Assessing the Iran initiative

THE more that is known about the Reagan administration's secret overtures to Iran, the worse the affair looks. Two major Reagan foreign policy precepts were compromised: having no negotiations with terrorists, and a stance of neutrality in the Iran-Iraq war. If anything, the United States had a slight public tilt toward Iraq; the administration had gone out of its way to urge other nations not to sell arms to Iran.

The White House Iran initiative has undermined US credibility among Western European allies and the moderate Arab nations of the Middle East. Such nations as Saudi Arabia have long been concerned that a victorious Iran might export its brand of Islamic revolution in their direction.

Conditions demanded for the release of the remaining hostages have begun to escalate. Further hostage-taking may have been encouraged. And the US may actually have endangered the prospects of those political leaders in Iran whom it was trying hardest to help.

At home, the President's subsequent rationale for the long-secret operation has failed to convince even leading members of his own party that broad strategic goals were the overriding concern.

Reports of contention within the administration over the wisdom of the Iran operation and of keeping it secret from agencies and officials responsible for the repercussions of such programs have eroded confidence in the Reagan foreign policy apparatus. Secretary of State Shultz, a leader in the administration's antiterrorist fight and a strong opponent of the White House initiative, is in a particularly difficult position.

The White House continues to say no deal was made with Iran. Yes, military equipment and spare parts were sent, but the freeing of three American hostages held by Lebanese Shiites with close ties to Iran was, quite simply, a ``bonus.'' The President insists his primary mission in the 18-month-old covert operation was to build contacts for a greater Washington influence with a post-Khomeini Iran and to help bring ``an honorable end'' to the lingering Iran-Iraq war. Certainly such motives, if primary, are commendable. But the structure of events indicates a much greater preoccupation with the hostage issue than the White House is willing to admit.

President Reagan undoubtedly agonized over the hostages' plight. Facing enormous political pressure to find a way to free them, he is said by an aide often to have spent as much as half of his morning Cabinet briefings discussing the hostage issue. The chronology of arms shipments sent to Tehran and the release of each of the three American hostages by their Lebanese captors reads far more like direct exchange than coincidence.

Trying to find a way to free hostages is an administration's responsibility. There are neither easy nor perfect options. Of necessity there may be a conflict between the professed absolutism of a no-negotiations terrorism policy and the flexibility sometimes required to actually free citizens held captive abroad. But to deny there has been a compromise when the evidence suggests otherwise strains credulity.

Congress later this week will begin to question, in detail, the wisdom and legality of the administration's Iran operation. If the National Security Council approach also involved the Central Intelligence Agency, which by law must report to Congress, why wasn't Capitol Hill told? Did holding the operation so close to the vest stifle a needed challenge as to the plan's consistency and consequences? What of Israel's reported role as a go-between and initiator of the arms shipment idea? What of the amount and value of the weapons? Are the coming prosecutions of Americans for arms shipments to Iran compromised by the President's actions? Congress may well seek new curbs on the NSC, which in this case shifted its role from adviser to executor of foreign policy.

For the moment, the wind seems to have gone out of the Reagan administration's foreign policy sails.

The best course from here is for the administration to be as forthright as possible about what it is up to. It must make a renewed effort to weigh contradictory actions against its broad foreign policy goals. Rhetoric that more closely parallels action taken would be a welcome replacement for the present confusion. It is time for a much more careful think-through of policies and their consequences.

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