The Washington Post's reporters here and its foreign service people in Tehran indicate that events in Iran are moving at an accelerated pace.
American officials who are in the best position to know what is happening are less communicative.
Our government has reminded us at regular intervals that the negotiations with Iran are delicate. But for months it has told us very little about the status of these negotiations. The wisdom of that policy is open to question.
The absence of news creates a vacuum that is quickly filled with untruths, half-truths, rumor and speculation. Truth does not thrive in an environment of secrecy.
Had a larger measure of truth -- hard facts -- been available to the American people, the Carter administration could have avoided the weekend's confusion about the receipt of a message that nobody had sent to anybody. The families of the hostages could have been spared the agony of wondering precisely what was in that message that was received but never sent. There would have been no need to speculate about how many other messages had been exchanged, or what those were about.
There was a time when labor negotiations had to be kept absolutely secret because they were so delicate. In many instances, the terms of a proposed settlement were not revealed until a meeting was held at which rank-and-file members were asked to vote on a proposal they were hearing about for the first time but had not yet been permitted to read.
But the modern trend is away from that kind of secret negotiation. Many unions now encourage their rank-and-file members to attend bargaining sessions. And there is no evidence that these delicate labor negotiations are in any way endangered by a more general dissemination of truth.
As World War I drew to an end, Woodrow Wilson began to formulate his idealistic 14 Points. The 14 Points were presented to Congress as a guideline for the kind of peace settlement the United States ought to work toward. Wilson's very first point was:
"Open covenants of peace, openly arrived at, with no secret international agreements in the future."
The other members of "the Big Four" thought Wilson had taken leave of his senses. Diplomacy had always been conducted in secret. Diplomacy had to be conducted in secret. It always would be, they thought.
And perhaps they were right. But "always" is a long time, and the breeze of change may already have begun to blow some dust from the traditional notion that people can't be trusted with the truth.
There is no suggestion here that every step of the negotiating process lends itself to public bargaining sessions. And I will quickly concede that if each detail under discussion is made public separately, the entire package can be damaged by attacks upon its parts.
Given a choice between the two extremes -- complete secrecy or open covenants, openly arrived at -- I would guess that in the long run there would be less danger in completely open negotiations.
However, there is no need to chose between these extremes. There are two solid reasons for continuing to do a substantial portion of our negotiating in secret: 1) Few societies are as open or as democratic as ours; therefore few would be inclined to share delicate decisions with their people. 2) Even ina well-educated and democratic society, some negotiations move more smoothly in private.
Nevertheless, even as we acknowledge a need for secrecy, I think we must remind our government that we are adults, capable of understanding, entitled to the truth, and resentful of statements and denials in which the wording appears to have been worked out by a committee of Philadelphia lawyers.
Instead of denying that any American official had sent a message to any Iranian official, Jody Powell could have been instructed to say:
"Yes, there have been communications between Iranian officials and ours. Some of those communications have been oral and somewhat informal. Some have been conducted through third parties. We hope, as we have hoped before, that we are coming closer to an understanding with the Iranian government. But it would not be wise to say anything beyond that. I promise you that just as soon as the two governments can agree on a joint statement about any aspect of these negotiations we will let you know."
A statement of that kind could have been helpful, or it could have failed to help. It certainly could not have damaged any negotiation, however delicate.
But instead of telling as much of the truth as it was safe to tell, we issued a denial that resulted in the use of the word "hoax" and raised the very serious question of whether somebody was calling somebody a liar. That is not a technique calculated to help angry adversaries make peace.