Iranian President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani branded the U.S. administration "a stubborn frustrated child" yesterday for its failure to come up with an adequate goodwill gesture in response to Tehran's assistance in the release of two American hostages.
His remarks, made to a group of teachers in the Iranian capital, came several hours before a White House news conference in which President Bush said the United States would help in trying to determine the fate of four Iranian hostages kidnapped in Lebanon in 1982.
Rafsanjani appeared to be trying to counter mounting criticism in Iran that he has gone too far in his flirtation with the United States over hostages. He sought to rule out a dialogue with Washington, despite confirmed reports that representatives of the two countries have met in Geneva and elsewhere.
Three days of talks in The Hague on pending financial disputes between the two ended yesterday without final agreement. Talks concerning Iranian assets frozen in the United States since the 1979 revolution began in 1981. This week's discussion centered on a possible lump sum settlement for 2,300 "small claims" of under $250,000 that the United States says is due in compensation for assets seized in Iran.
"We do not want relations with the United States, and we welcomed severing ties . . . . We are not prepared to talk to America," Rafsanjani said in his meeting with the teachers.
Rafsanjani accused Washington of launching an "ominous propaganda campaign" by saying that it would not normalize relations with Tehran until all American hostages were released.
Rafsanjani said that "an angry, revolutionary, enraged group, after it released one hostage without pre-conditions, and was confronted with America's irresponsible reaction, should reasonably have taken revenge. But they still showed decency and showed their extreme goodwill" by freeing another one. "American bullies, instead of being impressed by the move, reiterated their previous stance," Tehran Radio, monitored in Nicosia, quoted Rafsanjani as saying. Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Velayati asked the United States and other Western countries for "reciprocity" to encourage the liberation of all hostages.
Iran and Islamic fundamentalist groups in Lebanon have been pushing for the release of 400 Lebanese Shiite prisoners and other Arabs in Israeli jails, including missing Shiite Lebanese clerical leader Sheikh Abdul Karim Obeid as well as the four Iranians.
In an article that drew harsh criticism from Iranian hard-liners, Rafsanjani assistant Ataollah Mohajerani proposed last Thursday in Tehran's Ettelaat newspaper that Iran should start direct contacts with the United States to reap maximum benefit from Tehran's role in freeing U.S. captives.
Shaul Bakhash, an expert on Iran at George Mason University said that Mohajerani's article could not have been written without Rafsanjani's consent. "It was obvious there would be a strong reaction. The Americans have been told this would happen in private messages and now it's out in the open."
"From the beginning, it was evident there was a limit to what Rafsanjani could do, both due to domestic pressure and his leverage over Iran's proteges in Lebanon," Bakhash said. "He promised there will be results and now he has nothing to show for it."
But one result of the internal battles in Tehran is, "We never know which audience Rafsanjani is addressing," said one U.S. official.
Several hours after Rafsanjani's comments, Bush spoke at length about Iran's concern for the four Iranians who disappeared in Lebanon in 1982. Although he noted they have been believed dead, Bush said the United States would help in trying to locate them. "This is something they feel strongly about. They've mentioned it to us several times. And here's something we can do without there being any violating our policy" of not negotiating over the hostages. "It's something I'd like to do. And I think they would consider this a gesture of goodwill," Bush said.
In an interview last week, Velayati said he had information the diplomats were alive, and that Iran had received "fairly recent" pictures of them from sources in Lebanon.
The four included two diplomats, a journalist and a driver for the Iranian Embassy in Beirut. On July 28, 1982, at the height of the Israeli invasion of Lebanon, Iranian charge d'affaires Mohsen Mousavi, 34, Ahmad Motevasselian, 38, a consular official, and award-winning Iranian photo journalist Kazem Akhavan, 32 from the Iranian news agency, IRNA, disappeared with driver Mohammed Taqi Rastegar Moqaddam at a checkpoint operated by the Israeli-allied Christian militia near the coastal village of Barbara north of Beirut. They have not been heard from since. The State Department believes Motevasselian is linked to Iran's Revolutionary Guards, who three weeks before the abduction had moved their first contingents into Lebanon's Bekaa Valley to counter the Israeli thrusts.
A number of competing Lebanese Christian warlords have blamed each other for the disappearances, and have issued various reports over the years claiming that they are dead or alive.
The most recent report came Monday, when a television station loyal to renegade Christian Army commander Gen. Michel Aoun reported that three of the Iranians were still alive and located somewhere in the hills of Laklouk northeast of Beirut, a mountainous region under control of his rival, Lebanese Forces Commander Samir Geagea. It said the fourth was killed while attempting to escape.
The Iranians seem convinced that the United States, which no longer has a diplomatic presence in Lebanon, can bring pressure to bear on the warring Christian groups to locate the Iranian captives.