WASHINGTON — Western hostages held by extremist groups in Lebanon could be freed in a trade involving Shia Muslim prisoners held in Israel and Kuwait, Iranian Parliament Speaker Hashemi Rafsanjani said in an NBC interview broadcast Thursday.
The U.S. State Department promptly rejected the Iranian suggestion, but Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir said he will look at the proposal.
Rafsanjani, one of the most powerful figures in Iran's Islamic fundamentalist regime, denied that Tehran exerts direct control over the Lebanese extremist groups believed to be holding 24 Western hostages.
But in the interview, conducted earlier this week around the same time as the escape of U.S. hostage Charles Glass, Rafsanjani told NBC foreign editor Henry Champ that a trade is possible.
In the interview, Rafsanjani said, "We have some influence on certain groups in that country, Lebanon, but we never interfere in what they do."
Rafsanjani, speaking Persian in the taped interview apparently conducted in Tehran, added: "Some of them listen to what we tell them. We have told them that those hostages that are innocent, that are not guilty, should not be harassed. They should not take innocent people as hostage."
The NBC journalist asked Rafsanjani if Iranian influence could be brought to bear on the groups to free other hostages.
"Why should we do it when you have hostile attitudes towards us, and you also are helping our enemy and you have such a naval buildup in the Persian Gulf?" he responded. "Why should we help you and try to solve your problem?"
He suggested that the United States should "set pressure on Israel to release those Lebanese they have taken hostage," referring to Shia Muslim security suspects captured by Israeli forces in southern Lebanon.
He also mentioned Shia prisoners in Kuwait, an apparent reference to 17 men imprisoned for a series of bomb attacks there in 1983.
In Washington, State Department spokeswoman Phyllis Oakley said, "Our response to Mr. Rafsanjani is: No deals."
"The United States will not make concessions to terrorists nor will we ask others to do so. Making concessions only encourages additional acts of terrorism," she said.
Shamir, returning to Tel Aviv from a three-day visit to Romania, said he will look at the proposal.
"I must study the statement of Mr. Rafsanjani," Shamir said. "I don't know what was his intention and about which Shia prisoners he is talking. So after we will see what is the issue, we'll decide what could be, and if will be, any reaction from us."