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U.S. Truce Assurances to Iran Told : Message Reported to Offer an End to Tilt Toward Iraq

July 25, 1988|JOHN M. BRODER and JAMES GERSTENZANG | Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON — The United States last week sent assurances to Iran that if it abides by U.N. terms for ending the Iran-Iraq War, the U.S. government will drop its apparent tilt toward Iraq and will press Iraq to adhere to the truce, a knowledgeable source said Sunday.

In addition, in a message passed to Tehran by Swiss diplomats, U.S. officials told Iran that the United States expects Iran to move toward securing the release of nine Americans held hostage by pro-Iranian groups in Beirut.

Deputy Secretary of State John C. Whitehead disclosed the existence of the note to Iran in a television interview Sunday but did not discuss the message in detail. Interviewed on ABC's "This Week With David Brinkley," he said only that in it, the U.S. government had "indicated our willingness to cooperate in the implementation" of the Iranian decision to accept the U.N. peace plan. He said that the United States had received no reply from Iran.

U.S. Eager to Talk

U.S. officials declined to comment on the specifics of the American diplomatic note, which were provided by a source with close ties to Tehran. But Defense Secretary Frank C. Carlucci said Sunday that the United States is eager to talk to the Iranian government about freedom for the hostages.

"We're obviously not going to discuss any quid pro quo , but if the Iranians want to talk to us about the hostage situation and how they're going to go about influencing their release, we'd be delighted to talk to them about it," Carlucci said in a television interview.

U.S.-Iranian contacts on the hostage issue are an extraordinarily sensitive subject because of the 1986 Iran-Contra debacle, in which U.S. officials offered to sell weapons to Iran in exchange for the release of the American hostages in Beirut. At the time of the attempted secret swap, the United States was publicly trying to win international support for a strict embargo on arms sales to Iran.

No Ties Since 1979

The United States and Iran have not had formal diplomatic ties since Iranian revolutionaries seized the American Embassy in Tehran in 1979 and declared the United States the sworn enemy of that Islamic nation. The two nations have communicated indirectly over the years through the United Nations or third parties, most often Switzerland.

The pace of those contacts has accelerated recently, as the United States senses a new realism in the war-weary Iranian regime of the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and seeks to re-establish a dialogue with the strategically placed Middle Eastern country.

Carlucci stressed that the United States will make no concessions to win freedom for the nine captives, some of whom have been held for more than three years.

No Suggestion of Deal

"I'm not in the slightest suggesting that there would be any deal for the hostages; that is contrary to our policy," Carlucci said on NBC's "Meet the Press."

Iran announced last Monday that it would accept a U.N. Security Council plan for ending the nearly eight-year-old Iran-Iraq War. Security Council Resolution 598, passed July 20, 1987, calls for a cease-fire, exchange of prisoners, return to prewar borders and the establishment of a commission to fix blame for starting the war.

The United States quickly welcomed Iran's acceptance of the U.N. resolution, publicly calling the move a "major breakthrough" and a significant step toward peace. It privately reinforced those words with a message to the Iranian government a day or two later, according to an Iranian-American source who has served as a middleman in several discussions between Iranian and U.S. officials.

Terms Not Spelled Out

The message did not spell out any terms for the release of the hostages, according to the source, who said he is familiar with its contents. In fact, it did not even contain the word hostage, he said, but its import was clear.

According to the source, the communication, couched in ambiguous diplomatic language, said that as the tensions of the Iran-Iraq War subside, "the United States hopes and expects that the government of (Iran) would use its good offices to resolve outstanding issues dividing the two nations on a humanitarian basis."

It pointedly mentioned that Iran has done so in the past, an apparent reference to the Iranian-engineered release of two French hostages in Beirut just days before the French presidential election in May. The French hostage deal also included Paris' restoration of full diplomatic ties with Tehran a month later.

Carlucci said: "If we are successful in bringing an end to the war, perhaps the general easing of tensions will result in some enhanced possibility of the release of the hostages. But it is premature to tell."

'Not Willing to Negotiate'

Also on Sunday, President Reagan's spokesman said that while the United States is willing to discuss the hostages' fate, it would not negotiate their freedom, insisting, "We're not willing to negotiate with anybody."

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