Freedom for a hostage

BOB LEVIN November 17 1986

Freedom for a hostage

BOB LEVIN November 17 1986

Freedom for a hostage


Visibly tearful, David Jacobsen stood on the balcony of a United States military hospital in Wiesbaden, West Germany, posing for photographers. He hugged each of his three children, who removed the bracelets they had worn symbolically since their father was taken hostage in Lebanon 17 months earlier. But Jacobsen’s joy at his unexpected release last week was tempered by the fact that five other Americans remained hostage in Beirut. “Stay around here,” the 55-yearold Jacobsen told reporters, “because I hope to God they will be standing here in this spot very soon.” Terry Waite, the special envoy of the Archbishop of Canterbury who had helped to negotiate Jacobsen’s release, predicted that further releases might be imminent. But two days later, instead of returning to Beirut, Waite flew to London in disappointment (page 44). In the glare of media attention, he said, the delicate negotiations had broken down and “it may take some time before my con-

tacts come to the surface again.”

What came to the surface last week was a complicated, clandestine and still-sketchy effort to free the hostages, a story that went beyond Waite’s role to include many elements of a thriller—and a few of broad comedy. It involved the government of Iran, whose Islamic leaders are allied with the kidnappers in Lebanon and who, at the same time, are embroiled in an internal power struggle while the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini lies seriously ill. It involved a bizarre mission to Iran by five U.S. envoys reportedly disguised as a flight crew and carrying a cake and a Bible signed by President Ronald Reagan. And it involved reports that in exchange for help in freeing the hostages—and the hope of gaining influence in a post-Khomeini Iran—the United States has begun selling spare military parts to Tehran, which desperately needs them for the American-made weapons being used in the war with Iraq.

The United States banned such sales

in 1979 after Iranians seized the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, and Washington officially denied last week that the arms flow has resumed. But as the week wore on, the evidence mounted. Abolhassan Bani-Sadr, the former Iranian president now in exile in Paris, said that the United States has been delivering arms to Iran for many months. U.S. press reports, quoting unidentified sources, said that in the operation, run by the National Security Council, Washington delivered some cargo and encouraged third parties, notably Israel, to make similar deliveries. And those shipments, the reports said, were linked to the release not only of Jacobsen but of Rev. Benjamin Weir in September, 1985, and Rev. Lawrence Jenco last July. In response, Reagan said that such reports were “making it more difficult for us to get the other hostages free.”

The hostage drama had its origins in 1984, when Arab extremists in Beirut began kidnapping Americans. Before Jacobsen’s release, four hostages had managed to gain their freedom—through release, rescue or escape—and two had reportedly been killed. That left five. The identity of the kidnappers of two of them remained uncertain. But the Islamic Jihad, or Holy War, held Jacobsen, hospital director at the American University in Beirut, 39-year-old Terry Anderson, Mideast correspondent for The Associated Press, and 56-year-old

Thomas Sutherland, dean of agriculture at the American University. The three were kept in the basement of a Beirut apartment building—and were repeatedly beaten. In exchange for their release, the kidnappers demanded freedom for 17 Islamic terrorists imprisoned in Kuwait. But the Reagan administration insisted that it would not negotiate with terrorists.

The first sign of a breakthrough came on Oct. 31 when Waite, who had previously negotiated hostage releases in Iran, Libya and Lebanon, announced from Cyprus that the hostage situation was “moving.” Two days later Jacobsen, riding in a convoy of American Embassy and Lebanese army vehicles, crossed from Moslem West Beirut into Christian East Beirut and arrived at the U.S. Embassy. There he met Waite, who

had flown to Beirut, and the next day the two men took off for Larnaca, Cyprus, then on to West Germany. At week’s end, Jacobsen flew to Washington.

But despite Waite’s hints that Anderson and Sutherland might be next, there were no more releases last week. Waite would not say what went wrong, although when asked about alleged Iranian, American and Syrian negotia-

tions over the hostages, he said, “There are a lot of people trying to make political capital, there are a lot of people trying to sabotage honest and straightforward efforts.” And in a burst of frustration, he said press speculation that he was representing governments had complicated negotiations—and could even have “cost me my life.” In fact, some U.S. officials said that Washington had used Waite as a cover for its own secret negotiations with Tehran. U.S. sources said that Lt.-Col. Oliver North, a member of the National Security Council staff, has made about a dozen trips to Europe and the Middle East over the past two years to meet with possible intermediaries. Travelling in disguise, North contacted leaders in

Iran. That connection led to the strange American mission to Tehran, which reportedly took place in September and involved Robert McFarlane, who resigned as Reagan’s national security adviser in December and is now a counsellor for the Center for Strategic and International Studies at Georgetown University.

The most widely quoted account of the mission came from Hojatolislam Hashemi Rafsanjani, the speaker of the Iranian parliament, in a speech marking the seventh anniversary of the takeover of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran and reported by the Iranian press agency. As Rafsanjani told it, McFarlane and four other U.S. envoys, travelling on Irish passports, flew to Tehran on a plane carrying military equipment which Iran had bought from international dealers. They also had more unusual cargo: the Bible containing a verse written by Reagan about the closeness of different religions, a key-shaped cake symbolizing the key to a resumption of U.S.-Iranian relations, and Colt pistols. “But the [security] kids were hungry and ate the cake,” Rafsanjani said. And as for the Colts, the Iranian said, “Why did he bring pistols? What we need is more sophisticated weapons.”

According to Rafsanjani, the Americans were kept under guard in a Tehran hotel. Rafsanjani added that when Khomeini was told about their arrival, the Iranian leader said, “Don’t talk to them and don’t receive their message.” Rafsanjani said that McFarlane, furious that he could not meet with Iranian leaders, said: “You are nuts. We have come to solve your problems but this is how you treat us.” After five days, Rafsanjani said, the Americans were expelled from the country.

Reagan refused comment on the Iranian account and McFarlane would say only that there had been “very fanciful” reports of his role. A source close to McFarlane said that the main purpose of his trip was not to negotiate for the hostages’ release but to increase U.S. influence in Iran. In any case, analysts said that McFarlane landed in the middle of an internal Iranian power struggle. The 86-yearold Khomeini, who according to U.S. intelligence reports may recently have suffered a severe heart attack, has designated the Ayatollah Hussein Ali Montazeri as his successor. A foreignpolicy hard-liner, Montazeri is devoted to continuing the war with Iraq and fomenting Islamic revolution in other Persian Gulf states. But Mideast sources say that more moderate Iranian leaders, including Rafsanjani, want to stop the effort to export revolution, to improve relations with the superpowers and to concentrate on building up Iran. Those leaders may be trying to limit Montazeri’s influence: in

October, Mehdi Hashemi, the brother of Montazeri’s son-in-law and the head of the bureau that handles Iran’s relations with Islamic revolutionary groups, was arrested on charges of treason and murder.

But when McFarlane visited Tehran in September, Hashemi was still powerful, and according to some U.S. sources he may have scuttled the negotiations McFarlane had hoped to conduct. The internal battle may also have played a role last week, when the Lebanese magazine Al-Shiraa carried the first report linking the Iranian squabbling with the hostage issue in Lebanon, as well as the first public mention of McFarlane’s trip. Experts speculate that the report may have embarrassed Rafsanjani, forcing him to back away from his moderate stance and tell the McFarlane story in tones of pure ridicule. He also set out militant demands for letting “our Lebanese friends know our views”—and releasing the remaining American hostages and nine French citizens. The conditions included an end to U.S. and French hostility toward Iran, the delivery of U.S. military supplies bought before the Iranian revolution but frozen after it, and the release of Lebanese prisoners in Kuwait and Israel.

Those demands were disheartening not only to U.S. officials but to the most involved Americans: the hostages’ families. Peggy Say, sister of hostage Terry Anderson, has become a determined campaigner on her brother’s behalf. A 45-year-old mother of two, she has travelled from her home in Batavia, in upstate New York, to Washington and even the Middle East. Her goal, she says, is “to get word through to Terry that we haven’t forgotten him.” That is a promise she made to her father and brother, who have both died of cancer since Anderson was kidnapped 20 months ago.

Last week, as reports circulated that Anderson might be freed soon after Jacobsen, Say was careful not to get her hopes up. “We have been this close before,” she told reporters gathered outside her small white house, where weathered yellow ribbons symbolizing fidelity to a missing loved one flapped in the breeze. “We have toughened ourselves to live with disappointment.” More disappointment soon followed for the families and the U.S. government. The question now is whether the sort of secret U.S.-Iranian arrangements that apparently freed Jacobsen can be repeated as the world watches.

— BOB LEVIN with JIM MUIR in Cyprus, WILLIAM LOWTHER in Washington and SHERRI AIKENHEAD in Batavia