Washington — The Christmas story relating to the American hostages in Iran is mainly being written in somber tones. Yet Secretary of State Edmund S. Muskie is going out of his way to emphasize that the Carter administration -- despite reports to the contrary -- is persistently and vigorously continuing to work to obtain the hostages' release.
Also, Mr. Muskie, while conceding that Iran's latest demand for $24 billion is "most frustrating," provides some hope. In a breakfast meeting with reporters Dec. 24 he gave these grounds for limited optimism:
1. "Our channels of communication with Iran are still open. This was not true only a short while ago when I became secretary of state."
2. Iran is "paying a tremendous cost" for keeping the hostages -- in world opinion and in cutoffs of trade.
Muskie sees the demand by Iran for the $24 billion as simply a negotiating position, one that the Iranian leaders know is completely unrealistic.
Yet, he adds, the Us still needs to educate Iran as to the constitutional limits on what the President can do in providing a quid pro quo for the hostages' release.
Muskie hinted that the US strategy now is to make the Iranians wonder what the US will do next. "We have not responded to the Iranian offer," he said, "and I won't say when we will."
There is a strong feeling within the administration that Iran really wants the hostages out -- and quickly -- befor the Reagan administration comes in. The Iranian leaders, it is felt, think they can work out a better deal with Jimmy Carter than with Ronald Reagan.
So, at a moment when the predominant media interpretation of the current state of negotiations is that it is an Iranian-caused impasse, the US sees the Iranians as simply in the midst of probes aimed at a quick resolution.
In fact, the US position is that Iran may, indeed, be surprised by the strongly negative public response the $24 billion demand has evoked in the United States.
Thus, while administration leaders say this must be expressed in cautious terms, there is some expectation now in the highest government circles that Iran will be coming up with a new and more reasonable statement of demands fairly soon.
Secretary Muskie, himself, is at times pessimistic. He told the reporters that Iran's internal political conflicts have perhaps been a part of the appearances that Iran now is dragging its heels in the negotiations.
He said that the voice of the hard-liners in Iran had apparently become louder in recent weeks -- making the job of the moderates much more difficult.
But the secretary of state sought to put down reports that there was no possibility the hostages would be released before President Carter leaves office next month.
He said emphatically that the Carter administration would not be simply "treading water," as far as the hostages were concerned, until Reagan took over the presidency.