WASHINGTON — The three American hostages seized in Beirut during the last two months may have been captured by an ultra-radical Iranian-led group that is opposed to negotiations between the Reagan Administration and the Tehran regime.
The three men, Frank H. Reed, Joseph J. Cicippio and Edward A. Tracy, were abducted in September and October, despite a secret commitment U.S. officials say they had received from Iranian leaders to discourage hostage-taking.
Over the last 18 months, the Reagan Administration has won the release of three other hostages by negotiating secret arms shipments with members of Iran's government. But chances for obtaining the release of the latest hostages now appear dim because Administration officials believe that the radicals who hold them--unlike the relative moderates who helped engineer freedom for the others--have no interest in making a deal with the United States.
Indeed, it is now believed that Reed, Cicippio and Tracy may have been kidnaped as part of an effort by radicals to discredit the moderate Iranian officials and force them to break off their dealings with the Reagan Administration.
If that is so, the three hostages have become pawns in Iran's tortuous political infighting between Islamic radicals and moderates--making their plight similar to that of the 52 Americans who were seized in the U.S. Embassy in Tehran in 1979 and held for more than a year.
Two other Americans--Terry A. Anderson and Thomas Sutherland--are apparently still held by Islamic Jihad (Islamic Holy War), which has ties to Iranian moderates. Their chances for release therefore may be brighter.
"There is a lot of political infighting going on now in Iran," a senior Administration official noted Thursday. "The various factions are jockeying for position."
He said that "moderates" in Tehran agreed to crack down on hostage-taking in discussions with the United States in mid-1985. "We went for about a year without any hostages being taken," he said, until Reed was seized on Sept. 9.
Arrested in Tehran
The abduction of Reed, Cicippio and Tracy is believed to have been ordered by Mehdi Hashemi, an Islamic revolutionary who leads his own armed faction in Iran. Hashemi was arrested in Tehran on Oct. 12, reportedly under orders from a leading moderate figure, Hashemi Rafsanjani, the Speaker of Iran's Parliament.
Hashemi's arrest threw Tehran into political turmoil, for he is a close relative of the Ayatollah Hussein Ali Montazeri, the anointed successor to the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. Nevertheless, Khomeini said he approved of the arrest.
Hashemi has been accused of sending explosives aboard a chartered airplane full of pilgrims into Saudi Arabia to the Muslim shrines at Mecca and of masterminding the kidnaping of a Syrian diplomat in Tehran, as well as ordering the kidnaping of the three Americans in Beirut.
18 Months of Talks
His arrest may have prompted radicals in Iran to reveal the May, 1986, secret mission of U.S. emissary Robert C. McFarlane to Tehran. McFarlane's mission was first reported in a pro-Syrian magazine in Beirut, and that report led to the discovery of the entire 18-month-long series of negotiations between the United States and Iran.
U.S. officials and academic analysts believe that whoever exposed the U.S.-Iranian dealings did so to embarrass the moderates who have been dealing with the Administration.
American officials have refused to name the Iranian officials with whom they are dealing. But Rafsanjani has publicly acknowledged that negotiations over the sale of arms have occurred, although he has denied any link to the hostages. In the past, Rafsanjani has said publicly that Iran should some day seek normal relations with the United States.
The radicals' exposure of the arms-for-hostages deal was clearly aimed at harming Rafsanjani's political standing, officials and academic analysts said.
Rafsanjani publicly denounced the Reagan Administration last week for sending McFarlane to Iran, but U.S. officials and academic analysts interpreted that largely as an attempt to defend himself against expected attacks from radical elements.
"There are several factions within the government of Iran," an Administration official said. "The conservative faction generally wants to see the war with Iraq stop, would like to see a better relationship with the United States. . . . The radical faction still wants to continue the revolution by exporting it. It still wants to remain involved with terrorism and is opposed to a relationship with the United States."
He said that the Administration had been dealing with "middle-of-the-road elements" between the two camps.
Academic experts on revolutionary Iran described the arrest of Hashemi as an attempt by the central government--in which Rafsanjani is a key figure--to crack down on the last Iranian radical group with its own weapons and bases in Lebanon.
"It's clear that the regime has decided to rein in these more radical and uncontrollable groups," said Shaul Bakhash, a professor at George Mason University in Virginia. "It is part of the consolidation of the revolution. . . . It doesn't mean the government is becoming more pro-American."
Richard Cottam of the University of Pittsburgh described Rafsanjani as "a very cagey, slippery factor."
"He is a man who understands how Khomeini sees the world and how we see the world. He can deal with both sides," Cottam said. "But he is pragmatic rather than ideological. With Rafsanjani, it will always be two steps forward, one step back."