If Sunday’s debate in the Iranian parliament signals a deal on the U.S. hostages, it is unlikely that it will be one that sees them all back home at once. And the price that Washington has to pay may be a far more hazardous commitment of its forces in the explosive Persian Gulf hostilities. The precedent for such a deal may have been set as long ago as last July 9, when the authorities in Tehran announced a coup d’etat from within the Iranian armed forces. The scheme was said to have links with Iranians involved in the abortive U.S. hostage rescue mission in late April. Several hundred arrests were made and, in the next two weeks, Tehran purged 1,000 officials in Khuzestan, where revolutionary guards replaced regular military officers (opening the door of the oil province to Iraqi attack in September). At the time, Radio Tehran blamed the coup on “filthy and mercenary agents” of “world-devouring America and its grovelling flunkies”— Israel and Iraq were said to be the United States’ partners.
Yet despite the ferocity of that propaganda broadside, two days later Tehran made an unusual move. On July 11, the office of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini issued a release order for ailing hostage
Richard Queen. Overlooked at the time, the context for Queen’s unexpected release, said by Khomeini to have been made on humanitarian grounds, seems in retrospect to indicate a signal to the U.S. that, if seriously threatened, the Iranian government would be willing to turn to the U.S. for relief. Now, as Iran enters the sixth week of its war with Iraq in some difficulty, the hostage card may be about to be played again. The pointers are Iranian Prime Minister Mohammed Ali Rajai’s visit a week ago to the United Nations, where he met
with the wife of one of the hostages, and the manoeuvres that he, President Abolhassan Bani-Sadr and other officials have made since Rajai’s return.
However, the hostage card may not be played all at once if Tehran’s past negotiating tactics are a reliable guide. Nor should anyone expect it to be. To continue the fight against Iraq, Iran would need such extensive resupply that it might hold several of the hostages back to ensure that the U.S. carried out its bargain. Or the Iranians might feel they needed some insurance until after the Carter-Reagan election.
In the meantime, evidence that its erstwhile enemies are stepping up their support of Iran is growing. There are now several indications that a Sept. 30 Phantom jet attack on the Iraqi nuclear reactor at Tammuz, outside Baghdad, was carried out by the Israelis. A Pentagon official has confirmed that, technically, the long flight was feasible and French officials have hinted that they believe the reactor, which was twice the target of Israeli saboteurs during development in France, was hit from Tel Aviv. Iraqi officials claim the missile that was fired at the reactor was of a type not in current use by Iran. Moreover, news of the raid was broadcast on Israeli television before the Iraqis announced it, while the Iranian joint staff refused to confirm reports that Iranian jets were responsible.
Earlier this month, Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz said in an interview that Iranian claims to be buying military supplies on the black market were false and that a third party was responsible. The Iraqis blame the Israelis and international press reports indicate that the U.S., Britain and China—all of whom profess neutralityare negotiating to make supplies available through Cyprus, Greece, Turkey and North Korea.
However, Iran’s domestic and military needs are now enormous. If the fix
for a hostage exchange with the United States is in, then it will be difficult for the U.S. to meet Iran’s requests without publicly abandoning its stance of neutrality. With the main oilfields, refinery installations and pipelines of Khuzestan lost, Iran badly needs jet fuel, oil for electricity, gasoline and diesel fuel for trucks and tanks, and kerosene for cooking. Iran had built up large stockpiles of fuel in an effort to avoid last winter’s shortages. But there is no telling how much of this is intact after Iraqi/ attacks nor how much can be replaced overland by truck from Turkey. For Iran to keep fighting, large tanker deliveries may now be necessary and the only potential ports are at the southern end of the Persian Gulf.
The U.S. and Britain may be planning to escort oil tankers into the main port, Bandar Abbas, with ships from their fleets now stationed in the Gulf of Oman. Omani Sultan Bin Said Qaboos, who has been dependent on British arms and military advisers for years and agreed recently to provide the U.S. with base facilities, is likely to go along
with such a convoy. But the plan would risk provoking Iraqi air attacks, and even if these could be deterred—American AWACS aircraft at the northern end of the Gulf would provide ample warning—Iraq could be induced to widen its ground offensive. It also might provoke Soviet reaction, making superpower forces potential casualties in the war for the first time.
President Jimmy Carter and Secretary of State Edmund Muskie have made clear that U.S. objectives are to restore Tehran’s control, evict Iraq from Khuzestan and prevent the “dismemberment” of Iran. These are not negotiable issues for Iraq so long as Iran resists negotiating on Iraq’s claims, and U.S. aid for Tehran is not likely to soften that stand. But in military terms, Iraq cannot be forced to withdraw unless it is bloodied far more than Iran has so far managed. The U.S. therefore might win the safe return of its hostages in return for a more hazardous commitment of its forces. ;£>
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