Honoring America's word

We are disturbed by what seems to be a growing undercurrent of agitation by some people for abrogation of the agreement which the United States concluded with Iran for return of the hostages. The agitation is irresponsible. Public outrage over the brutal treatment which the Iranians meted out to their American captives should not be permitted now to blind sound moral judgment and political perspective. The fundamental point is that the United States has an obligation under international law to observe the agreement -- an agreement concluded between two legitimate governments and having the force of a treaty. Morally the US would place itself in an untenable position if it reneged on this obligation. It would also be breaking with an historical pattern of integrity. Upholding international agreements has been a strong and stable tenet of American foreign policy.

It was no doubt in the spirit of this worthy record that Secretary of State Alexander Haig stated that he anticipated the new administration would honor the accord. The State Department, reaffirming this intent, said nonetheless it was making a thorough examination of its provisions. That is only right and fair. The President and the public must of course understand precisely and fully what obligations the US government has undertaken and what these mean.

Unfortunately, the agreement does raise some serious legal questions. For instance, it annuls the attachments which federal courts have ordered on Iranian assets, forcing American firms and individuals to turn to international tribunals to press their claims. Under the Constitution, citizens of the United States have the right of access to American courts. If the claims issue is litigated, the Supreme Court could decide that the claimants have been deprived of property without due process of law.

Then there is the unusual matter of agreeing to enforce Iran's nationalization orders in the US courts so that it can try to get back the late Shah's wealth. This appears to break with precedent. Also, under the accord the former hostages and their families cannot sue Iran, even though the International Court of Justice ruled that the Iranian government is liable for damages. The US agreement does not contravene the International Court's judgment but, curiously, it would not be acting in accord with it.

Thus President Reagan clearly would be presented with a dilemna if, after examination of the Carter agreement, he were told there is no constitutional authority for some of its provisions. Yet this dilemma flowing from a tangle of conflicting domestic and international requirements has arisen repeatedly in the conduct of American diplomacy. In this instance the circumstances under which the agreement was concluded are so extraordinary that no precedent exists for guiding litigation. But historically US courts do defer to the political prerogatives of the executive in the face of conflicting legal issues. In any case, an argument can be made that constitutional questions ought to be foreseen and resolved before an international agreement is concluded and that once an agreement is signed, therefore, it should be observed.

That there existed overriding political considerations in reaching this particular agreement there is no question. It is plain that a continuation of the hostage crisis affected not only the lives of 52 Americans. The larger problem involved the whole issue of US national interests in the Middle East and the Gulf region at a time of growing turmoil and uncertainty there. Even now the question must be asked how important it is for the US to get on with what will most certainly be the difficult task of restoring ties with Iran and thereby being in a position to help strengthen Iran's territorial integrity and political stability. We believe it is extremely important -- both for the future of Iran and for American interests in the Gulf. There is no question that the Soviet Union would be happy about, and benefit most, by endless tension between Washington and Tehran.

In this context, too, we are appalled by some cries we hear for retribution against Iran in the wake of the hostage episode. For the US government now not only to go back on its word but to carry out some act of vengeance would put the United States in the same moral limbo as the Iranian kidnappers. The main strength the US has in the world, the real weapon of influence it commands, is its integrity and reliability. It stands for something. Would it really want to add to the world's misbegotten sense of revenge and cruelty -- a sense that has seemed so uppermost in Iranian zealots' thinking and which is so alien to Christian thought? Iranians, after all, took the hostages out of deep feelings of injustice and resentment and, yes, revenge. But where will the cycle stop and who will stop it? Surely President Reagan will not begin his tenure failing to perceive the situation through Iranian as well as American eyes -- a failure that goes back through many administrations and tragically got the US into the very predicament it is in.

This is no apology for Iran. It is no justification for its deceitful, brutal, unlawful act of violence against the United States. We know it will not be easy for Americans to resist emotions of rage and anger as the 52 former captives pour out their stories. Nor will there be any inclination to forget and forgive quickly the injustices of the past. But the world watches to see how America and Americans react. We trust it will be with understanding, pragmatic determination -- and the forgiveness of a mature and Christian nation. Herein lies i ts mettle.

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