How not to rescue hostages
June 12 appears to have been an important milestone in the revolution in Iran. On that day a great many members and supporters of a radical leftist faction of the revolutionary movement in Iran held a rally in a stadium not far from the US Embassy.
Reports differ on how many attended the rally. Some said 100,000, others 150 ,000. While the crowd was filing into the stadium it was attacked by gangs of street fighters who had been recruited by a right-wing faction.
The result was a battle which lasted several hours. An estimated 300 to 400 persons were injured, one was killed. Police and revolutionary guards were present and apparently made sporadic attempts to intervene and stop the fighting , but for the most part seemed to be trying to protect the right-wing attackers from the radical activists who defended themselves vigorously.
The revolution in Iran dates from Jan. 16 of last year -- 17 months ago. That was the day the Shah flew away leaving his country in the hands of a group of people with widely differing ideas of what they wanted for their country's future. They had been united by a determination to get rid of the Shah and his regime. They were divided on almost everything else.
How divided they are has only gradually become apparent. Ayatollah Khomeini has managed remarkably well to create an appearance of his own authority presiding over the chaos which lies just below the surface. He still seems to be able to avoid a total and decisive outbreak of civil war. In appearance he controls what to the outside world seems almost to be a government.
Yet, just below this surface, rivals are building their various factional armed forces and maneuvering in preparation for the decisive struggle which is bound to come sometime before the revolutionary phase in Iran will be finished and the world will be able to identify the winners.
To outsiders, and particularly to Americans concerned about the welfare of the 53 members of the US Embassy staff still held hostage, 17 months seems a long time for a revolution to be unfinished. Yet revolutions can take a lot longer than that before they settle down into a new stability.
For example, ten years elapsed between the breaking of the French monarchy in 1789 and the beginning of the one-man dictatorship of Napoleon. And then there was another 16-year period before Napoleon was overthrown and the monarchy restored. The French revolution lasted a long time. The Russian revolution dates from 1917 when the czar was overthrown, but the people of the Soviet Union never knew political stability from then until the accession of Nikita Khruschchev to top power in 1955.
During this long time it takes revolutions to settle into some new pattern of stability, factionalism is rampant and authority is tenuous at best, and anything anyone on the outside tries to do to influence the course of events is likely to confuse more than to clarify. This is precisely why Washington has had such a frustrating time concerning the hostages.
The central fact about Iran from the day the Shah left until today is that there is no government in Iran capable of acting as a government. the Ayatollah balances one faction against another and negotiates with each. Yet even he, with all his popularity, cannot command the release of the hostages, even if he wanted to have them released.
Washington bahavoir toward the hostage problem has ignored this fact. The first thing President Carter did was to freeze Iranian funds, call for a general trade boycott, and threaten military action. These are all measures which can impress a government in control of a country. But when there is no government -- and when the hostages are held by a faction which gains in strength and popularity by defying the nominal government -- such measures are no more effective than tossing feathers against the wind.
Governments can be negotiated with, can be influenced, can even sometimes be coerced. But when there is no government which can enforce its will it only makes matters worse to try to coerce.
The hostages were seized Nov. 4, 1979. This is the eighth month of their captivity. The time is long and painful. But war would be the end for them. They are still alive. The only course of action whcih has the merit of not making matters worse for them is to wait patiently until there is a government in Iran with which one can negotiate, or which one might be able to coerce. There really isn't any other rational thing to do.