First Things first

Mistreatment of prisoners of war is one of the most unpleasant, inhuman, and tragic blots on the story of mankind, but it should have nothing to do with the postwar relations of the former belligerents. And in the long run it does not.

During the American civil war Union soldiers were badly treated in Confederate prison camps, and vice versa. Andersonville is a reproach to the Confederacy. The Lake Erie islands are an equal reproach to the Union. But the task the moment the war was over was to repair the damage of the war, not indulge in punitive behavior.

The same has held true in all wars. All parties to World Wars I and II mistreated prisoners on occasion. Germans and Japanese had no monopoly on misbehavior. There were things done by American and British troops that had best be forgotten, if possible.

Those Americans who were held as hostages in Iran for over a year were treated badly, but President Reagan is correct in referring to them as having been "prisoners." They were people who unfortunately were caught up in a civil war. Their captors did not treat them as badly as they treated their own people. Hundreds of Iranians who supported teh Shah's regime, or were suspected of having supported it, were executed, often after having been physically abused. The American "prisoners" were fortunate to get out alive. From the point of view of the Iranian revolutionaries all Americans had supported the Shah's regime, including its secret police, SAVAK.

But the fact of abuse, and the further fact that the terms of the release have no standing in international law, should today be put aside. From the moment of release of the hostages only one thing really matters: to get on as soon as possible, and as fast as common sense permits, with serving the national interest of the United States in the Middle East.

The essential and indeed vital US national interest in the area is clear. Access to the oil of the Gulf is essential to the economic and even physical welfare of the United States and of its allies. Unless or until the US can regain independence from imported oil it must devise its policies and its strategies toward protecting access to the sources of that oil.

The worst thing that could happen would be to have control of the oil of the Gulf slip into Soviet hands. If that did happen Americans would have an opportunity to find out what the word "blackmail" really could mean. Try to conceive of how an American delegation would be received in Moscow if it went there cap in hand saying, "Please, may we buy some of your oil?"

If you want to avoid that scenario, then how do you behave toward Iran? Certainly not by contemplating punitive measures against Iran, no matter how badly the Iranians may have behaved toward your own people. The one thing you do not want to do is to serve Moscow's purposes by pushing the Iranians into the welcoming embrace of the Kremlin. Any punitive action against Iran -- even talk about punitive action, or talk about failing to honor the agreements with Iran -- would serve Moscow's interests.

Iran and the United States are natural trading partners and natural friends. The Iranians do not want to be swallowed up by Moscow and gathered into the Soviet empire. The United States can help them retain their independence. That independence does and would serve the US national interest.

The hostage episode has been a lamentable hiatus in a natural association. It should never have been allowed to happen. In retrospect it is easy enough to see that the mistake was in allowing the Shah to come to New York for medical treatment. At the very least the entire personnel of the US embassy in Tehran should have been brought home before permission to enter the US was granted to the Shah.

But all of that is history now. The episode should not have happened. It did happen. The task now is to clear away the consequences of that mistake, not dwell on what mistakes were made or who was responsible, or who could be punished.

Of course lessons should be absorbed. Washington should not base its policies on single individuals. US relations with Iran should be based on best possible relations with the country and with its people, not by a deal with a single ruler who someday may be driven from his throne. In dealings with foreign countries the US should always keep the net national interest in mind, not relations with some one person who purports to be a "friend." The basic rule of British diplomacy should always be borne in mind. "Britain does not have friends, it has interests."

If that rule had been remembered in past dealings with Iran there would never have been the hostage hiatus in US-Iranian relations. If that rule is observed now there will be the soonest possible return to normal and useful good relations betwe en the two countries.

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