WORLD

MIXED SIGNALS

THE RETURN OF IRANIAN ASSETS BY WASHINGTON MIGHT WIN THE FREEDOM OF THE HOSTAGES

JOHN BIERMAN August 21 1989
WORLD

MIXED SIGNALS

THE RETURN OF IRANIAN ASSETS BY WASHINGTON MIGHT WIN THE FREEDOM OF THE HOSTAGES

JOHN BIERMAN August 21 1989

MIXED SIGNALS

WORLD

THE RETURN OF IRANIAN ASSETS BY WASHINGTON MIGHT WIN THE FREEDOM OF THE HOSTAGES

The signals from Washington and Tehran last week were decidedly mixed. Although President George Bush declared that he was ready to “talk and engage in every diplomatic channel” to secure the release of eight Americans held hostage by Iranian-backed terrorists in Lebanon, he ruled out anything that might appear to be paying ransom. And while one faction of the Iranian government seemed ready to negotiate the release of the hostages in return for a U.S. promise to free frozen Iranian assets, another faction vowed never to sacrifice its Islamic principles by dealing with the Americans. It was confusing, but—in the view of many experts—encouraging. As Geoffrey Kemp, a Middle East specialist and former aide in the Reagan administration’s National Security Council, told Maclean’s, “I feel more optimistic about a hostage release now than I have in the past.”

The mixed signals were an indication of how much Bush and his newly elected Iranian counterpart, Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, are themselves hostages to policies that they have inherited. Bush—especially in the wake of the Iran-contra scandal—could not openly violate the White House rule against bartering for hostages’ lives. And Rafsanjani, surrounded by hard-liners, could not favor too strongly making concessions to “the Great Satan,” as Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who died on June 3, used to call the United States. Still, despite a new suicide bombing that added to the turmoil in the Middle East, indirect negotiations between the two sides will apparently soon begin, with Pakistan—America’s ally and Iran’s neighbor and co-religionist—as the gobetween. —

The bomb attack in southern Lebanon occurred when a Shiite cleric belonging to the socalled Hizbollah, or Party of God, blew himself to pieces by detonating more than 400 lb. of explosives inside a red pickup truck as an Israeli military convoy drove by. Five Israeli soldiers and one member of the Israeli-supported South Lebanon army were wounded. And Hizbollah’s spiritual adviser in Beirut, Sheik Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah, claimed that the action was merely a “down payment” in retaliation for the Israelis’ July 28 abduction

of the Hizbollah activist Sheik Abdel Kareem Obeid.

It was Obeid’s abduction that led to the wider hostage crisis. Three days after the kidnapping, one Hizbollah group claimed to have executed U.S. marine Lt.-Col. William Higgins in reprisal, while another threatened to kill a second U.S. hostage, Joseph Cicippio. But the Israelis said that they would only free Obeid—and a number of other Lebanese Shiite prisoners—in return for three Israeli servicemen and at least 15 U.S. and other Western hostages held by Hizbollah. In the face of that apparent deadlock, Rafsanjani, a pragmatist who has sought improved relations with the West, seemed willing to help—at a price. “There is a solution for freeing the hostages,” he said recently in a speech openly aimed at Washington. “Take a sensible attitude, and we will help solve the problems.” But there were divisions within his government. Speaking at Khomeini’s tomb, hard-line Interior Minister Ali Akbar Mohtashemi—who was Hizbollah’s paymaster while Iranian ambassador to Syria in the early 1980s—called for a new offensive against Western interests. Declared Mohtashemi: “The Imam [Khomeini] always attacked. He always had an offensive posture towards the United States.”

The internal dispute continued in the columns of rival newspapers. The English-language Tehran Times quoted a source close to Rafsanjani as saying that Iran would help obtain the hostages’ freedom if Washington releases Iranian assets—which Tehran claims are

worth $14 billion—that President Jimmy Carter froze in retaliation for the hostage-taking of 53 Americans at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran in November, 1979. But, the day after the Times report, the Tehran daily Kayhan, which has links to the hard-liners, said that Iran would rather forgo its assets than “defile the immaculate and uncompromising profile of the Islamic revolution.” Still, the Tehran Times later said that unofficial and indirect negotiations between Iran and the United States were likely to begin within days, with Sahabzada Yaqub Khan, the Pakistani foreign minister, acting as mediator. And last Friday, Hizbollah’s Fadlallah indicated that he was ready to help free the hostages if the West persuaded Israel to free an unstated number of Lebanese and Palestinian prisoners. “Let us agree to seek together, each

by his own means and influence, to end the crisis of hostages—all hostages,” said Fadlallah at a Beirut prayer meeting.

Earlier in the week, Bush appeared to refute any idea that he was prepared to free Iranian assets in return for the hostages. “My view is to do nothing that will be seen as a quid pro quo for hostages,” he said. But he added: “I hope I’m openminded enough to talk and engage in every diplomatic channel I can to free these Americans. If there are changes taking place and signals that are shifting, I don’t want to

miss a signal.” In fact, many observers interpreted that to mean Bush would eventually free the assets if he could avoid appearing to be paying ransom. Said former national security aide Kemp: “It will be kept deliberately vague as to what the linkage is because, if it’s spelled out, it will look like an assets-for-hostages deal, and I don’t think Bush can afford to do that.” One major obstacle to an agreement is the wide discrepancy between the two sides’ estimates of the value of the assets. Those fall into two categories—cash, and military supplies paid for but not delivered. Identifying the cash is relatively straightforward. The state department says that $11.4 billion in Iranian funds were frozen. In 1981, after the embassy hos-

tages were freed, $4.6 billion was released to the Iranian government and the rest put into escrow pending the settlement of claims by expropriated U.S. companies, the U.S. government and individuals. Those claims are currently before an Iran-U.S. claims tribunal in The Hague. So far, $1.4 billion has been paid out in settlement of 384 U.S. claims. Another 2,545 U.S. cases are pending.

As for the military supplies, the situation is more complex. The Iranians say that more than $2 billion worth of hardware is involved, while

tile Americans dispute that calculation but do not give their own estimate. Much of the material concerned is now obsolete or has deteriorated in storage to the point at which it is unusable. Still, the Americans have been computing rental charges for storing it.

Because of the complications, an assets-forhostages swap, even a disguised one, did not seem to be imminent. But a process had been set in motion that held out the best hope yet for a solution to one of America’s, and the Western world’s, most agonizing foreign policy and humanitarian problems.

WILLIAM LOWTHER

JOHN BIERMAN with WILLIAM LOWTHER in Washington and correspondents’ reports