Ronald Reagan's deliberate escalation of name-calling the so-called Iranian government is laying the foundation for an immediate toughening of U.S. hostage policy: consider the hostages prisoners of war, with no Washington-Tehran negotiations until after they are set free.
That is based on well-established international grounds that the seizure was an act of aggression that must be wiped from the slate before the United States bargains. "The hostages are not a fit subject for rug-sale haggling or bazaar-begging," one high-level but unofficial Reagan adviser told us. That is intended to eliminate the hostage question as the nation's dominating foreign policy issue.
Reagan's tough line against Iran will reverse more than a year of backing and filling by a Carter administration that played the hostage issue politically for all it was worth. That effort is now bogged down in seemingly fruitless haggling after the failure just before the election of frantic attempts to free the hostages.
Major U.S. allies are being informally sounded out for a degree of help not solicited by President Carter: end all diplomatic discourse with Iran including withdrawal of embassies, and cosign Iran to the deep freeze at the United Nations. No final decision has been taken on whether to pursue these informal soundings after Jan. 20. But if there is the slightest chance of success, President Reagan will apply heavy pressure on the allies.
None of the actions being considered at highest Reagan levels contemplate military action against Iran. Not yet, at least. Reagan planning shows a fastidious caution about the use or even the threat of military force. The reason, as explained by one key actor in the unfolding hostage drama: "We will suggest nothing in the way of military action that we are not absolutely certain we can carry out."
The list of possible moves, nevertheless, is long: kicking the Iranians out of the Tumbs and Abu Mussa, islets near the mouth of the Persian Gulf; seizing Lavan Island, a major Iranian air base; knocking out the oil port of Kharg Island; closing the Gulf to Iranian shipping.
As of today, not one of these potential targets is on any Reagan "action" list for immediate operations. Even though Moscow's costly embroilment in Afghanistan and its 27 divisions deployed around Poland mean "a full plate" for the Kremlin, in the phrase of one Reagan adviser, the president-elect intends to remain cautious.
At a time when U.S. military power is low and Soviet power high, Reagan will not risk having to back down under superior Soviet military power as the Russians were forced to do in the October 1962 Cuban missile crisis.
That does not mean force has been ruled out. It may well be used, on grounds that Iran initiated a state of war on Nov. 4, 1979. It is more likely, however, that the demand for unconditional release of the hostages will be followed by a prolonged period of suspense. Reagan and his national security team view the hostages as POWs seized in the line of duty (a definition that the Foreign Service has long but vainly argued for within the Carter administration).
The Reagan camp so far is unimpressed by warnings that if "the great satan" America fails to pay exorbitant ransom demands, the hostages may be put on trial and sentenced to death. Reagan or his State Department will make clear that any physical punishment of any hostage will be prosecuted under the war crimes doctrine developed after World War II.
There is another view. "Not only will we make it quite clear that the perpetrator of murder against any American hostage will be held personally responsible," one designated Reagan official told us, "but the Iranians know that a dead hostage is no hostage. We don't anticipate that."
Reagan and advisers are studying several position papers on how to move the hostage issue off dead center. Those known to be involved, in addition to Reagan, are Vice President-elect Bush, Sen. Paul Laxalt, presidential counselor Edwin Meese, Secretary of State-designate Alexander Haig, Defense Secretary-designate Caspar Weinberger and national security adviser Richard V. Allen.
Reagan has confided to this inner group that he will now allow the hostage issue to dominate American foreign policy any longer, that he insists on "decoupling" it from more important foreign policy issues. In effect, he is saying that the United States won't be listening any longer "to every belch from every ayatollah in Tehran." That's a sentiment shared by an overwhelming majority of Americans, including most of the hostage families.