Hostage Breakthrough

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In his final days as President, Carter reaches agreement with Iran

Finally, after more than 14 months of false starts and faded hopes, the breakthrough that could end America's agonizing—and humiliating—hostage crisis came, as a dramatic climax to a pressure-packed week of high-level international bargaining. The evidence that the end was at hand could not have been more tangible: at Tehran's Mehrabad Airport, which was suddenly closed to routine air traffic, sat a Boeing 707 Algerian airliner, poised to fly the 52 Americans to freedom.

To be sure, a final agreement on the terms for release had not yet been signed by the U.S. and Iran. But the Iranians announced publicly that all of the major differences between the negotiators had been resolved. On Sunday morning U.S. time, Behzad Nabavi, Iran's chief hostage negotiator, declared: "The government of the Islamic Republic of Iran and the United States finally reached agreement on resolving the issue of the hostages today." In Washington, Vice President Walter Mondale declined to go quite that far. Said he: "We're very, very close, but we do not yet have an agreement." President Carter, who had been spending his last weekend in office at Camp David, helicoptered to the White House, where his speechwriters were at work on a major announcement. Carter went directly from the helicopter to his Oval Office. He first summoned Secretary of State Edmund Muskie to the White House. Then they called U.S. diplomats in Algiers for a briefing on the negotiations.

Everything seemed in place for an imminent end to America's most humbling experience since its withdrawal from Viet Nam. A team of Algerian doctors had flown to Tehran to examine the hostages. Some $2.2 billion in Iranian gold and currency had been transferred from New York to London so that it could be turned over to Iran within minutes of the Americans' departure from Tehran. A 30-member U.S. hostage recovery team, including former Secretary of State Cyrus Vance, was ready in Washington to fly to West Germany to meet the released hostages at a U.S. military hospital. Carter also considered going to West Germany to welcome the Americans.

Still, it would take an intricate series of specific actions to set the actual release into motion. English, French and Farsi versions of the final text of the complex agreements would have to be compared. Carter would have to sign certain papers and order certain actions for the U.S. Beyond the $2.2 billion positioned for delivery, European and American bankers apparently would have to transfer other funds before that Algerian airliner could take off. Once it was in the air with the Americans, Iran's leverage over any further cash deliveries would evaporate.

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