A ROUND of appeals has been made to President Reagan to renounce the deal Jimmy Carter's government made to get the hostages released. The objectors do have something of a point. It has been a dirtying experience to have to deal with the kidnappers and torturers of Tehran as though they were gentlemen in the international club. There does not seem to be a penny of "ransom," as conventionally defined, in the agreement, but undeniably it is distasteful to deal in money, even Iran's own money, to retrieve people illegally captured. It is quite true, moreover, that the United States can accept no moral obligation to kidnappers: if the country chose to default on the agreement, it would not have to defend itself on that score.
We feel, nonetheless, that the event is more complicated than that. If the United States has no moral obligation to kidnappers, it certainly has a moral obligation to their victims, including, in this context, to the victims of acts of terrorism to come. The hostages back from Tehran would not be hurt by renunciation of the agreement that brought them home, though American financial claimants might be. But future hostages could well be hurt by renunciation, which could chill the willingness of would-be compromisers and middlemen to bet on the American word in the next crisis. For that matter, a great many people in a great many other situations depend on the American word. It is not a mere Boy Scout thing. A great power cannot trifle with it unless the burden lifted, or the benefit expected, is very great.
In this instance, the administration has been taking into account an essential political dimension in its cautious initial moves to honor "the obligations of the United States." To renounce the deal would be to treat Algeria shabbily for its considerable pains and to pitch into further disarray a region in which virtually every country except perhaps Iran hopes the United States will move back into a steadying role. Are these really acceptable costs?
Meanwhile, the specific terms of the deal are surely worth looking at. The country has the hostages. And of $12 billion in Iranian assets seized, the United States currently still holds $9 billion: $5 billion disbursed or held in escrow to pay off American banks and $4 billion-plus that won't be unblocked until satisfactory procedures are established to settle the claims of American companies.
It is often forgotten that, before the hostage crisis, American firms were having big trouble getting their money from the Iranian revolutionary regime. It was, for instance, threatening to default on "shah loans." The new agreement pays out the American banks at 100 cents on the dollar; that's already done. The companies are assured an international claims procedure underwritten by a "miraculous pitcher" fund in which the Iranians must keep at least $.5 billion at all times.
The drafters of the financial terms point out that Iran's is not the first revolution in which American businessmen have encountered turbulence. To cite one typical case, only when relations were normalized in 1978 was a claims agreement made with China; claimants got 42 cents on the dollar. In Cuba, meanwhile, Americans have claimed $1.5 billion for two decades and got nothing.We reserve a final judgment. One thing we are waiting to see, however, is whether the companies' mood to litigate will be affected by their own closer study of the terms. It would also be interesting to get their judgment on the official assertion that they are better off now than they were before the hostages were seized.