During the strange crisis provoked by the diseased spleen of the deposed shah of Iran, the Carter administration has been trapped between irreconcilable desires to appear loyal to the shah and to placate the Iranians who hold an estimated 50 Americans captive in Iran.
Caught in this trap, the administration apparently opted for a policy of deliberate obfuscation, choosing not to explain its actions in most instances and periodically sending out conflicting or misleading signals to the public.
With the exiled ruler now in an Egyptian military hospital, recovering from his operation, the United States apparently is removed from his problems, but the Carter administration has yet to give a thorough, straightforward account of its behavior.
In some cases administration officials have made statements that contradicted the facts or their own policies.
For example, Zbigniew Brzezinski, the president's national security affairs adviser, told reporters on the White House lawn last Sunday that the shah could have returned again to the United States for medical treatment. Brzezinski said, "We did not exclude the option of his obtaining medical assistance in the United States, which we had promised earlier."
What he did not say was that the White House had gone to great lengths to keep the shah in Panama, had never offered him refuge in America, and even had tried to persuade the New York Daily News not to say in print that the shah might return to this country.
This cloudy episode began in early March, out of public view, when doctors attending the ex-monarch concluded that lymph cancer had spread to his spleen, which should be removed. At that point the shah was living in an unhappy exile on Contadora Island off Panama.
The New York Daily News, quoting "friends of the deposed shah," broke this story in its late editions of March 11. The News revealed that the shah's friends felt he should return to the United States for the operation, but that the White House had informally passed the word that no request for his return should be made because of the hostages.
The News also reported that the shah and his doctors' second choice was to have the spleen operation in Gorgas Hospital, a U.S. Army facility in what used to be the Panama Canal Zone. The White House would not acquiesce in this request either.
Lars-Erik Nelson, the reporter in Washington who wrote the News story, made numerous calls to White House press secretary Jody Powell on Monday, March 10, seeking comment or confirmation, Powell never called back.
But Hamilton Jordan, the White House chief of staff who has been intimately involved in dealings with the homeless ruler, did place an unsolicited call that same night to Michael J. O'Neill, editor of the News. O'Neill was at the Metropolitan Opera House in Lincoln Center watching "Don Carlo" when Jordan's call reached him during the intermission between the first and second acts.
Jordan told O'Neill, according to the editor's recollection, that it would be "very dangerous" if a story appeared suggesting that the shah might return to the United States. In a general discussion, O'Neill recalled, Jordan made clear the administration's view that the shah should have his operation in Paitilla Hospital, a Panamanian facility in Panama City.
The News story did not suggest that the shah might return to the United States, but only reported his friends' belief that he should and, assuming he could not, that the U.S.-run hospital in Panama should be used for his operation. O'Neill explained that to Jordan, told him the story was already in print or nearly so, and that was the end of the discussion.
In the next few days, the exile's American allies and others who felt he had been treated poorly began a back-channel campaign to lobby the administration and to generate some publicity on the affair. A Washington Post reporter working on the story the day the News' account appeared had no trouble finding sources close to the shah who would repeat essentially the same account. On Sunday, March 16, Post columnist George Will excoriated the administration for its behavior in this episode.
In Panama, meanwhile, tense negotiations were continuing involving the shah's prominent American doctors, U.S. officials on the scene, and Panamanian officials and doctors.
The negotiations were heated. The American doctors, led by Michael DeBakey of Houston and Benjamin H. Kean of New York, were described as furious with the Panamanians, who they felt were putting national pride ahead of good medical sense. DeBakey apparently got the impression that the Panamanians did not want him to do the operation with his own team of doctors, and did not want the shah to be treated at the American-run Gorgas Hospital. At one point, it is reliably said, the Panamanians raised doubts as to whether the shah would be permitted to resume his exile in Panama if he were treated at the American hospital there.
These talks apparently stalemated. The shah, who had come to Panama City for tests, returned to Contadora Island. Then, for reasons that have never been explained, the White House decided to send Hamilton Jordan to Panama on March 20. Apparently, Jordan's mission was to mediate among the differing factions.
The Jordan mission was intended to be a secret. The Washington Post received a tip that Jordan was making an unusual trip on March 20, the day Jordan left. When a reporter called Jordan's White House office late that afternoon, he was told that Jordan was at that hour attending a reception for Democratic Party fund-raisers in the White House. The next day, the secretary assured the reporter, Jordan would be in Elberton, Ga., to address the local Chamber of Commerce.
In fact, Jordan already was on the way to Panama when the reporter made his inquiry.
Earlier in the day Jordan telephoned the organizer of the Elberton, Ga., dinner to say that he had to leave the country for a brief trip, but would arrive by U.S. military plane in Athens, Ga., the next afternoon in time to make the speech. Later that night, Powell's office called Elberton to say that Powell would stand in for Jordan at the dinner.
This sequence suggests that Jordan hoped to make a very brief visit to Panama, but found when he arrived that he would have to stay longer. But the White House has never explained this or any other aspect of the Jordan mission.
White House counsel Lloyd Cutler also was in Panama with Jordan. His assignment was to talk with the shah; Jordan's was to deal with the Panamanians and the former ruler's American aides and doctors.
This was not the first time Jordan had been to Panama in recent times on secretive missions related to the shah's health, according to well-informed sources.
It is rumored that Jordan also secretly has traveled to Europe to meet with top officials from the Iranian government itself -- a story never confirmed or convincingly denied.
On Saturday, March 22, the White House sought to squelch speculation that the shah might be returning to this country. An aide to Brzezinski, asking that his name not be used, read a statement to reporters saying the shah had no plans to return to this country. Other officials told reporters that the United States hoped to convince him to stay in Panama and have his operation in the Panamanian hospital.
It was the very next day -- last Sunday -- that Brzezinski talked with reporters on the White House lawn and suggested that the shah could have come back to the United States if he wished. But by that time the shah had decided otherwise, and had left Panama for Egypt.
Powell also spoke to reporters last Sunday. His remarks closely paralleled Brzezinski's.
"We were committed to assist the shah in the event of a medical emergency," he said, "including the possibility of returning for emergency private medical treatment to the United States. But the shah, in consultation with his physicians, chose to go to Egypt."
Like Brzezinski, Powell made no mention of the administration's extensive efforts to keep the shah in Panama and discourage him from entering this country.
The way the shah left Iran for Egypt raised another question -- publicly unanswered -- about the administration's policy. Officials in Washington repeatedly said in the days before his departure that the United States was anxious that he stay in Panama.
This was preferred, apparently, for two reasons: To avoid exacerbating Anwar Sadat's isolation in the Moslem world by his welcoming the shah back to Egypt, and also to keep alive the convenient fiction that Panama might extradite the shah to Iran once the new Iranian government presented evidence against him.
U.S. and Panamanian officials insisted repeatedly in private that there was no prospect he would be extradicted. But the Panamanian government said other things in public, apparently to encourage the impression that it was open-minded on the subject. The administration seems to have felt it might help the U.S. hostages to give Iran's new government a chance to present charges against the ousted monarch in a Panamanian court.
Curiously, however, when the shah told Cutler definitively that he wanted to go to Egypt, the United States moved with extraordinary speed to help charter a jetliner overnight. This was done by exploiting a personal connection between Cutler and Bruce Sundlun, a Washington lawyer and chairman of Executive Jet Aviation Inc., a firm specializing in speedy charters of small jets.
Executive Jet has no large planes, so it contacted Evergreen International Airlines, a firm with past ties to the CIA, which was able to provide a DC-8 at once to take the shah to Egypt. Thanks to these arrangements, he left Panama on Sunday, the day before the court hearing on his extradition was to begin.
One more question about administration policy arose last Tuesday, when a Wall Street Journal editorial suggested the "commitments" to the shah that both Brzezinski and Powell had mentioned last Sunday actually were contained in a formal, nine-pont understanding drawn up last December, at Lackland Air Force Base, which the Wall Street Journal capitalized as the "Lackland Agreements."
TV cameras again caught Brzezinski outside the White House. He was asked if, after the shah's departure from Panama, the United States had any further commitments to him.
"We have no obligations nor commitments as such, no," Brzezinski replied. His statement was seen by millions Tuesday night on the network news.
But during that day, The Washington Post established that there is indeed a set of agreed commitments -- not exactly the list the Wall Street Journal described, but a mutually understood pact that included an American pledge to make available emergency medi-cal care in the United States.
An aide to Brzezinski was asked late Tuesday to reconcile the existence of these agreements with Brzezinski's comment before the TV cameras.
The aide said that Brzezinski had been quoted out of context.
Throughout this episode, administration officials have defended their behavior by speaking privately or anonymously, under the ground rules of a "background briefing" for reporters in which only "administration officials" are quoted. The dicey situation in Tehran and the fate of the American captives, they contend, require circumspection.
Meanwhile, the anonymous "administration officials" speak in many tongues.