President Bush's hostage dilemma

In March, Terry Anderson will begin his fifth year in captivity as a hostage in the Middle East. He has been held
longer than any other American. For the families of Anderson and the other eight hostages, the change in
administrations in Washington offers hope for a new effort to bring their loved ones home. Other governments
have obtainedthe release of their citizens. The question is whether President Bush is willing to follow their
examples or adhere to the unsuccessful Reagan policy.

The signals emanating from Lebanon regarding the hostages are mixed. The kidnapers held a strong antipathy
toward Ronald Reagan and had no desire to give him the political credit for obtaining the hostages' release. It is
not clear if Bush is viewed any differently.

Mohammed Mahdi Shams al-Din, deputy chairman of the Islamic Shiite Council in Beirut, said on Jan. 11 "the
time has not yet come" for a solution to the hostage problem. He expected some progress after Bush had been
in power for "a sufficient period" but cautioned that the issue had become more complicated.

In the meantime, Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed Lebanese Shiite faction, apparently has decided to use the
hostages as a pawn in its battle with its Shiite Amal rivals. Although the Syrians have expressed a desire to free
the hostages, they still allow the perpetrators and other militants free rein in areas under their control in

One benefit of the arms-for-hostages deal made by the Reagan administration was that it ended any doubt as to
whether Iran controlled the hostage-takers. The best hope for a solution, therefore, remains in Tehran. The
problem is that factional infighting among the aspirants for the Ayatollah Khomeini's legacy precludes
negotiations: "Moderates" attempting to deal with "the Great Satan" will forfeit their claim to power. And the
outcry over publication of Salman Rushdie's book "The Satanic Verses" has halted Iran's movement toward
improving relations with the West, making the opportunity for talks on the hostages more unlikely.

Although the situation in Tehran is probably worse today than in years past, France managed to cut a deal to
gain the release of its hostages. The French have consistently denied making concessions, but according to a study by the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies, French hostages were released in 1986 only two weeks after
the government expelled hundreds of Iranian exiles belonging to the Mujahidin I-Khalk opposition group. Later
that year, two more hostages were released after France announced it would repay Iran $330 million of a loan
made to the Shah.

In 1987, another two hostages were released. This time the French dropped charges against an Iranian who
took refuge in his government's embassy to avoid being questioned about possible involvement in that
summer's rash of bombings.

Last May, the remaining French hostages were released by Hezbollah after France reportedly agreed to repay
its debt to Iran, consider the release of a Fatah terrorist and pay $30 million in ransom to Hezbollah.

Two West Germans were kidnaped in January, 1987, after West Germany arrested a member of Hezbollah
implicated in the hijacking of an American plane. The kidnapers threatened to kill their captives if Germany
extradited the terrorist to the United States. The first hostage was released almost nine months later after the
West Germans agreed, according to Hezbollah, to release their prisoner. The second hostage was supposed to
be released later in exchange for $3 million. The Jaffee Center study notes that the West Germans, unlike either
France or the U.S., made concessions to the kidnapers rather than to Iran.

The Soviet Union took a different approach. In 1985, four of its diplomats were seized in Beirut. Hezbollah
executed one of the hostages and threatened to kill the rest if the Soviets did not force Syria to lift its siege of
Tripoli. A cease-fire was later announced in the northern Lebanese city and the Soviets were freed.

The Soviets were rumored to have taken more direct action to free its citizens. A team of KGB agents kidnaped
either a relative of one of Hezbollah's leaders or three of his assistants. They were murdered and their mutilated
bodies sent to Hezbollah with a warning that further action would be taken if the diplomats were not released.

No other Soviets were kidnaped.

The people holding the Americans have demonstrated that they can hold out for years. We have done the
same, but to what end? It is true, as Henry Kissinger has argued, that saving one American's life is not worth
risking the security of all Americans. But of what value is it to be an American if our government gives the
impression it will abandon us?

Israel is often applauded for its policy toward terrorists, but even though the Israelis share our reluctance to
negotiate, they have made deals with even their bitterest enemies. Israel believes it must protect the lives of all
its citizens.

President Bush can obtain the release of American hostages, but to do so he will have to make concessions-to
Iran or the kidnapers-or authorize a covert operation to intimidate the perpetrators.