American honor finds cold comfort in the final offer made by the Carter administration to spring the hostages. Still, the national interest lies in an acceptance by Iran, for the incoming administration, while holding a basically sound position, is ill-prepared to deal with what has become a well-nigh hysterical issue.
The offer transmitted to Iran by Algerian intermediaries last week is a straight quid pro quo deal. The Iranians turn over the hostages through the good offices of Algeria. The United States makes available to Iran, through the Algerians, about $5 billion or $6 billion in assets frozen by President Carter after the hostages were taken. In addition, the Iranians are given a license to hunt for the assets of the late shah, insofar as they are located in this country (which is to no great degree) and the courts will allow (which is uncertain).
Compared with previous terms accepted by the Carter administration, the final offer is a Gibraltar of firmness. The United States will not, as President Carter once said he would, turn over important stocks of weapons to Iran. It does not admit the principle, explicit in the dealings through the United Nations last year, that an international tribunal (largely composed of America Last-ers) sit in judgment of past actions by this country in Iran.
Still, the very idea of a bargain for the hostages is abhorrent. It gives legitimacy to illegitimate actions. It shows the United States can be held up by the threat of violence against a handful of citizens. It invites further blackmail.
Ronald Reagan, throughout the election campaign and since, showed a keen understanding of those points. He is well placed now to take the position that some of us urged upon the Carter administration at the beginning of the affair.
That position starts from the premise that the seizure of the hostages was an illegal act in violation of all accepted norms of behavior. It includes an expression of willingness to negotiate legitimate complaints, but not under duress. As a condition for any discussions pertaining to Iran, it requires release of the hostages.
By taking such a stance, the United States would reverse the conditions that have been sustained for the last 14 months. It would lay upon the Iranian government the burden of proving that it is a responsible actor in world affairs, a legitimate regime able to discipline its citizens, including those who held the hostages.
That position is still the first position. It is the stance a Reagan administration should, and probably would take, if the hostage problem fell into its lap.
But the issue now goes beyond the matter of a basic stance. The hostages, always an element in the affairs of Tehran, have now become fat on the griddle of Iranian politics. They are not merely being held. If no deal is struck, some may be subjected to trial -- some, perhaps, to harsh punishment.
For that eventuality, a sit-tight policy does not suffice. Retaliatory actions have to be taken, organized in a ladder of graduated chastisement. They have to be coordinated with other countries -- friendly and not so friendly. For at some point, and probably early on, blockade of the Persian Gulf approaches to Iran would come up for consideration.
But President-elect Reagan and his people are not ready for such a test. They have not studied the negotiating records in detail. They have not familiarized themselves with the cases of the individual hostages. They have not sounded the attitudes of foreign governments.
In those conditions, the incoming administration would probably make even more of a mess of the hostage affair, thus worsening the American position in the Persian Gulf and the world. It is better by far that the final Carter offer be accepted and that the Reagan people learn the basic lesson of the outgoing administration -- namely, that it takes more than good intentions to govern. As to American honor, there are the famous words of Burke on a disgraceful British transaction with French revolutionaries:
"I pass by all the insolence and contumely of the performance as it comes from them. The present question is not how we are to be affected with it in regard to our dignity. That is gone. I shall say no more about it. Lie light the earth on the ashes of English pride."