Appalled that President Carter and his men were basking in the perceived success of their hostage-freeing operation, President Ronald Reagan and his men have been plotting a long-overdue U.S. campaign against terrorism in all its forms.
One of the new president's senior advisers put it to us this way: "The preoccupation of the Carter administration with human rights is going to be radically switched to the Reagan administration's preoccupation with international terrorism." The switch connotes a promise of "never again" in responding to the 444 days of Iranian captivity.
Behind this lies a fundamental distinction between the world views of Carter and Reagan. Privately affronted by Carter's handling of the hostage crisis from the start, the Reaganites saw no glory in the 11th-hour hostage release after endless haggling; instead, they saw national infamy in once-feared, once-strong America held at bay for nearly 15 months by a South Asian third-rate military power.
It is partly as a measure of national atonement for that infamy, but principally to prevent its repetition, that Reagan's top national security officials are moving against a global curse. They have quietly sworn to start an immediate international effort to reduce the use of terror as an international political weapon.
The atonement will make itself known soon enough. Reagan and his high command may phrase their words carefully, but what they say about the hostage affair will add up to this: never again will the United States allow itself to be held hostage by seizure of American citizens.
The president's men in effect want the world informed that Carter's payoff to Tehran will not be repeated. International terrorists, whether or not cloaked in the guise of a government, must understand that Reagan is changing the rules of the game as played by Carter -- whatever the cost. "We are moving into a very, very tough four-year period. Make no mistake about that," one presidential adviser told us.
Iranian perception of these changed rules may have contributed more than quiet diplomacy to the hostage release. Reagan's men are convinced Tehran finally accepted the deal because of fear of Reagan. "They were petrified, and rightly so," said one Reagan operative who had helped construct Reagan's deliberate escalation of anti-Iranian epithets from criminals to kidnappers to barbarians.
Brought into the firing sights of the new administration's anti-terrorists planning is the Soviet Union. As we reported on Jan. 2, Reagan never doubted that the Kremlin tried to the end to sidetrack Carter's hostage negotiations with Iran. Every piece of evidence presented to Reagan since his election persuaded him that Moscow's real intent was to prevent the release of the hostages and use the issue to enhance its own influence in Iran.
It is far too early to predict the precise shape of Reagan's campaign against terrorism. The president's national security officials are studying a just-published treatise called "Terrorism: Threat, Reality, Response" by two sometime Reagan advisers, Robert H. Kupperman and Darrell Trent. Another soon-to-be published work anticipated in high administration quarters is by one of Europe's best-known experts on terrorism, journalist Claire Sterling.
However the campaign progresses, one emerging theme has been fortified by anti-American Soviet propaganda in Iran: Moscow must cease its support for terrorism, which so helps the Kremlin in The U.S.-Soviet competition, or pay dire consequences.
These consequences, according to preliminary planning, will include the use of American and (if Western Europe agrees) of European sanctions against Moscow. One senior Reagan adviser claims the United States and the West "have the assets to put into play" -- food and strategic trade -- if the Soviet superpower is caught red-handed aiding international terror, as it was in the agonizing hostage crisis.
But the first-line weapon against terrorism is a beefed-up worldwide intelligence system to anticipate terrorist activities. If that fails, Reagan would treat terrorists, whether posing as governments or not, as criminals, not bargaining partners. Failure of the Carter administration to give the Iranians such treatment or to exact any clear punishment at all has agonized Reagan's men. It also has magnified the challenge of the new administration's anti-terrorist campaign.