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Iran turns logic on embassy takeover upside down

If Iran's diplomats in London have to die, they have to die, President Abolhassan Bani- Sadr reportedly told a cheering throng in central Iran. But the government will not give in to gunmen using a seized embassy for blackmail.

In Western eyes, Iran's response to the April 30 attack on its London embassy could not help but seem a confirmation of the Islamic revolution's disregard for human life and its utter lack of political consistency or logic. The seisure of the American Embassy here is, after all, seen as just fine.

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Yet in a peculiarly "Islamic and Iranian" context -- the only one in which much of what has happened here over the past 15 months makes sense -- the Iranians reaction is rigidly logical, a confirmation of the regime's central themes of Muslim "martyrdom" and all-consuming enmity toward the United States.

Increasingly the two themes overlap, compounding an already dangerous and complicated crisis between Iran and Washington.

Iranian officials seemed almost nonchalant about the plight of their London Diplomats, taken by gunmen demanding freedom for dozens of ethnic Arab prisoners in southern Iran.

President Bani-Sadr, out of Tehran when the first deadline for killing the Iranian hostages expired, made no visible effort to hurry back. nor did Foreign Minister Sadeq Ghotbzadeh, who was on a tour of Gulf States.

When the President and Foreign Minister did finally react, their messages were much the same: The government was prepared to accept the "martyrdom" of its own diplomats rather than bow to terrorist pressure tactics.

If "so much as a single drop of blood is spilled from the nose of a single hostage," Mr. Ghotbzadeh added, the government would try to execute the very prisoner the attackers were seeking to free.

To Westerners, the righteous indignation was bound to seem a little misplaced in a regime that has actively supported the hostage- holding in Tehran.

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Yet revolutionary Iran's opposition to the United States has taken on a logic of its own.

Thus, the London attack by gunmen identified as Arab-speaking Iranians was promptly blamed on neighboring Iraq, a country that has no diplomatic relations with Washington but is branded here as an American "lackey."

Asked at a May 3 news conference whether there might be a parallel between the embassy attacks in London and Tehran, Foreign Minister Ghotbzadeh shot back: "None whatsoever. In Iran, this is a reaction against 25 years of oppression and plundering" by the United States and its "Zionist" allies.

"Over there [in London] it is a clear-cut conspiracy by the same powers against the young Islamic republic of Iran."

The reasoning falls on symphatetic ears here, particularly among the Muslim militants and the largely illiterate poor who power Ayatollah Khomeini's revolution.

The idea of "martyrdom" is etched deeply in their Shiite brand of Islam, and perhaps reinforced by their earthly poverty. Each year, the faithful take to the streets in a symbolic ritual of self-flagellation celebrating the battlefield "martyrdom" of Imam Hussein centuries ago near the holy city of Karbala, in what is now Iraq.

Anti-Americanism is of more recent vintage, whipped up with references to CIA involvement in a 1953 Tehran uprising and to the hardly arguable American support for the regime of the deposed Shah. But this theme, too, has its historical roots.

Almost ever since Alexander The Great defeated the first Persian empire some three centuries before the birth of Christ, its historical heirs have been battling foreign invaders. President Bani-Sadr perhaps put it best, in his acrobatic "celebration" of Washington's formal break in diplomatic and trade relations with Iran early last month.

Mr. Carter, said the Iranian President, "does not know the psychology of our nation. The story of our nation is the story of resistance to foreigners.Our folklore and our literature are full of tales of our long and continuing struggle against foreign influences."

Thus Ayatollah Khomeini could, May 2, all but welcome the idea of military action against Iran.

"If a martyr's place is in heaven [as the Koran says it is] what does he fear?" asked the Ayatollah.

"The most they [Americans] can do is to kill us."

Monitor correspondent Rushworth M. Kidder reports from London: The gunmen holding some 20 hostages in the Iranian Embassy in London had, at his writing, released two more captives -- a Pakistani and the wife of a Tanzanian.

The gunmen said that the safety of the captives would be assured if the ambassadors of Algeria, Jordan, and Iraq, with a Red Cross official, began negotiations with them and the British government.

Iranian foreign Minister Ghotbzadeh warned that his government could call on Iranian students in London to storm the embassy if the situation deterioted.

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