The three American clergymen who held Christmas services for the hostages at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran warned yesterday that the United States faces a continuing stalemate in efforts to gain the hostages' release.
"I personally don't see any easy way out," said Auxiliary Bishop Thomas J. Gumbleton of Detroit after a day that included a 1 1/2-hour meeting with Secretary of State Cyrus R. Vance and a talk with some of the hostages' families. "We have a situation where the sides are polarized. It does seem to me that to harden the polarization is not going to help."
Gumbleton's gloomy assessment, voiced at a news conference and during a television interview last night, was echoed by the Rev. William M.Howard Jr., president of the National Council of Churches, and the Rev. William Sloane Coffin Jr. of Riverside Church in New York. The three clergymen returned to the United States Thursday night.
Their statements came as the Carter administration moved to increase pressure on Iran in an attempt to obtain the hostages' release. President Carter announced that Vance would urge the United Nations today to impose economic sanctions against Iran.
The clergymen contended, however, that U.S. pressure tactics probably would entrench the impasse by further freezing Iran's "hardened" and, in part, "fanatical" attitude. Howard spoke of a "standoff."
Coffin, the most outspoken of the three, called for a softening of the U.S. position. In exchange for Iran's agreement to allow the clergymen to hold services at the embassy in Tehran, Coffin suggested that the United States should have offered to drop efforts to deport Iranians here illegally or made some other reciprocal gesture.
"Instead of going at each other this way, each side could begin to, you know, open up a few possibilities. I'm afraid the same arrogance that was demonstrated in admitting the shah (to the United States for medical treatment) against the advice of our own embassy (in Tehran) is still now operating when we think we can get away with getting the hostages out without paying any price for it," Coffin said.
The militants who took over the embasy Nov. 4 have demanded the return of deposed Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, who is now in Panama, in exchange for the hostages' release. The Iranians also have threatened show trials to publicize alleged misdeeds by the shah and the U.S. allies.
The United States has sought to focus international attention on what it and most other governments view as Iran's illegal seizure of diplomatic personnel and property.
Despite the bleak picture drawn by the three clergymen, they nevertheless offered some comforting words to the hostages' families. The three men repeated statements that the hostages appeared healthy and they described the Iranian captors as "stable" young people who apparently want to avoid mistreating the hostages.
The three clergymen met at the U.S. Catholic Conference's headquarters here with about 50 relatives of the hostages.
None of the relatives would talk to reporters after the meeting. But Gumbleton said "we could give them some sense of hope because we could report to them the good condition that (the hostages) were in."
The clergymen have reported seeing 43 hostages. The State Department claims the militants are holding 50 hostages at the embassy, but it has refused to identify them. Iran has given conflicting figures -- most recently 49 -- for the number of captives. It is unclear why the clergyman were not permitted to see all the hostages.
The clergymen has indicated they might make public the names of the 43 hostages they saw, but Gumbleton announced yesterday that the clergyman had decided against this, saying they wanted to protect the privacy of the families. They previously identified only a few of the hostages they saw, including the one remaining black and two women.
Thirteen blacks and women were released last month.
The clergymen declined to comment on a report in The Washington Post that the seven hostages they did not see inculded three -- Thomas L. Ahern Jr., William Daugherty and Milcolm Kalp -- alleged by their captors to be CIA agents.
Gumbleton cited a desire to protect the privacy of the hostages' families. The State Department has declined to deny or confirm The Post report.