NICOSIA, Cyprus — Making a direct offer to Washington, Iranian President Hashemi Rafsanjani said Friday that he is ready to help resolve the hostage crisis in Lebanon and cautioned that American military might is not the answer.
Rafsanjani, speaking at a Tehran University prayer service, also demanded that the Bush Administration pressure Israel to free a Lebanese Shiite Muslim clergyman whose abduction eight days ago sparked the current tensions.
But the emphasis of Rafsanjani's remarks appeared designed to cool a situation that has led to U.S. Navy deployments in the Mideast, although the White House has largely played down its military options this week.
"I tell the White House, the problem of Lebanon has solutions, the freeing of the hostages has solutions, reasonable, prudent solutions," he told his university audience in the Iranian capital. The speech, broadcast on Tehran radio, was monitored here in Nicosia.
Washington's military moves appeared a top concern of the new president, speaking at his first Friday prayer session since being inaugurated Thursday as revolutionary Iran's fourth president and as the political successor to the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.
"These bullyings, arrogant approaches and tyranny will not solve the problems," the 55-year-old clergyman-politician declared. "Come, let us approach the problem reasonably."
He added: "We too will help solve the problems there, so the people of the region can live in peace and harmony."
Early today, official Algiers Radio reported that progress in the hostage crisis was made in Beirut on Friday in talks in which Khaled Hasnawi, Algeria's ambassador to Lebanon, was involved, according to a dispatch from Associated Press.
The Algerian broadcast said that Hasnawi met with U.N. envoy Marrack Goulding and with Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah, spiritual leader of the Shiite Hezbollah (Party of God) organization, in talks involving all hostages, whether "Lebanese, Palestinians, Americans, Europeans or Israelis."
"Progress in this mediation was accomplished Friday," Algiers Radio said without elaborating.
In Washington, Iran is regarded as the key outside influence, for both ill and good, in the hostage crisis in Lebanon. The militant Shiite groups that this week announced the execution of one American hostage, Marine Lt. Col. William R. Higgins, and threatened the life of a second, Joseph J. Cicippio, are factions of the pro-Iranian Hezbollah, nurtured by Khomeini's Iran since the early 1980s.
But national security analysts in Washington have told The Times that Iranian authorities also played a role in persuading the captors of Cicippio to suspend his execution. They said that key Hezbollah leaders were summoned to Syria on Thursday and told at a meeting at the Iranian Embassy in Damascus to spare the American's life. Hours later, Cicippio's captors said they were "freezing" plans for his execution.
Sees Arrogant U.S. Policy
Although Rafsanjani's remarks indicated a willingness to talk with--or even deal with--the country still known in Iran as the "Great Satan," he sharply criticized what he called the arrogance of American policy in the Middle East.
"How stupid you are. . . ," he said of the government in Washington. "You have been to Lebanon once, and you saw how the Lebanese kicked you out." This was an apparent reference to the U.S. peacekeeping force that was withdrawn after a truck bomb was driven into a Marine barracks in October, 1983, killing 241 American servicemen.
Now a civil war is "raining shells on Lebanon," he said. "What can your fleet do to top that? Is there any place in Lebanon not hit by a shell already?"
The Iranian president, faced with rebuilding an economy ravaged by an eight-year war with neighboring Iraq, appeared to straddle the fence of Middle East politics: opening the door a bit on the hostage crisis while firmly supporting Lebanese Shiites in their struggle against Israel.
Rafsanjani said, "If the arrogant world is interested, the way to solve (this) is to tell Israel to release Sheik (Abdel Karim) Obeid," the abducted clergyman.
"If (Washington) responds by saying that Obeid's abduction has nothing to do with us and that we cannot put pressure on Israel, this isn't acceptable to us," he concluded, indicating that the fate of Obeid may be tied to that of the 14 Western hostages held in Lebanon, including eight Americans.
Rafsanjani has repeatedly offered to help obtain the release of U.S. hostages in Lebanon if Washington helps free three Iranians believed by Tehran to be held by right-wing Lebanese militias. He did not mention this condition Friday, however.