If you can bring yourself to think back upon the closing weeks of last fall's presidential campaign, you will doubtless recall a fair number of high-pitched shouts about the possibility that, in negotiating the release of the American hostages, the Carter administration might wind up supplying military equipment to Iran.
The point -- indeed the flat-out assumption -- was that in any unfreezing of blocked Iranian assets, the United States would unavoidably turn over to Ayatollah Khomeini & Co. spare parts and/or weapons that the Iranian government had already bought and paid for. The precise location of stockpiles of such weaponry was pinpointed; particular types of arms were identified.
Leading a thunderous chorus that had all the look of careful orchestration by the Reagan entourage, former President Ford and Henry Kissinger angrily inveighed against the very idea. "I am categorically opposed," said Ford. Iran being at war with Iraq (supported by key Arab allies), he went on to argue that it would be "a serious error for the U.S. government to tilt in any way at all toward Iran."
"I consider unacceptable," said Kissinger on election eve on the CBS Morning News, "the giving of American arms that have been purchased by Iran, to Iran in the middle of a war."
Well, on this count at least, the Reagan camp can rest easy about the Carter administration terms for the hostages' release. The package now being worked over so urgently in Washington, Algiers and Tehran (at this writing) contains no military equipment or material.
No spare parts. No ammunition. None of the fancy, high-technology weapons that one conservative commentator insisted on television two days before the election were already packed and even on their way to Iran.
Now this is significant enough in itself. It means that if the basic ingredients of the present package of blocked assets now under discussion do become the basis for a final agreement, whether by Inauguration Day, or afterward, the United States will not wind up giving the appearance of violating its professed "neutrality" in the Iraq-Iranian war.
The "tilt" that seemed to so horrify the Reagan camp simply won't be there.
The reason why strikes me as almost a classic case of how the system works -- of the kind of witches' brew you get when you stir presidential politics in with the conduct of diplomacy and the interplay between press and government.
It was not a matter of american insistence. The interesting part is that at no point along the way have the Iranians expressed interest in that portion of the blocked assets that consisted of military items. A theory advanced by some American officials is that, early on, the Iranian authorities may not even have known about the purchases made by the government of the deposed shah; large numbers of the shah's knowledgeable military men, after all, either have been summarily dispatched or have fled the country.
In any case, the blocked military deliveries only became a serious issue last Sept. 12, when Khomeini announced his famous four-point settlement terms -- including the unblocking of Iranian assets. No particulars were mentioned. But the administration quickly set in motion the usual bureaucratic machinery -- committees, task forces, the works -- to determine exactly what might be involved.
Inevitably, as one official puts it, "in the process of coming to grips with the whole assets issue, there was discussion about how to handle the military stuff." Word of these deliberations quickly leaked. The Republicans quickly took up the cry. Barbara Walters introduced the question into the Carter-Reagan debate. Secretary of State Muskie was hit with it on a Sunday talk show.
The administration, by the private admission of its own officials, thereupon compounded the misconception. Both Carter and Muskie responded to Republican attacks in terms that confirmed the possibility that military gear was indeed among the assets to be unblocked.
The final irony: what was in fact a largely manufactured issue in the U.S. presidential campaign became, with all the hue and cry here, a real issue for the Iranians -- or so some American experts suspect. "The idea of re-establishing a military relationship with Satan apparently was repugnant to them," says one.
That this should be so when Iran has taken a considerable beating in the bogged-down war with Iraq says something about the priorities of the Iranian authorities. To the extent that there is a real Iranian desire to end the hostage crisis, it clearly has less to do with American military spare parts than it has to do with ending crippling economic sanctions and worldwide opprobrium.
A larger message, perhaps, is that it is unsafe to jump to any conclusions about the people now in authority (after a fashion) in Iran.