US walks fine line on hostages. `Negotiation' with terrorists is out, but a `dialogue' is OK
Washington — Has the United States abandoned its often-stated policy of not making concessions to terrorists? The question has been raised by a Muslim fundamentalist group's release of American hostage David P. Jacobsen and speculation that other Western hostages in Lebanon will be released soon. Mr. Jacobsen's release has also touched off speculation about what parties the US is dealing with and through in its efforts to free the hostages.
Administration officials refuse to discuss the terms of Jacobsen's release, saying that such information would jeopardize efforts to gain the release of other hostages. But US officials have repeatedly said they have not made concessions to terrorists, nor will they, and they will not ask other countries to make concessions to help free 17 American, French, and other hostages being held by various radical groups in Lebanon.
Questions about US negotiations over the American hostages were fueled by a recent statement by Lebanese Shiite Muslim leader Nabih Berri, who suggested that the US may be negotiating with Kuwaiti authorities to secure the release of pro-Iranian terrorists imprisoned in Kuwait.
In addition, a statement issued in Beirut over the weekend by Jacobsen's captors implied that the American's release was brought about as a result of actions initiated by the US.
Islamic Jihad, a Lebanon-based pro-Iranian terrorist organization, held Jacobsen hostage for 17 months and is believed still to be holding at least two other Americans. It has publicly demanded the release of 17 convicted terrorists imprisoned in Kuwait in exchange for freeing the American hostages.
Middle East experts say it is highly unlikely that the White House would agree to an exchange of terrorists for hostages. They note that the administration has been careful to draw the distinction between bargaining for the release of the hostages and simply establishing lines of communication.
The experts stress that offering direct concessions to terrorists is not the only way of gaining the safe release of kidnapped Americans.
For example, US officials - working through trusted intermediaries such as Terry Waite, the British Anglican Church representative who played in role in Jacobsen's release - can work to convince terrorists that their hostages have become more of a liability than an asset to the captors' cause.
This realization is believed to have played a significant role in the release of the American Embassy hostages in Iran in January 1981.
In addition, intermediaries can work to encourage other parties who may have influence over a terrorist group to intervene on behalf of hostages. In the case of terrorist groups in Lebanon, some are considered pro-Iranian and others have been identified as susceptible to Syrian pressure.
``There is good reason to believe that Iran and Syria have some influence with the more radical movements in Lebanon - some of which are holding hostages - but it would be a mistake to assume that they call the shots,'' says Gary Sick, an Iran expert and former National Security Council official in the Carter administration.
He adds, ``Iran does have some influence, but I'm not sure that if they said to release the hostages that [the terrorist groups] would release them.''
Administration officials have said they are dealing through ``a number of sensitive channels'' with ``various parties and intermediaries'' - including Mr. Waite - in an effort to free the hostages. But specifics about dealings with Syria and Iran have not been made public.
``I know we have followed up every possible lead and there is more than one intermediary involved in this, not just Terry Waite, but the Syrians and Iranians,'' says Richard B. Parker, former US ambassador to Lebanon, who now heads the Middle East Institute in Washington.
Administration officials have played down possible Syrian involvement in the current hostage negotiations.
In the past, Syrian has been viewed as a valuable ally in US hostage negotiations because Syria dominates large sections of Lebanon, including the Bekaa Valley, where some militant pro-Iranian groups are.
But Middle East specialists say there is a limit to Syria's influence on some radical groups. They suggest that in such cases, Iran may offer better prospects for securing the release of hostages.
France recently settled a longstanding dispute with Iran over a $1 billion outstanding loan in an effort to help pave the way for the release of seven French hostages being held in Lebanon.
In Batavia, N.Y., a spokesman for Peggy Say - sister of hostage Terry Anderson and an outspoken activist on behalf of all the hostage families - said that the family had received recent information that gave them hope for the release of the other hostages.