Algeria: Partner in hostage settlement

By GEORGE SIBERA  |  Jan. 19, 1981
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ALGIERS, Algeria -- The agreement for the release of the American hostages from Tehran was negotiated through the good offices of Algeria, whose diplomatic machine worked for months with an efficiency equalled only by its discretion.

On President Benjadid Chadli's orders, Foreign Minister Mohammed Benyahia put the best Algerian diplomatic brains to work to provide the two sides with assistance in reaching the compromise settlement.

The success is expected to earn great international prestige for the North African country's younger generation of diplomats who, in the words of a senior Western diplomat, proved worthy of their elders who negotiated the 1962 Evian peace accords ending Algeria's seven-year war of independence against France.

Algeria's role in the crisis is not yet over. It will go on acting as a guarantor of the settlement with Iran, insuring satisfactory compliance with all clauses of the accords.

Some diplomatic analysts believe Algeria may one day help normalize relations between the United States and Iran.

Algeria's reward will probably come through closer relations, especially economic, with Washington. The reopening soon of negotiations with the United States on Algeria's pending request for a sharp increase in the price of natural gas will be the first test.

U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Warren Christopher, the sad-faced but tough chief negotiator in the hostage crisis, spared no opportunity to praise Algerian authorities for their help. Even Iran, less effusive, often underscored Algeria's pivotal role.

Covering thousands of miles aboard special or commercial jetliners, two men were the unsung heroes of the exchanges between Washington and Tehran. They were Algeria's Ambassador to Iran Abdelkrim Gheraib and his colleague in Washington, Redha Malek.

They were ideally placed for the job.

Algeria's early post-liberation fervor has cooled considerably, and Algeria has stopped being a haven for radical movements such as the Black Panthers. But it hailed the advent of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's Islamic revolution as, in Chadli's words, 'an admirable renaissance of the Iranian people.'

Good will visits between the two Islamic revolutionary countries followed the fall of Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi in early 1979.

Algiers was the scene of an early attempt to smooth things between Tehran and Washington when, on Nov. 1, 1979, U.S. National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski, attending an Algerian anniversary celebration, met briefly with then-Premier Mehdi Bazargan and members of his Iranian delegation.

A few days later, following Iran's seizure of the U.S. Embassy on Nov. 4. Gheraib condemned the seizure of hostages. Yet he was one of the first five foreign envoys allowed to see the ca0tives.

Archbishop Marcel Duval of Algiers was the Roman Catholic priest who offered mass for the captives during their first Christmas in captivity. Algeria's U.N. Ambassador Mohammed Bedjaoui was named chairman of the special U.N. commission on the late shah's alleged crimes.

A month after the formal break in U.S.-Iran relations April 7, Algiers indicated cautiously it was prepared to 'intervene at one moment or another if such intervention could be positive.'

In September, Gheraib discussed Algeria's possible diplomatic role with groups in Iran's parliament. The official role of go-between was conferred late in October when Algeria, though preoccupied by the aftermath of the devastating earthquake at El-Asnam, played host to Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Ali Rajai.

Rajai announced 10 days later he had won Algeria's acceptance to 'study, in cooperation with Iranian authorities, the procedure for the liberation of the hostages.'

Algerian diplomacy went into action. On Nov. 10, a special jetliner brought Christopher to Algiers and his negotiating crew began formal bargaining.

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