Last week the Reagan Administration wrote one of the most bizarre chapters in the history of American statecraft. There is no doubt that it has swapped guns for hostages--the former going to Iran, the latter coming home from Lebanon. The implications are also beginning to emerge as Democrats in the newly elected 100th Congress set their sights on a lame-duck Republican President.
The two key issues have become confused: dealing with Middle East terrorism and protecting America's interests in the Persian Gulf area. Yet neither can be understood unless disentangled from the other.
Usually blase, the political community in Washington was shocked to learn that the Reagan White House, champion of the tough line on terrorism, has been meeting Iranian demands for each American hostage released by the Islamic Jihad in Lebanon. Former Carter Administration officials have drawn a parallel with the Iranian hostage crisis of 1979-81. That time, no deals were struck until all the hostages were included, and then Iran gained nothing that was not already its property.
Yet paying ransom for hostages is nothing new. In the 1960s it was pharmaceuticals and tractors to gain release for many of the Cubans captured at the Bay of Pigs. West Germany regularly buys freedom for East Germans. Last year the Reagan Administration gave the hijackers of TWA Flight 847 what they wanted, Shia Muslim prisoners in Israel, while proclaiming "no deal." And it recently swapped a Soviet spy for an innocent American journalist.
It is likely that honoring the demands of terrorists simply begets more terrorism. One American released today for a planeload of arms can be replaced tomorrow, when someone else is grabbed in Beirut or elsewhere in the Middle East. But the U.S. government must deal with public demands. It is easy to identify with individual hostages in Lebanon. Courtesy of television, this is foreign policy at the retail level. And we want them to come home.
Yet President Reagan and his aides have tried to have it both ways. They deal with terrorists, but pretend that it isn't happening, that negotiating with terrorists is off limits, that the President prefers death before dishonor.
In the murky world of Middle East politics, who is to say that dealing with elements in the Iranian leadership is poor policy in trying to reduce future terrorism? But macho media tactics have created a massive credibility problem, especially in Western Europe. At the very time it was castigating allies for failing to oppose Libya and Col. Moammar Kadafi, the Administration was taking the opposite approach with Iran. Being marked as a hypocrite may not matter much in international politics; being denied European help in any future effort to use military power against terrorists, now a certainty, could be critical.
As Administration spokesmen try to cover their embarrassment, they cite the need to reach out to moderate elements in the Iranian leadership. Whether this is the motive or only the excuse for the arms-for-hostage deals, it makes sense. Indeed, the long-established U.S. tilt toward Iraq in its war with Iran raised doubts as to whether the Reagan Administration understood U.S. strategic interests in the Persian Gulf.
The West would clearly suffer if Iran scored a breakthrough, set up another Islamic republic and began rolling up the Arab states of the Persian Gulf. But the vaunted Iranian offensive has yet to occur. And it is far from clear that the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini could spur on Iranian forces once Iraqi aggression--for Iran its "Pearl Harbor"--was repelled. The arms balance overwhelmingly favors Iraq, and Iran is crippled by falling oil revenues. Given the magnitude of the war, the arms and spare parts involved in the hostage deals are not the key to military victory.
What the Reagan Administration has done, in fact, is to revert to a more evenhanded policy, since only Iran--not Iraq--has been subject to an arms embargo. It has also relearned a lesson of Vietnam: Bombs rarely bring deeply aggrieved nations to the bargaining table.
Knowledgeable officials in the U.S. government, like their counterparts in Moscow, recognize that Iran is the strategic prize in the Persian Gulf. With the struggle to succeed Khomeini, there is grave risk that without firing a shot the Soviets could gain decisive influence in Iran.
For the wrong reason--ransoming hostages--the Reagan Administration is thus doing the right thing in trying to develop a long-term relationship with anyone in authority in Iran who will listen. For now, these individuals are likely to be discredited. But the point has been made. The recent caper, however abortive now, does signal that Iran need not be isolated from the West.
Yet, as the political battle lines are drawn at home, there is risk that rejection of overblown Reagan rhetoric on terrorism will obscure possibilities for U.S interests in the Persian Gulf.