Nobody doubts President Carter's commitment to the release of the hostages held in Tehran. But is it a good idea to assert that commitment by openly renouncing the language of force?
The evidence, while not altogether clear, suggests that public abandonment of the military option deepens the plight of the hostages. It also -- and here the evidence is unambiguous -- weakens the American position regarding long-term objectives in Iran, the neighboring countries and the world as a whole.
When the hostages were seized on Nov. 4, the White House made it known the United States did not contemplate the use of force. Thereafter, the Iranian captors, who had previously been silent on the subject, began talking about spies and espionage. In that context, the Iranians began trying to manipulate American public opinion by releasing black and women hostages. The Iranian rhetoric continued to escalate until, on Nov. 20, Ayatollah Khomeini asserted that "Carter does not have the guts" to use force.
The White House, faced with that challenge, immediately put it out that military options were under considerations. The president kept the options open at his press conference on Nov. 28. Though the press conference took place at a moment of high religious tension in Iran, and just before the constitutional referendum on Dec. 3, nothing untoward happened.
On the contrary, right after the referendum, a diplomatic opening seemed to develop. Foreign Minister Sadegh ghotbzadeh announced, after a meeting with the ayatollah, that a vote by the U.N. Security Council asking for immediate release of the hostages was a step forward. The foreign minister then threw out abundant hints about negotiating possibilities.
Over the weekend of Dec. 8 and 9, and on subsequent days, the Iranian stand suddenly stiffened. The foreign minister indicated there would have to be a trial of the hostages by an international tribunal assembled in Tehran. Only afterward would it be possible to negotiate release of the hostages.
Exactly what precipitated the hardening is not clear. Domestic developments, especially the seizure of Tabriz by religious moderates backing Ayatollah Shariatmadari, probably played a part.
But it is also notable that President Carter backed away from the military option. In a talk to the families of the hostages on Dec. 7, he said: "I am not going to take any military action that would cause bloodshed or arouse the unstable captors of our hostages to attack them or punish them."
It is not hard to believe that the Iranian revolutionaries, seeing the president renounce force again, found themselves in the presence of a riskfree opportunity. They seized the moment to manipulate American public opinion and to wind up the rhetoric in ways that have made release of the hostages seem even more remote.
As to the long-range strategic goals, in Iran the revolutionary students are now stronger than ever. The ayatollah, if he ever started to take his distance from them, is with them again. If he does fall, the radical elements look that much better placed to pick up the pieces.
The long-term American interest in the region as a whole has been equally set back. The Arab oil states most dependent upon the United States for protection have seen this country stand helpless before a direct challenge. Their confidence is shaken, and that explains their ambiguous attitude in regard to any increase in oil production and any condemnation of Iran.
What goes for friendly governments in the Persian Gulf applies around the world. Japan and some of the European allies have been slow and reluctant to support this country in economic measures against Tehran. Some of the European allies have grown very antsy about strengthening NATO forces for fear of provoking the Russians.
But why should the Japanese risk their Middle East oil connections if they are led to believe the whole thing will be worked out, short of the use of force, by some deal? And why shouldn't the Europeans be chary of building up NATO when they see the United States hesitate to use force because 50 Americans are held hostage in Tehran? Why shouldn't they doubt whether this country would expose itself to nuclear devastation if a little slice of Bavaria were threatened? Or even Berlin?
Which brings us, finally, to the Russians. The strategy of deterrence rests on the conviction that the Soviet Union and its clients will be held in check only if they believe that the United States, in some undefined circumstances, will use overwhelming power. So by rigidly excluding the use of force, this country not only does a disservice to the hostages, but it weakens the American stance around the world, even to the point of undermining the credibility of the deterrent.