Price of interfering

LAST week saw the conclusion at the airport at Tehran of another hijacking episode. Fortunately most of the hostages escaped alive when Iranian troops in disguise overpowered the hijackers. Two Americans did not escape alive. They lost their lives within the context of a condition of hostility between the United States and Iran.

There is no proof that had relations between the US and Iran been normal those two Americans would be alive today. But their chances of being alive would have been better. The existence of the condition of hostility is a probable reason the plane, which was hijacked in Kuwait, was ordered flown to the airport at Tehran. The hijackers could be confident of sympathetic treatment in a country that greets visitors arriving at its capital's airport with a large banner declaring ''Death to the USA.''

The latest word is that while the hijackers themselves are supposedly in police custody in Iran, they have not been extradited to Kuwait, where the crime took place. There is a lingering suspicion in Washington of collusion between the hijackers and the government of Iran or other persons in Iran. At least, if good relations had existed at the time of the kidnapping, a rescue might have been planned and executed with US help before hostages had been killed.

In other words, the loss of two American lives in the latest hijacking episode probably goes down on the price list, already a long one, of a state of continuing hostility between the US and one of the most important countries in the Middle East, Iran.

That continuing state of hostility is the end result of a record of US interference in the internal affairs of Iran. One of the sharpest debates going on in Washington today is over whether to interfere more or less in the internal affairs of Nicaragua and other Central American states. Let us consider why US interference in Iran has been so unfortunate in its consequences. It may cast light on the current debate.

That interference dates from 1953. The prime minister of Iran at the time was Muhammad Mossadegh, a European-educated Iranian lawyer with strong nationalist feelings. He blocked a Russian bid for oil concessions in northern Iran toward the end of World War II. In 1951 he led the successful parliamentary drive for nationalization of British oil concessions. By 1953 Western refusal to buy the expropriated oil led to economic trouble. The young Shah fled. Washington regarded Mossadegh as pro-Soviet even though he had blocked the Russian oil concessions.

Ray S. Cline, former deputy director of the CIA, tells what happened next in his book called, ''Secrets, Spies, and Scholars'' as follows:

''CIA mounted a modest effort under a skilled clandestine services officer who flew into Iran, hired enough street demonstrators to intimidate those working for Mossadegh, instructed Iranian military men loyal to the Shah how to take over the local radio station, and paved the way for the Shah's triumphal return.''

From then until the Shah's overthrow in 1979, Iran became in effect an American satellite. Americans supplied and trained the armed forces. American businesses moved in. American investors built factories. American advisers planned the modernization of the country in the American image. For 26 years Americans dominated the scene and shaped the country's development. Then came the backlash.

Native nationalism rose. Muslim fundamentalism revived. The Ayatollah Khomeini was acclaimed by the masses on his return from exile. The overthrow of the moderate nationalist Mossadegh in 1953 paved the way in the long run for the reign of the fanatical nationalist Ayatollah in 1979.

Not all American interventions in the internal affairs of other countries have been ''counterproductive.'' United States intervention in post-World War II Italian elections prevented a communist takeover. Italy has prospered since. But Vietnam is another example of an American intervention that failed. I'll examine the differences in my next column in this space.

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