Lost in Translation


Before the border conflict between Iraq and Iran exploded into all-out war this week, at least some experts believed the U.S. missed a chance to free the 52 American hostages who, barring a surprise of major proportions, will spend their 329th day in captivity today.

The experts--four of them, including Michael M.J. Fischer, associate professor of Social Anthropology and Middle Eastern Studies--met in Washington September 15 with Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs David D. Newsom, Assistant Secretary of State for the Near East and South Asia Harold Saunders, and other State Department officials.

The meeting came three days after the Ayatollah Khomeini gave a speech that raised eyebrows among weary observers of the seemingly endless rollercoaster of hints, charges, denials and counter-charges that has continued since the hostages were seized last November 4.

In the speech, Khomeini neglected the customary demand that the United States repent for past misdeeds against Iran--a demand which, in any case, the experts say only required a pledge of future non-intervention, not a full apology. Intrigued, the State Department called together the four experts to analyze the speech and "to try to get an understanding of the meaning, theory and purpose of repentance in Islam," according to Steve Grummon of the department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research.

The experts readily obliged. They told Newsom that Khomeini's omission was a deliberate signal--not an accident, as some Iranian politicians had claimed--and recommended that the U.S. give a quick and positive reply before hardliners added any new conditions.

That didn't happen. Last Monday, Secretary of State Edmund S. Muskie pledged U.S. non-interference in Iran's internal affairs, noted that a "chapter has closed" in Iran's history with the fall and death of the Shah, and emphasized that the U.S. "recognize(s) the reality of the Iranian Revolution." But by that time, the hostage issue had receded behind the shadow of the confrontation across the Iraq-Iran frontier.

"The White House staff has prolonged this crisis to an unconscionable degree," William O. Beeman, assistant professor of anthropology at Brown, said. Specifically, he assailed the "extraordinarily irresponsible" actions of Zbigniew Brzezinski's National Security Council, which has reportedly frequently overruled State Department recommendations on Iran policy.

In one such case, Beeman, Fischer and three other experts urged the U.S. to avoid any military intervention--two days before the aborted April 24 rescue attempt.

Richard N. Frye, Aga Khan Professor of Iran, who has also been sharply critical of Carter administration policy during the crisis--"I have advice, but it certainly didn't do any good"--agrees that stubbornness and an unwillingness to bridge the cultural gap between the U.S. and Iran have prolonged the stalemate.

"They say 'morality, morality, morality,' talking about our support of the Shah, and all we say is 'legality, legality, legality'--the hostages." In one way, however, Frye said, the two governments are in harmony: "They're using it (the crisis) as a political football, just like here."