President Carter’s initial policy of reasoned restraint in response to the seizure of American hostages in Iran was the right one, and we can at this point only hope that he sticks to it. Beneath the deceptive calm of self-imposed reticence by politicians in Washington and elsewhere in the land, jingoistic passions are mounting, and the temptation to launch a Mayagüez-style punitive action can only grow more compelling–especially in an election year. Carter’s decision to bar Iranian oil imports was a useful, fortuitously timely stroke, coming as it did only hours before the Ayatollah decided to use the oil “weapon.” The freezing of Iranian assets, however, was more tit for tat. Measured response and patience, rather than reprisals (such as cutting off food shipments), are the keys.
The seizure of hostages violated a bedrock principle of peaceful intercourse among nations–diplomatic immunity. The action of the “students,” and the all-potent blessing given it by Ayatollah Khomeini, can only be condemned. Moreover, the whirlwind passions unleashed by those who invaded the American Embassy also touched off a struggle for power inside Iran’s disintegrating revolutionary Government. Nine months after the collapse of the Pahlevi regime, hatred of the Shah seems to be the only remaining popular emotion capable of reviving, albeit temporarily, Khomeini’s decomposing and increasingly repressive theocracy. Today, the priest from Qum is buffeted by unemployment, economic instability, political dissent and the continuing challenge of the rebellious Kurds. There is no functioning government, only one aged man whose harsh diktats have replaced ideology, policy and simple administration. In this context, the American hostages are pawns in a struggle among men competing for the ear of the Ayatollah. Certainly the mullahs who dominate the secret Revolutionary Council have benefited from the unseating of Premier Mehdi Eazargan’s ineffectual ministerial Government, which the invasion of the American Embassy precipitated. But the Revolutionary Council members are themselves divided into factions, some of them denominated as “pro-Libyan,” “Pan-Islamic” or “pro-Syrian,” depending upon the place where they spent their years of exile.
Given the complexity of the factional maneuverings around Khomeini, the President’s efforts to gain the release of the hostages have been made doubly difficult. But the roots of our problems today in Iran are not all that complex. They originate in the simple fact that six American Presidents since 1953 have given their unqualified support to the Shah. The American people should know that they owe nothing to this deposed monarch, whose abrupt downfall, quite apart from his greed and murderous authoritarianism, proved the moral futility of throwing American support behind a regime opposed by an overwhelming number of Iranians. Carter should long ago have acknowledged this.
The major Iranian proposal last week suggested that the hostages might be released in return for (1) an acknowledgment of the Shah’s criminality, (2) the confiscation of his American assets and (3) the establishment of an international investigation of the Shah’s crimes. It is unfortunate that these proposals were tainted by the threat of coercion. The Iranians’ crude use of blackmail undercuts any moral authority their proposals might have.
There is undeniably a legal case to be made against the Shah. The United States has no extradition treaty with Iran, but Teheran has yet to request that Washington negotiate such a treaty, And if the Shah has absconded with Government assets, then Teheran could initiate a civil suit to attach his assets in any Federal court.
This entire affair suggests that we still need international institutions, ombudsmen if you will, capable of transcending bilateral diplomacy. One positive step in the immediate crisis might be the creation by the United Nations of an ad hoc commission of international jurists that would investigate the charges leveled at the Shah. The Iranians regard the Shah as a war criminal–and what is important to them in this crisis is that the world community (e.g., the Security Council) hear the gravity of their charges against him. The international community faced a similar problem in the aftermath of World War II–and created the Nuremberg War Crimes Tribunal. In a period when Third World political turmoils are constantly affecting the fragile equilibrium between sovereign nations everywhere, perhaps it is time to search for new institutions that could provide alternatives to the desperate, futile vigilantism in Iran.