TEHRAN — Political strongman Hashemi Rafsanjani said Thursday that Iran would aid in seeking the release of Western hostages in Lebanon--but only if the United States and Britain used their influence to gain freedom for three Iranians missing there.
At a news conference, Rafsanjani, the Speaker of Parliament who also announced his candidacy for the presidency, said Iran intends to improve its relations with the Soviet Union. He said that while Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev pursues "correct" relations with Iran, the United States continues to "follow hostile policies to us."
Rafsanjani, a round-faced, cherubic-looking pragmatist, was dressed in a white turban and flowing brown and black robes. Looking sad at times and breaking into a grin at others, he appeared confidently in command as he gave the first policy statement since the burial of the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, Iran's spiritual and state leader, two days ago.
But in Washington, Secretary of State James A. Baker III predicted a major power struggle in Tehran.
"Change is clearly going to take place now in Iran," he said in response to a question at the National Press Club. "It is my own view that in all probability there will be a significant power struggle there. It remains to be seen whether there will be any basis . . . for improving relations with that country."
Still, Iranian political analysts here said that it is significant that it was Rafsanjani who was giving a sweeping review of Iran's foreign and domestic status at this time. A photograph of Iranian President Ali Khamenei, who was named Sunday as the 86-year-old Khomeini's religious successor of the nation of nearly 50 million, was on the table at which Rafsanjani sat as he spoke in the Parliament building.
Of President Bush's call to Iran to help win release of the nine American hostages in Lebanon, Rafsanjani declared:
"If the U.S. used its influence with the Falangists (Lebanese Christian militia) to release Iranian hostages, we shall certainly use our influence to release their hostages in Lebanon, to the extent we can."
The Iranians say three of their diplomats were arrested by Christian forces at a checkpoint in Lebanon during the Israeli invasion in 1982. The three have not been seen since then. The Archbishop of Canterbury, whose aide Terry Waite is thought to be one of three Britons held in Lebanon, recently organized a vain attempt to establish whether the three were being held.
Most Western diplomats believe the men were killed at the time of their disappearance. But Iran insists that they are being held hostage, and continues to demand that Britain and the United States seek their release.
In an evening press conference in Washington, President Bush responded to Rafsanjani's offer on the hostages:
"There was a case a while back where Iran asked for information regarding their hostages, never accused us . . . of holding people hostage. . . . And we've supplied them with information."
Bush made clear that Iran's offer does not provide grounds for an imminent breakthrough in relations. "It's going to take a change in behavior," he said.
In a signal that any movement on warmer relations is in Iran's court, he added: "Performance is what we're looking for. And I don't see, so far, any sign of change. I held out the olive branch at my inauguration speech and I said, look, we want better relations with Iran. . . .
"I said, look, if you want better relations, do us right--do us right by people that are held against their will. And we've seen no movement. I would repeat that offer tonight."
He went on: "I stated the other day what it would take to have improved relationships, and that would be a renunciation of terror. We can't have normalized relations with a state that is branded a terrorist state. And secondly, they must facilitate the release of American hostages."
On other foreign policy issues, Rafsanjani said that before Khomeini died, he had called privately for "a positive policy with our northern neighbor." Publicly, the ayatollah had placed the Soviet Union on his blacklist as an "atheist" imperial power. Rafsanjani, emphasizing the new tone, said he plans to visit the Soviet Union, although the timing had yet to be worked out.
Turning to the Iran-Iraq War that ended in a cease-fire last year, he declared that Iran would make no concessions to get a treaty. A state of "neither peace nor war could continue for some time," he said.
He said he hopes for better ties with Arab nations in the wake of the war and accused Washington of "entering the gulf war to save Iraq."
He condemned France for being a "powerful center against Islam" and also said it was up to Britain to repair the breach in diplomatic relations over Salman Rushdie, the British novelist whose book "The Satanic Verses" was deemed blasphemous to Islam.