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A risky hostage tradeoff

It is clear that the United States will have to pay some price for release of the hostages in Iran -- however unfair this seems. An unfreezing of Iranian assets, including military equipment which Iran had already purchased and paid for, appears within the bound of legality and propriety. Yet it is also clear that sending some $220 million worth of spare parts and other military supplies to Tehran, as President Carter now publicly indicates he is willing to if the hostages are returned, holds risks. How does the US then demonstrate its avowed "impartiality" in the Iran-Iraq war? The issue is sensitive and Americans should know what is at stake.

One unanswered question, for instance, is whether these arms would require sending American personnel as well. Among the items now frozen ar such sophisticated weapons as air-defense missiles and radar units and electronic equipment for fighter planes. Who will set them up and install them? Mr. Carter has given no indication of what his intentions are on this matter but these ought to be made clear. We would trust that there is absolutely no intent of involving American military or other personnel in such a bargain. If the materiel is to be shipped, it should be left to the Iranians to deal with the delivery and installation problem. The last thing the US needs is to inject Americans into what could be a protracted war -- however short-term or "innocent" their mission.

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Beyond the immediate issue, of the hostages, furthermore, lies the larger strategic question of US policy in the Middle East. The Gulf war has demonstrated again just how volatile and complex are Arab loyalties and interests, and the US must be careful not to roil relations with its friends as the various Arab states line up for or against Iran or Iraq. The first considertion must certainly be Saudi Arabia, its most important associate in the Gulf region. The Saudis are ostensibly siding with Iraq, so any seeming US tilt toward Iran must cause concern. While the Saudis have misgivings about Iraq's grab for big-power status in the Gulf, they are even more worried about the revolutionary influence which a strengthened and stabilized Shia Muslim Iran would have in the region.

The administration will need to assure Saudi Arabia that the US intends no military support of Iran. This should not be hard, given Saudi sympathy for the US in the hostage crisis. The Saudis have conveyed privately that they fully understand that no American president can resist taking certain actions in order to get the US hostages out and that shipment of the paid-for Iranian military equipment may be required. But any further effort to help rebuild the iranian armed forces would be looked at askance.

We were therefore happy to hear Mr. Carter say in the debate that the US would maintain its neutrality in the war and not sell "additional" goods to Iran of a "warlike nature." But the statement needs clarifying. ARe spare parts, ofr instance, of a "warlike nature"? Moreover, the President's concessions to Israel on the eve of the election, including an oil supply agreement, and a publicly announced refusal to sell jet-fighter bomb cracks to Saudi Arabia are hardly calculated to reassure the Saudis. Mr. Carter is again letting domestic politics sway US foreign policy -- and that is, to use his term, "dangerous."

We also question in effect conducting hostage negotiations in public. Mr. Carter perhaps thinks his statements about returning Iranian assets will have an impact in Tehran. Some seasoned foreign policy hands are more inclined to think that the final word about the hostages rests with Ayatollah Khomeini, not the Parliament, that the basic decision to release them has already been made, and that public US signals at this point are irrelevant. We agree that the less said openly the better.

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