captives than to a desire to start off relations with a new US government with as clean a slate as possible.

Even so it will take patient effort on both sides top restore diplomatic ties , not to mention the former warm ties. The grievances, hurts, and frustrations -- on both sides -- linger, and the United States will have to approach the new situation in Tehran with caution, shrewdness, and a continuing strong regard for international law. Among the questions which will need to be addressed is how to prevent similar terrorist acts in the future and to strengthen international sanctions in the face of them. In any event, Iran is too important a country to be relegated to the diplomatic back burner for long. It will have to be dealt with -- we hope without anger or vindictiveness but with a new appreciation of the nature, the concerns, and the feelings of the Iranian people.

That is for the future, however. The happy moment now belongs rightly to Jimmy Carter and his tireless aides, above all Deputy Secretary of State Warren Christopher. Also, to the Algerian government for its most able and compassionate role as mediator in the negotiations. And, not to be left out, the 52 American men and women who valiantly endured their captivity and will soon come home to the cheers and tears of their fellow Americans. May the nation's warm and gentle embrace help obliterate all notion that the liberated Americans will not soon put their hard experience behind them and return to normal life with renewed vi gor and purpose.

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