Hostages plan edges forward

Abolhassan Bani-Sadr, with boosts from a hospitalized Ayatollah Khomeini and sighs of relief from many Tehranis, is slowly, coolly collecting power as Iran's first President.

Now comes the real test: Can he free the 50 Americans held hostage in their embassy here for nearly 16 weeks?

The answer by Feb. 21, amid United Nations efforts to activate a compromise solution to that crisis, was probably "yes". But internal Iranian politics could make the hostage release far slower and more complicated than American and UN officials had hoped.

Since his landslide victory at the polls in January, Mr. Bani-Sadr has been building the hostage crisis into something of a showdown with ambitious political rivals who have helped keep Iran in revolutionary limbo for the past year.

Ayatollah Khomeini, the Islamic sage who made and then dominated Iran's revolution, has thus far backed his new President.

But there are indications that Mr. Bani-Sadr's rivals may not go down without a fight. And a hard-time statement from Ayatollah Khomeini Feb. 21 seemed to dim Western hopes that the Ayatollah would step in early to prevent one.

The Ayatollah's words, broadcast on Tehran radio, did not explicitly renew demands that the former Shah be sent back for trial before the American captives could be freed -- a condition Mr. Bani-Sadr has omitted from recent statements.

But the venerable religious leader did tell his people to fight for the Shah's extradition "until victory." He also seemed indirectly to praise the militant Muslim students actually holding the Americans, referring to "our dear youth who have risen up to satisfy" the wishes of God.

The message reversed the recent de-emphasis here of Iran's battle with Washington, but could surprise few Iranian political analysts. From the early days of the revolution, the silver-bearded Ayatollah Khomeini has shunned the very type of showdown Mr. Bani-Sar has now, in effect, set up.

It was this hesitancy that long stymied the post-revolutionary government of Prime Minister Mehdi Bazargan and, ultimately, forced his resignation after the capture of the US Embassy last November.

Since Mr. Bani-Sadr's election, the trend has continued, if a little more subtly. The new President wasted no time in trying to establish some measure of cohesion at the top, moving to dissolve the Revolutionary Council that had ruled parallel to Mr. Bazargan from the start.

The council, including Mr. Bani-Sadr's most powerful rival, resisted. The solution was vintage Khomeini: The council would stay until legislative elections in March, but Mr. Bani-Sadr would take over as its chairman. The President, meanwhile, has been working toi organize support for a "friendly" legislature to help further consolidate his position.

Ayatollah Khomeini's latest declaration may not have been intended to encourage the Revolutionary Council or the embassy militants to take on Iran's new President. The statement may be meant, instead, as a means of softening a final blow to Iran's free-lance revolutionary spokesmen -- the Ayatollah's ultimate aim in the view of some Iranian and Western analysts here.

But Ayatollah Khomeini's words would not seem likely to speed that process. Mr. Bani-Sadr's increasingly isolated rivals seemed bound to interpret them as at least a tacit nod of support.

The rivals, after all, may have little to lose.

They are men like Sadeq Ghotbzadeh, the council member and foreign minister who helped oust Mr. Bani-Sadr from that post last year; or politicized clerics such as Ayatollah Muhammad Beheshti, the former Revolutionary Council chief who pointedly skipped the new President's swearing-in ceremony; or "kids," as mr. Bani-Sadr has dismissed them, such as the militant students holding the US Embassy.

Their stock has been falling fast. Mr. Ghotbzadeh absorbed much of the blame for the Canadian-sponsored escape in late January of six Americans who had eluded capture at the embassy.

Ayatollah Beheshti, tipped by many Iranian politicians last year to become the country's first president, now has lost command of the Revolutionay Council. In late January, another religious figure -- in a move impossible without at least tacit approval from Ayatollah Khomeini -- denounced Mr. Beheshti and some other prominent political clerics as traitors and opportunists who wanted to seize the reins of power.

And the embassy students, whose power was largely created by radio messages from Ayatollah Khomeini last year, suddenly have found themselves theatened with an eventual return to the classroom. Indeed, Tehran univeristy professors recently were stunned to find a few of the embassy militants turning up for chemistry or engineering exams.

On Feb. 21, moreover, fighting broke out on the university campus between rival Muslim radical groups. A number of injuries were reported in clashes between moderates and radicals, with Revolutionary Guards trying to damp down the fray by firing in the air.

Meanwhile, the militants' main supporter in te state-run television bureau has resigned -- another step virtually impossible without approval, if not an explicit directive, from Ayatollah Khomeini.

Outside the embassy, this reporter could not find the thousands of demonstrators who mobbed the area last November, nor even the hundreds who were always gathered there earlier this year.

On Feb. 20, only eight stolid supporters huddled outside the chained gate of the compound in the late winter chill.There were a few relatively fresh banners dangling from nearby trees, but the rest had long since become gray and tattered.

At the gate, two soldiers from the pro-Khomeini Revolutionary Guard cradled rifles, an apparent reminder that the youths who became overnight heroes by storming the embassy are not a power unto themselves.

There have been further reminders in recent weeks. Shortly after Mr. Bani-Sadr's election, the embassy militants managed to get a Cabinet minister jailed for alleged links with the Americans. Mr. Bani-Sadr promptly got him out , and managed to get the Revolutionary Council to endorse the release as well. At the same time, several of the Tehran demonstrations that have become hallmarks of the revolution omitted a stop at the embassy -- obligatory in the weeks following its capture.

All Mr. Bani-Sadr's major rivals have built their prominence on proximity to, or the presumed support of, a single man: Ayatollah Khomeini. But the Ayatollah's health continues to cause concern. His cancellation of a planned appearance at a military parade earlier this month also was duly noted here.

Whether for this or other reasons, Ayatollah Khomeini in effect has expanded mr. Bani-Sadr's power in recent days.

And whether for this or other reasons, rivals such as Messrs. Ghotzadeh and Beheshti and the embassy militants recently have revived a hard line on the hostage issue.

Neither the Ayatollah nor Mr. Bani-Sadr seems explicitly concerned about the captive Americans. Held now for 110 days -- sometimes bound in an enforced silence -- they have become a symbol of alleged American crimes in a revolution built and powered on symbols.

But they have also become a symbol of the revolution's diverse, and often bickering, centers of power. This, Mr. Bani-Sadr is determined to change. And on this score, he has received recent help from the Ayatollah.

On Feb. 19, Ayatollah Khomeini named the new President as commander of the Armed Forces, a role reserved for himself in Iran's post-revolutionary constitution, and Mr. Bani-Sadr promplty vowed to rebuild the demoralized military. Later in the day, the Ayatollah appointed the first six members of a Guardian Council charged with making sure Iran's government does not violate Islamic precepts.

None of the six was drawn from the more prominent clerical politicians such as Mr. Beheshti. Most were simply Islamic scholars from Qom. The choice was seen here as something of a victory for a new President trying to gain a hold on the country's revolutionary power structure.

It may have been this structure -- or lack of it -- as much as substantive issues that has accounted for the delay in the departure of a United Nations investigatory team from Geneva for Tehran. Reports from Geneva said the Algerian co-chairman of the UN commission had returned to New York, although Ambassador Muhammed Bedjaoui reportedly planned to rejoin his colleagues in time to leave for Tehran during the coming weekend.

As Iranian officials sought to inform journalists here Feb. 20 of just how the UN investigation would be handled, it was clear that no one in the government was sure who would be running the show.

No one could say where the envoys would stay, what they would do, and what kind of media coverage would be encouraged or allowed.

"Remember, this is a revolution," one good-natured official quipped.

Mr. Bani-Sadr wants to put direction into that revolution. Many Tehranis -- from intellectuals to taxi drivers, from government officials to the bazaar merchants who have always been seen as a barometer of Iranian political trends -- seem glad that he does.

An Iranian journalist friend toured the sprawling cloth bazaar in Tehran on the eve of the presidential elections. The bazaaris, he said, didn't really care who was elected. They just wanted a strong president. From merchant to merchant came a distinctly nonrevolutionary plea: law and order, particularly order, in an economy badly battered by the first year of revolution.

One streetside vendor who remembered this reporter from last year proclaimed excitedly: "Bani-Sadr is good. He is strong. And he can rule."

Ayatollah Khomeini, so far, seems inclined to help him to do so. But a key test will come as the new President seeks to push through what one diplomat termed a "quiet compromise" -- a UN investigation of American "crimes" against Iran and some form of US apology , in return for the eventual release of 50 Americans still held hostage for those "crimes."

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