What to ask about the hostage episode

It is good that the Senate Foreign Relations and House Foreign Affairs Committees are separately planning hearings on the situation arising from the seizure of the hostages in Iran. There is a valuable opportunity here to learn from the past in order to better shape the future; that, after all, is what congressional investigations are about -- or should be.

But there are pitfalls of which the committees should be wary and into which various committees have fallen before.

The first of these is skimming off the sensationalism and letting it go at that -- listening to selected returned hostages recount the horrors of their captivity while the nation sits transfixed before its television screens. A certain amount of this should be done to build a sober, official record, but the fascination of the congressional animal with television exposure is such that there will be a temptation to drop the proceedings when media interest begins to wane.

Another trap is to fall into quarreling over the scope of the inquiry. There will be those, particularly conservative Republicans, who will wish to focus on the fall of the Shah, hoping thereby to lay the responsibility on Jimmy Carter. There will be others, particularly liberal Democrats (an endangered but still articulate species), who will wish to go all the way back to the restoration of the Shah in 1953 following to CIA-assisted overthrow of the Mossadegh regime.

A schism of this sort is guaranteed to lead to sterile, unproductive argument. Reviewing American policy toward Iran in the early 1950s might be an interesting exercise in historical scholarship, but it would bog the committees down in a mass of detail. Rehashing the collapse of the Shah's regime in early 1979 would lead the committees, and possibly the country, into a dispute similar to that which followed the collapse of Chiang Kai-shek in China 30 years earlier. If American policy is subject to criticism in either case, it is not that the United States withdrew support from the Shah and Chiang too soon, but that it continued that support too long.

There will also be a temptation to focus on the various avenues which the Carter administration explored, with increasing frustration, to secure the release of the hostages. This temptation will be especially strong in the case of those who, for whatever reason, wish to see the Carter administration discredited. The main outlines of the Carter efforts are already on the public record. It would be good to have an official statement, probably from former Deputy Secretary of State Warren Christopher, but the committees ought to recognize that such a statement cannot be complete at this time without embarrassing third parties.

Attention needs to be focused instead on what happened in Iran and in United States- Iranian relations in the months of 1979 between the fall of the Shah and the seizure of the hostages. The crucial questions are:

* What was the US Embassy in Tehran, including the CIA, reporting about the uncertain course of Iranian politics during this time?

* To what extent was the embassy consulted about probably Iranian reaction to the decision to admit the Shah to the United States for medical treatment? What was the embassy's response, if any?

* Why was the embassy staff, or most of it, not withdrawn from Iran at the time the decision about the Shah was made? At the least, why were files not burned and code machines destroyed?

American treatment of the Shah during this period gyrated at least as wildly as Iranian politics -- from regarding him as a pariah to welcoming him to a New York hospital to (in effect) expelling him to Panama. It was, on the whole, shabby. It is not acceptable that the American government decide whom to admit to the US on the basis of blackmail from a gang of fanatical thugs. But in ignoring blackmail, the US ought also to take steps to remove its representatives abroad from the consequences.

In order to lay out the considerations involved in answering these questions with authority, the committees will need access to telegraphic traffic between Washington and Tehran (including CIA messages). This will raise some delicate questions for the Reagan administration during its first weeks in office. It is likely to be the first test of how forthcoming the new administration will be in its relations with Congress. But it will be idle to pretend that the committees can make a useful investigation without these documents.

Finally, the question arises of what can be done to prevent a recurrence of this trauma. The answer is probably not much beyond increased vigilance and sensitivity on the part of the State Department and American diplomats abroad.

Suggestions have been made that the Vienna conventions on diplomatic and consular relations be amended to provide an automatic response by the world community. The trouble with this is that, as long as the world community is more concerned with oil than law, writing more international law on the subject is not likely to move it very much.

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