Iran is threatening to zoom to the fore again as a major issue in the United States presidential election campaign: * On the one hand US Secretary of State Edmund Muskie is hinting at continuing efforts to get the American hostages freed in Iran -- as difficult, he says, as "driving on the ice in Maine in wintertime." If the efforts bore fruit before the presidential election in November, it would be a manifest plus for President Carter.
* On the other hand, a potential plus is offered challenger Ronald Reagan, if he can successfully exploit charges by former US Ambassador to Iran, William Sullivan, about what he sees at the bungling of policy toward Iran.
The main target of Mr. Sullivan's criticism is Mr. Carter's national security adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski, whose mistaken counsel (the Ambassador says) the President followed, despite contrary advice from the US Embassy in Tehran, Iran.
Mr. Brzezinski already is under fire from critics on other counts, most recently his involvement over Libya with the President's controversial brother, Billy.
Ambassador Sullivan's charges are made in the lates issue of the quarterly magazine Foreign Policy. His record of events in that crucial Tehran winter of 1978-1979 already has been partly carried in a series of articles by Robert Shaplen in the New Yorker last June. Mr. Shaplen, in one of those articles, indirectly corroborates from the lips of Under-Secretary of State David Newsom the Ambassador's account of the influence of Mr. Brzezinski in overriding State Department advice as the pendulum swung away from the Shah toward Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.
Secretary Muskie's disclosure of US efforts "to get engaged with the Iranians in a process, discussion, dialogue that could establish the basis upon which the hostages would be released" came in an interview carried in the Boston Globe Sept. 7. He said:
* He was encouraged by the delay in getting a reply to his recent congratulatory letter to newly installed pro-hard-line Iranian Prime Minister Muhammad Ali Rajai, in which he raised the hostage issue. Past experience was that instant response was "not usually very positive."
* Hard-liners in Iran "many actually be in a better position to make the decision than the moderates would be. It's like Nixon opening the door to China."
* "There is increasing indication that Iranians perceive it as being in their interest to get the hostage issue [settled]."
Reuters reported from Tehran that the Foreign Affairs Commissions of the Iranian Majlis (parliament) would probably submit a report by Sept. 9 saying the hostage issue was "very important and parliament should start to discuss it."
Secretary Muskie explained his "driving on the ice" analogy by indicating that identifying the center with power to act in Tehran was like "learning to drive in such a way that your tires will grip."
By implication, the burden of Ambassador Sullivan's charges against the Carter-Brzezinski Iran policy of the winter of 1978-1979 is that it directly contributed to the present slippery and frustrating situation. A spokesman for Mr. Brzezinski on Sept. 6 described the Ambassador's Foreign Policy article as "self-serving and factually inaccurate."
In his article, Mr. Sullivan asserts that he got no direct response from Washington to advice as early as Nov. 9, 1978, that the US "broker" an arrangement to avoid chaos if the Shah fell. The key to this would have been a successor government having "the blessing of Khomeini."
Mr. Sullivan attributes to Mr. Brzezinski's influence the calling off of a US diplomatic mission to confer with Ayatollah Khomeini in Paris in December, 1978.
And given his assessment (relayed to Washington) that the interim premiership of Shahpour Bakhtiar attending the Shah's departure early in 1979 was "a ch imera that would be swept aside", Mr. Sullivan professes amazement that he was could arrange a military coup against the revolution. According to the ambassador, the call came after the fall of Mr. Bakhtiar, after the disintegration of the Iranian armed forces, and after the takeover by Ayatollah Khomeini.
Mr. Shaplen's New Yorker article in June had Mr. sullivan replying laconically to the relayers of the Brzezinski inquiry: "I thought it was a bit late in the game for that."