Better than saber rattling
Saber rattling may be a form of communication, but it is not the kind likely to resolve the hostage situation in Iran. We trust the United States administration is continuing behind-the-scenes communication with Iran of a potentially more productive sort than the growing Washington talk of military options and deadlines for exercising them. And there are certain positive things to be said publicly that are neither threats nor apologies. The need is to understand the Iranian side -- culture, politics, philosophy, semantics -- sufficiently to make the communication effective.
It may seem hard to know whom to communicate withm in revolutionary Iran. The US has been accustomed to dealing with leaders of countries who say aye or nay and make it stick. Now, according to a specialist with years of experience in Iran, the US is required not only to deal with an array of political forces but to speak to the aspirations of the Iranian people.
Anthropologist William Beeman of Brown University suggests that the resolution of the hostage problem depends on a large body of the people coming around to the view that it is no longer useful to hold the captives. To reach this stage the Iranians need to have some of their genuine fears about the US addressed.
Americans know that their government has no intention of restoring the Shah or his family to the throne of Iran. Yet many Iranians fear that Washington is preparing to install another client in Tehran. It would be nothing more than stating publicly what is tacitly accepted for President Carter to state that the US does not expect the Shah or his family ever to rule Iranian again.
Another simple assurance the White House could make would be to pledge that the US intends to do nothing to make things harder for Iranians living in the United States. Many families in Iran have links with someone in the US. Hard as it may be for Americans to believe, these Iranians fear pressures on their US relatives, perhaps even nisei-style internment. This fear is one of the great unpublicized elemengs in the hostage situation, according to Professor Beeman.
As for other matters where understanding is needed, he notes that current US efforts to instruct Iran about a Soviet threat on its borders leave Iranians unimpressed. They have a history of being between Russia and the West. In the 19th century they went through a period of British warnings against Russia. Whether or not there now is a threat, Iranians feel they don't have to be told.
Also, what Americans often interpret as the Ayatollah Khomeini's defiance of the US may rather be his effort not to cause rifts among his supporters. Thus he would not approve transferring the hostages to government custody because there was not a "unanimous" decision of the Revolutionary Council in favor of it. And thus he says a decision on the hostages must await Parliament -- not as a delaying tactic against Washington but so another political element will be in place toward the consensus he seeks.
It is a difference of approach which lack of forward action is not seen as necessarily negative, the way Americans tend to see lack of forward action. And the scale of time is longer than Americans are used to.
This differing time sense is also mentioned by Roger Fisher, Harvard Law School specialist in conflict resolution, who stresses the need for understanding how Iranians see things if they are to be given any incentive to change their minds. His overall professional approach to solving-their-problem-in-a-way-that-solves-ours has been presented widely. Recently he spoke of some of the overlooked snags that can undercut communication.
To take but one example, he tells of an Iranian explaining that when the English word "compromise" is translated into Farsi it has only its negative sense, as in "compromising one's principles." Similarly, the word "mediator" comes out in the sense of one who works toward compromising principles. so a neghardly have been surprising when United Nations Secretary-General Waldheim was asked why he was in Iran and he said he was there as a mediator come to seek compromise.
It may seem a small semantic point. But it hints at the broad range of perception required by the US as it seeks to keep the lines of communication open, despite what may turn out to be the tactical mistake of breaking diplomatic relations. This effort to understand, of course, is not for the purpose of compromising the Americans' principles any more than the Iranians' -- but for reaching the meeting of minds that offers a hope for present solutions and future relationships which is absent from the speculations about gunboat diplomacy.