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Principled proposals

The now-public American messages to Iran constitute an extraordinary response by a major world power to a precarious young revolutionary regime. Yet Washington's temperance in the face of Tehranhs blatant lawbreaking should not be mistaken for appeasement.

Rather these documents display a painstakign effort to implement a principles position: tht the basis for settlement is what Iran and the United States were entitled to before Iran's taking of the American hostages in November of last year.

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Also, by omitting demands for retribution, the messages underscore Washington's apparent inclination to see the national security interest in future sound relations with Iran as more important than adding more punishment to the sanctions already imposed.

It is ironic that Iran should have broken the secrecy of such statesmanlike papers in the context of yet another attack on the US. There was little alternative but for the US to release the complete texts, including comments omitted by Iran. The latter make clear, for example, that under the United States system the Shah's assets demanded by the Iranians could be transfered only by a court of law.

Indeed, the whole situation dramtizes the difference between a regime operating under the fractured authoritarianism of Iran and a governmnet of checks and balances operating under the free system of the United States. Cynical as the Iranians may be on the basis of their feelings about bygone US performance in Iran, they cannot expect a presidential overriding of legal procedures for negotiating purposes.

At the same time, for all the recent exchanges of heated rhetoric, it serves no purpose to assume that the Iranians are any less principled in their own eyes than the American are.

They see US interference in Iran in the 1950s, with what they regard as its harsh aftermath on the Iranian people, as much worse than their holding of the hostages. They proclaim every intention of living up to their debts and all just claims against them, though not when the assets to do so are frozen. To them the demand for deposit of $24 billion -- or some other figure that now seems subject to adjustmnet -- is not ransom but a kind of credit guarantee for the restoration of what belongs to them.

A hard point as the negotiations continue will be whether the US can provide any acceptable guarantee agaisnt Iranian fears that negotiated promises might be broken by a new president, an act of Congress, or some other means.

But at some stage there will have to be an achievement of trust on both sides or no agreement will be worth much more than the paper it is written on anyway -- nor will there be the mending of relatios between the two countries that would be beneficial to both of them.

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Here is where the general spirit of the US messages ought to offer encouragement. With the safe departure of the hostages from Iran, the US would state what is already its policy: not to interfere in the internal affairs of Iran. It would order the unblocking of Iranian assets. It would terminate legal proceedings against Iran in US courts. With steps such as these, some of them procedurally complicateD it would seek in effect to bring back the situation of November 1979, though some private US interests have been trying to use the hostage situation to make their lot better than it was then.

Some Iranians have sought to explain that the Farsi word translated as "final ," as in their "final" demands, does not mean "last" but rather something like "in complete form." So we have not had the last words yet. If both sides adhere to the principled approach they profess, those lst words can be good.

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