WASHINGTON — The hostage question has become symbol and focus of some of the hottest political problems in the Middle East and Washington. It contains a threat to the Bush Administration's diplomatic equilibrium and domestic popularity, a regional belief in awesome U.S. power, the general failure of revolutionary Islamic fundamentalism, ricochets from the collapse of the Soviet Union's international position and the bankruptcy of some traditional arguments about U.S. Middle East policy.
Most amazing, however, is the general failure to realize that experience shows a tough stand against terrorism works and that state sponsors of terrorism change their behavior when operating from a position of weakness.
The first major episode, the Iran hostage crisis of 1979-1981, exemplifies this phenomenon. Tehran kept kidnaped U.S. diplomats as long as it lost nothing from international isolation. When Iraq invaded in September, 1980, however, Iran desperately needed frozen assets, arms and diplomatic support. The Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini was ready to deal and Iran's evident fear of an incoming, more hawkish, President Reagan hurried the process. In the end, the United States made no real concessions to Tehran.
A parallel process ensued in 1984 when Iraq, needing Western support in its desperate struggle with Iran, ceased backing anti-Western terrorism and booted Palestinian hit-man Abu Nidal out of Baghdad. For years, Iraq said it would never re-establish relations with the United States as long as Washington was Israel's ally. Many American experts warned tirelessly that the United States must mend its ways before the Arabs would change their attitude. It was Iraq, however, that gave way.
Similarly, the April, 1986, U.S. bombing raid on Libya was widely condemned by reputed authorities as ineffective and likely to rally the Arab states and Libya's people around Moammar Kadafi. Instead, a frightened, isolated Kadafi greatly reduced his support for terrorism. In July, 1988, a tragic accident reinforced the lesson. When the U.S. guided-missile cruiser Vincennes shot down an Iranian passenger airliner, Iran's leaders interpreted the event as a signal that the Americans would do anything to end the Iran-Iraq War. A few days later, Tehran accepted a cease-fire.
The same basic pattern is now being repeated. The weakness, even desperation, of Iran, Syria and Lebanese terrorists is making them seek to--in Tehran's phrase--"close the file" on the hostage issue. According to Khomeini's successor, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran is willing "to have the hostages freed . . . not for the sake of the United States, but for humanitarian reasons."
Yet why have Iran and the others suddenly put humanitarian factors foremost? The real reason is the state of this pro-terrorist triple alliance. Iran, for example, is weakened by the loss of Khomeini's charisma, though freed from his ideological rigor. The more pragmatic (if not more moderate) regime of Ayatollah Hashemi Rafsanjani faces awesome problems.
As the second anniversary of the Iran-Iraq War cease-fire nears, Iran has only begun a reconstruction program. After 12 years of Islamic revolution, living standards are far below the pre-revolutionary level. Iran desperately needs Western investment, loans and spare parts and knows that it must pay a political price to get them.
Tehran's insolvent military faces an Iraqi enemy achieving regional superpower status; its northern border is menaced by Soviet disintegration. Surely, Iran does not have to release the hostages, but willingness to do so results from Rafsanjani's understanding that such a step will strengthen the state and ensure his regime's survival.
Syria has similar problems. No Middle East country--and no non-communist state anywhere--is so badly hurt by the Soviet Union's inward-looking, frail condition. Damascus faces a terrible economic situation and a large degree of international isolation. President Hafez Assad was forced into a humiliating policy reversal accepting Egypt's readmission to the Arab world.
Iran, Syria and Lebanese terrorist groups like Hezbollah have not become moderate, but are pragmatic precisely in order to remain radicals who hold power. These changes occurred not because U.S. policy shifted, but because it was patient in allowing conditions to change. The Iran-Contra scandal convinced Americans that freeing hostages was not worth major concessions. U.S. victory in the Cold War intimidated radicals. The hostage-holders and their sponsors--not the United States--need to settle the problem. And when terrorists fall out, the rest of the hostages may come out.