In the latest maneuvering over the 50 American Embassy hostages in Tehran one question stands out: Has President Carter again been trapped into a position where all the give is on the part of the United States without the Iranians delivering anything substantive in return?
At time of writing the answer was not clear. What was plain, however, was that Mr. Carter during the past few days had taken the same risk that he took last February when he agreed to the sending of the UN Commission of Inquiry to Tehran, Iran. Once again, he had made concessions in advance to the Iranians without cast-iron guarantees that he will promptly get concessions from them in return.
Against this, though, must be set both the stakes for Mr. Carter and the fact that his options are far more restricted than his critics imply. If he can show some gain for this latest risk-taking, it will have been worth it not only in sheer human and diplomatic terms but also in terms of political advantage for him in the current presidential primary campaign.
In the case of the UN commission, it eventually left Iran empty-handed after a frustrating sojourn in Tehran. The commissioners did not even see the hostages to check their well-being (as had been promised), let alone secure anything tangible in the direction of their release.
Indeed, although the commission may have come very near success at one point, the net effect of its visit in the end was a hardening of the situation -- with Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini ruling that nothing could be decided about the hostages until the still-to-be-elected parliament had convened.
This time, Mr. Carter is deferring the imposing of further sanctions on Iran in the light of "a positive step" announced by Iranian President Bani-Sadr in Tehran April 1.
The positive step? Mr. Bani-Sadr's announcement that "if the United States issues an official declaration and announces that it will not, until the formation of the [Iranian] parliament and its decision on the hostages, make propaganda, claims, speak or instigate on the issue, the Revolutionary Council will accept to take control of the hostages."
Ever since the hostages were seized Nov. 4 by student militants thought to be Islamic leftists, Mr. Bani-Sadr has disapproved of their action. He has done his utmost to get the captives freed.
The first step in this direction manifestly would be to get the hostages out of the hands of their gun-wielding captors and into more responsible hands. The Revolutionary Council is the preferred alternative custodian, indeed probably the only politically feasible alternative in today's Iran.
Shortly after his election to the presidency of the new Islamic Republic in February, Mr. Bani-Sadr took over the presidency of the Revolutionary Council. But hard-line and fundamentalist opposition to him within the council blocked his effort, during the UN commission's stay in Tehran, to have custody of the hostages transferred from the students to the council.
His Tehran speech April 1 implied a second attempt by him to get the Revolutionary Council to assume responsibility for the hostages, in place of their present captors with guns. But this time he is sweetening the move for his domestic audience by insisting that it is conditional on the US government's muzzling itself on the hostage question until the new Iranian parliament meets, not likely now before May.
He has an additional sweetener already in hand: the interpretation given in Iran to a recent communication from Mr. Carter. This portrays the US President as going some way toward admitting past US "mistakes" and securing an American public inquiry into them.
Most thoughtful outsiders agree that Mr. Carter has little alternative but to proceed patiently if his top priority is the eventual freeing of the hostages unharmed. But he is out on a limb where his position is all the more precarious because:
* The current presidential election campaign exposes him to onslaughts from challengers in both the Republican and Democratic parties.
* His critics can correctly point to a mounting pattern of concessions from the US to Iran since Mr. Carter's initial defiant words after the hostage-seizure Nov. 4. These words were to the effect that any possible American concessions to Iranian revolutionary sensitivity could not be discussed (let alone implemented) until after the hostages had been freed.
* The possibility persists, despite hints from Washington of a secret understanding behind the scenes, that Mr. Bani-Sadr still will not succeed in the next few days in getting the hostages out of the hands of the armed students and into effective control of the Revolutionary Council. Already there are suggestions the transfer of control will be on paper only, with nothing changing in the cast of characters holding the hostages and the US Embassy compound.
There is no reason to doubt Mr. Bani-Sadr's good faith in all this. An early resolution of the hostage issue is as much in his interest as in Mr. Carter's. But if this latest maneuvering still denies Mr. Carter what he expects, the consequences could be graver for the American President than for his Iranian counterpart.
If Mr. Bani-Sadr delivers, Mr. Carter probably can count on American public tolerance of the tactics used by their President. He will be acclaimed by many as a hero.
But if Mr. Bani-Sadr is again thwarted in his effort to deliver, the resulting inquest on what Mr. Carter has "given away" -- as his critics will claim -- in return for nothing could be rough, indeed. Public opinion is unlikely to be assuaged by the argument that Mr. Carter's options really left little choice but to take the risk he did.