The furor over secret US-Iranian dealings and arms deliveries to Tehran has dimmed hopes for an early release of at least four American hostages still held by Iranian-inspired groups in Lebanon, close observers of hostage affairs say. British mediator Terry Waite, who has played a role in helping free three American hostages in the past 15 months, said Nov. 10 that his ``contacts'' had been driven underground by all the publicity.
Since then, with controversy raging in both Washington and Tehran, there has been little sign of a revival of Mr. Waite's efforts despite his recent statement that he had reestablished contact with the hostage holders. The Archbishop of Canterbury's special envoy had played an apparently significant part in the release of the Rev. Benjamin Weir in September 1985, the Rev. Lawrence Jenco in July this year, and David Jacobsen on Nov. 2.
All three men had been held by the pro-Iranian Islamic Jihad (``holy war'') organization, which still has two of the remaining Americans. Associated Press correspondent Terry Anderson has been held by the group since March 1985, and Thomas Sutherland, dean of agriculture at the American University of Beirut, since June of that year.
But at least two other Americans, university accountant Joseph James Cicippio and writer Edward Austin Tracy, are being held by another pro-Iranian group, the ``Revolutionary Justice Organization.'' The two men were kidnapped in Beirut in September and October of this year, despite President Reagan's assertion that no Americans have been abducted by Iranian-inspired groups since the secret US-Iranian dialogue began in 1985.
Yet another American, educator Frank Reed, was abducted in September. But there have been conflicting claims and denials of responsibility for his kidnapping, and it is not clear which group is holding him.
The Revolutionary Justice Organization (RJO) clearly has a relationship with Tehran similar to that of Islamic Jihad. The RJO has held a total of six French hostages, all abducted since March of this year. Four of them have been released, in two installments of two men, in what analysts see as a carefully graded response to the warming of relations between Paris and Tehran.
Two French television crewmen were released by the RJO in June, in what the group made clear was a response to the French decision to ask Iranian opposition leader Massoud Rajavi to leave his exile in France. In November, two more French hostages - Camille Sontag and Marcel Coudari - were freed shortly after Paris agreed to repay $330 million to Tehran, part of a $1 billion loan made to France by the Shah.
If the release of French hostages has been linked to the improvement of relations with Iran, which French Premier Jacques Chirac has openly pursued, recent revelations strongly suggest that the release of the three Americans was intimately bound up with the secret US-Iranian dialogue, rather than reflecting the caprices of the kidnap groups.
Reports published in the US press and elsewhere draw a strong correlation between arms deliveries to Tehran and the release of the three Americans. The ostensible demands of their Islamic Jihad captors - the release of 17 Muslim extremists jailed for bomb attacks in Kuwait - have not been met. After freeing Fr. Jenco in July, Islamic Jihad issued a statement saying this was the last such ``goodwill gesture'' it would make. When Mr. Jacobsen was freed last month, an accompanying statement did not say why, but referred obliquely to undefined US ``overtures.''
If the release of US hostages is indeed so closely linked to an improvement in US-Iranian relations (and even more specifically to US arms deliveries) as all this appears to suggest, the prospects for the remaining American captives being freed soon do not look bright.
While US Secretary of State George Shultz has publicly embraced President Reagan's hitherto secret objective of pursuing better relations with Tehran, analysts question whether Washington is in shape to pursue any foreign policy initiative toward Iran at present. And, the analysts add, whether Iranian leaders are even in a position to respond is another questionable assumption. In any event, the main American sweetener - arms supplies - has been removed from the equation.
Although many aspects of the Lebanese hostage syndrome remain extremely murky, recent developments and revelations have led observers to the tentative conclusion that the road to liberation for most of the American and French hostages lies through Tehran rather than Damascus. While Syria has often been allowed to take credit for handing over released hostages, the signs are that the decisions have emanated from Iran.
Some analysts believe the Syrians, who have several hundred crack troops and intelligence agents in west Beirut, may be able to influence the climate in which kidnappings take place, by discouraging or turning a blind eye to such actions. But there has been no suggestion that any of the 14 Western hostages known still to be in Lebanon are being held by groups directly linked to Damascus and advancing Syrian demands in the way Islamic Jihad and the RJO are doing for Iran.
But one other outside state, Libya, is believed to have similarly tried to influence the policies of Western nations by sponsoring abductions of their citizens in Beirut, with the US and Britain as the main targets. Two days after the US bombing of Libya in April this year, the bodies of two kidnapped British teachers were found alongside that of one missing American, university librarian Peter Kilburn. All three were killed by the Arab Commando Cells in reprisal for the US raid. A video tape was later distributed purportedly showing another British hostage, journalist Alec Collett, being hanged, though his body has never been found.
Another Briton and a Northern Irishman were also abducted in April. There has been no claim of responsibility nor any demands publicly made for their release. This was also the case with the three hostages murdered after the Tripoli raid. Analysts say this suggests that Libya's use of hostages may be intended to have a deterrent effect on Western policy, in contrast to Iran's exhortatory and acquisitive approach.