Now that the hostages have been returned from Tehran, a few comments are in order along with the warm wishes to those who have been liberated, their families and the U.S. administration. Speaking for myself and in my own name alone, I must confess that as a devoted friend of the American people and its government, this affair has left me with a bitter taste.
Our era is "blessed" with terrorism -- starting with the stealing of money from individuals and organizaitons, often accompanied by kidnapping and murder, and ending with the seizure of airplanes and embassies. The United States has not been unaffected by this either at home or abroad. In the early 1970s, an ambassador was killed (the U.S. representative in Sudan), and airplanes were hijacked (to Zarqa, Jordan), burned (at Cairo) and blown up in the air (from Tel Aviv to Athens). The perpetrators of these acts claimed their aim was political; they were carried out, so they said, in order to liberate Palestine. But in those cases, not one nation suported the terrorists, and the governments upon whose soil the acts of sabotage took place did their best to safeguard the victims and strike the attackers.
This was not the situation when the American diplomats were taken hostage in Tehran. Whatever one's definition and estimates of the Iranian leadership might be, it has been a legitimate authority there ever since Khomeini took power. The incident of the hostages who were taken captive by the "radical students" in fact represented a conflict between two states -- a conflict political in essence, but one in which the government of Iran used means of a clear-cut criminal nature.
In order to answer the question about what could have been done in this case, or how we ought to act in the future in similar incidents, we must first take a look at the background of the affair, the situation in the region and the consequences of these factors.
Within a month of the seizure by Iranian students of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, similar incidents took place at Islambad (Pakistan) and Tripoli (Libya). In both cases, the American Embassy workers were saved from the wild throng that stormed the buildings by a miracle. Futhermore, the attempts on the lives of the Saudi family around the same time at the Great Mosque of Mecca were attributed to the United States and Israel. Radio stations in Pakistan, Libya and other Moslem countries declared that the Americans and the Jews were the ones who tried to take over the holy mosque.
Did the American diplomats and their Western colleagues know how to read properly the psychological map of what was taking place? Were appropriate measures taken for emergency situations? In countries where fanaticism is likely to be a dominant factor, utmost attention must be given to which way the wind is blowing. Better to exaggerate one's suspicions than to miss seeing new developments. When rain starts to fall, you needn't get wet to the bone in order to know that a storm is approaching.
The problem changed and took on graver proportions when the Iranian regime gave state backing to the seizure of the American diplomats. Not only was this act an extaordinary one that contradicted every international tradition; its components were also exceptional: the demand to hand over the shah to Iranian authorites, the demand for his property, etc. It could be that this incident is so special -- unique -- that there is no point in discussing what the United States ought to do in the future under similar circumstances -- simply because such circumstances will not recur. Nevertheless, in terms of the underlying principle of the thing, I regard two questions as having importance.
One: was it right to try and free the hostages by military means? The main weakness in this option is not the technical difficulties and dangers involved; rather, it is the fact that, in using it, the superpower gives up its tremendous military and political advantage and tries to achieve its ends by resorting to means that any country, including the smallest and weakest in the world, could apply. The question isn't one of whether the military plan was a good one or not (and the fact that it failed means that it was not good); the question is whether the United States ought to forgo its full strengths and power and endanger its prestige in such an important affari by acting as though it were an Israel operating to liberate its people at Entebbe.
Furthermore, should it be decided to apply military force -- and i stress, military force and not diplomatic negotiations -- what ought to be considered is not only who applies the power but also -- and often most important of all -- against whom that power is to be applied. It's one thing when one is talking about a bunch of gangsters, blackmailers and terrorists. In that case, cheating and trickery are fair play so long as the captives are released from the claws of their jailers. But it's another matter when the conflict involves two states; here it is best not to behave like thieves in the night, but to put things clearly.
When the PLO operated against our border settlements with the knowledge and cooperation of Egypt (Fedayeen in Gaza), Jordan (Arafat at Karama) or Syria, we informed our neighbors that should our settlement not be allowed to live in security, then their settlement would also be unable to live in peace. When Arabs fired at our villiages, our artillery responded in kind on the city of Irbid, in the kingdom of Jordan. At the same time, it ought to be remembered that every military action bears, along with the possibility of success, danger to the lives of the captives.
Now, however, the question is not what ought to have been done in the past, given the conditions in Tehran at the time, but what should be done if such a situation is repeated in the future. It seems to me that three principles ought to guide a power like the United States: First, to be alert at all times of crisis and tension to the possibility of disturbances and terror by frenzied masses -- a common phenomenon these days in the Middle East. Second, if it is a matter of conflicts and relations not with individuals but with states, the United States must take strict care that its political and military steps will reflect its weight and standing in the world. And finally, the United States should not act with weakness, stealth or apology.