Hostage release: now it's Bani-Sadr vs. the captors

Iranian President-Elect Abolhassan Bani- Sadr, clearly ready to defuse the US Embassy hostage crisis, may have to tiptoe through a political mine field in doing so.

The reason: The embassy's militant Muslim captors hold the most important bargaining card -- the 50 American hostages.

Fresh from his comfortable victory at the polls, Mr. Bani-Sadr wants to show that he -- not the youths who hold the embassy -- has a popular mandate to make Iranian policy.

He has wasted no time in declaring that he, not the militants, is boss. And in an interview with the French newspaper, Le Monde, he has hinted at the softest terms yet for resolving the crisis.

"The American government should, above all, issue a statement admitting the crimes it has committed in Iran through the imperial regime, as well as our right to file suits against the Shah and his flunkies," the President-Elect was quoted as saying Jan. 28.

"It [America] should henceforth pledge to respect the independence and sovereignty of Iran. . . . The problem of the hostages could then easily be solved."

Diplomats in Tehran earlier this month told the Monitor that Washington had indicated privately it was ready to accept Iranian suits against the Shah in American courts -- once the hostages were freed.

But the embassy youths have the hostages, and have held them now -- mostly bound and silent -- since Nov. 4 of last year.

If Mr. Bani-Sadr wants the hostages, he must.

* Have the support of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, something that a third-world diplomat just out of Iran says is now virtually assured. This has not yet been independently confirmed in Tehran.

* Find a way, with adequate face-saving for the embassy captors, to get control of the hostages.

Both these objectives, Western and Iranian officials in Tehran have long suggested, could be achieved in conjunction with some form of international investigation of alleged "crimes" under the exiled Shah. In recent weeks, UN Secretary-General Kurt Waldheim has been looking into this possibility with some Iranian officials, UN sources reached by telephone report.

One key in this entire process will be Mr. Bani-Sadr's ability - or lack therefore -- to puncture popular suport for the embassy takeover, built up in large part with the help of Iran's official news media and Ayatollah Khomeini himself.

"That will be a tricky and a gradual process," says one Arab diplomat who has been in contact with colleagues in Iran.

It also may present Iran's new President with a complicated choice on a related issue -- whether to readmit American television and newspaper reporters expelled from Iran earlier in January for allegedly biased coverage.

On the one hand, a reversal of that order could provide a foreign media boost for Mr. Bani-Sadr's new presidency.

But on the other, the Arab diplomat points out, it could also work against any effort to undermine the position of the embassy's militant gatekeepers.

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