State Department hand-wringing in advance of the predictable attack on the U.S. embassy in Tehran reached a peak Nov. 1, three days before the embassy takeover, when the department rejected a proposal from White House and Pentagon aides that the coming crisis required immediate emergency planning.
A high official replied in effect: "No thanks, we're handling this our own way." But in fact, despite the torrent of anti-American abuse then pouring forth over Iran's national television network -- inspired by Ayatollah Khomeini -- American policy was mired in dangerous inaction resulting from strict Carter administration policy guidelines. These guidelines discourage U.S. movies that might be construed as opposing the global leftward drift and the growing power of the Third World.
This central idea of President Carter's foreign policy, producing systematic American retreat, is a root cause of the Iranian crisis, but it is not confined to Iran; it has helped revolutionize the entire Caribbean area, cost the U.S. important South American allies, and given free rein to Moscow's use of surrogate Cuban troops. Some officials believe it may even have played a part in the assassination of South Korean President Park Chung Hee, because of the non-stop criticism here of Park's dictatorial methods.
As played out in Iran, the drama of Carter's accommodation policy has had particularly demeaning features. The State Department was so worried about Iran's anger over the deposed shah's getting into this country for treatment at a New York hospital that it asked to inspect his medical reports to see how ill he is. The point: to disprove possible charges by the ayatollah that he was admitted to the United States on false pretenses.
Indeed, before the takeover of the U.S. embassy, high State Department officials privately expressed hope to Americans involved in the shah's treatment that a second operation would be performed on the shah. That would be new evidence revealing genuine, not cosmetic, illness.
When Khomeini demanded the right to name his own panel of American doctors to examine the shah's medical records at New York-Cornell Hospital, the State Department did not immediately say no. The refusal of that extraordinary request came after the hospital gently suggested that "normal medical ethics" should be followed.
This consistent appeasement of the ayatollah by the State Department, described as "craven" by one highly respected American diplomat, is the natural result of a foreign policy based on conviction that anti-American tendencies in the Third World are immutable and must be accommodated. It has made a travesty of the traditional U.S. policy of offering political or humanitarian asylum.
Before the shah went to Mexico last June 10, Tehran's revolutionary government warned that his admission would affect official relations. The Mexican government correctly rebuked Iran. It said no country can "dictate our policy."
Moreover, Mexican diplomats say privately that the Mexican embassy in Tehran was given security reinforcement to minimize the risk of an occupying mob. When the shah's cancer and gallstones finally compelled the Carter administration to admit him to the New York hospital for medical help, the State Department rejected all suggestions to increase security measures at the Tehran embassy.
Also rejected were last-minute proposals for airlifting embassy employees out of the country. The official reason given was that that would be a show of weakness. The real reason, some officals believe, was that it would have been provocative to the ayatollah.
The dispatch of former attorney general Ramsey Clark as the president's personal emissary fits the pattern of attempting to deal with the ayatollah on his own terms. But Clark's designation brought no overt criticism; the danger to the American diplomatic hostages was too grave. Conservatives were silent about Clark, who praised the ayatollah after meeting him in Paris last January as a "brave man" for starting the anti-shah revolution.
But even if Clark succeeds (and the prospect looks bleak at this writing), many politicians worried about American setbacks are not happy about the political symbolism: Clark visited Hanoi at the height of the Vietnam War with an international group investigating war "crimes" not Hanoi's, but America's.
These politicians, whose numbers are growing, say Clark is not entirely representative of this country's true feelings about the world, just as they say Carter's accommodation policies are undermining his country everywhere.