Hostage crisis: now US probes for Iranian flexibility
In its attempt to free the hostages, the United States now is engaged in one of those balancing acts that diplomats are supposed to do well. On the one hand, the US is trying, through State Department officials now in Algiers, to present a positive response to some of Iran's conditions for release of the hostages.
On the other hand, the US has found that it cannot agree to all of the Iranian conditions if they are to be complied with literally. When it comes to some of the financial demands being made by Iran, the State Department officials are in effect, saying: "No, but let's talk about it."
The initial reaction from Iran to the American response was restrained. Ali Reza Nobari, head of IRan's central bank, told Reuters news agency the response was "cool toward us." The high-ranking Iranian official said he could not be optimistic about an early resolution of the hostage problem, but he believed it could be resolved by the end of President Carter's term in office 10 weeks from now.
The attempt to probe for Iranian flexibility may prove to be exceedingly difficult now that differences among the Iranians themselves once again are surfacing. The arrest of former Foreign Minister Sadeq Ghotbzadeh Nov. 7, allegedly for criticizing the state radio and television as well as the militants holding the hostages, has dramatized the factionalism that is rife in Iran."
But the release of Mr. Ghotbzadeh Nov. 10 was seen by some observers as a positive sign in favor of the eventual release of the hostages.
Also considered potentially important was a statement by Iran's President Abolhassan Bani-Sadr, who declared on the same day that resolving the hostage situation rapidly would help Iran with its war with Iraq. Iran, he said, would be able to use monetary assets frozen in the United states and receive military supplies purchased earlier from the US. More significant, perhaps, release of the hostages would put an end to the Western allies' trade embargo against Iran, thus permitting Iran to purchase weapons and spare parts from Western nations other than the US.
Iraq's President Saddam Hussein meanwhile threatened to widen the Iraq-Iran war to include those Iranian oil fields thus far untouched. "If what we're doing is not sufficient, then we'll exceed it," the Iraqi leader told newsmen in Baghdad on Nov. 10. "For this there are things other than pipelines and oil refineries. Iran's oil fields are no longer far from our Army's reach."
Deputy US Secretary of State Warren Christopher arrived in Algiers Nov. 10 with an American reply to the Iranian conditions for release of the 52 hostages. Algeria has been acting as a mediator in the conflict.
The conditions include: (1) a pledge of US noninterference in Iranian affairs; (2) the "unfreezing" of Iranian assets held by the United States; (3) the cancellation of American economic and financial claims against Iran; and (4) a move to return the wealth of the late Shah of Iran, coupled with US recognition of Iran's rights to that wealth.
But the US government has no legal right to confiscate the Shah's wealth, much of which is not located in this country to begin with. And while it can unfreeze the Iranian assets, the government cannot simply ignore the $7 billion in claims that American businesses, banks, and individuals have made against those assets.
The inclusion of Deputy Tresury Secretary Robert Carswell in the Christopher mission to Algiers indicated that the US hopes to get clarification from the Iranians on the economic and financial issues and may be prepared to do some negotiating on those issues.
But the financial weekly, Barron's, alleged that the US is not just getting ready to negotiate but also preparing to ask Congress to pay "billions in tribute" to get the hostages back. An editorial signed by editor Robert M. Bleiberg said the Carter administration is "weighing legislation . . . which would vest all rights to the blocked Iranian assets in the federal government.
"Such a scheme would be tantamount to holding the US taxpayers for ransom," the editorial declared, arguing that such a move might get the hostages back but would inevitably lead to the taking, for political purposes, of countless more hostages.
US officials assert, however, that they are perfectly aware of the dangers of appearing to give in to Iranian blackmail.