Getting the hostages home likely to demand delicate balancing act; Iranian leaders, still politically insecure, don't want to risk hostage 'sellout' charge

Behind the impasse over release of the US hostages in Iran lies recognition in recent weeks: By Iranian Prime Minister Muhammad Ali Rajai, that he is set up to be the fall guy if he accepts the latest US terms and gives the order for the release of the 52 American captives. He, and he alone, would then be vulnerable to any charge of a sellout to "the great Satan."

By the Muslim fundamentalists, and particularly their political arm, the Islamic Republican Party (IRP), that their base of support in the country is much narrower than seemed the case a couple of months ago. They are in a squeeze between the extreme left and the largely merchant and middle-class secularists, for whom President Bani-Sadr and former Foreign Minister Sadeq Ghotbazadeh are symbols.

There is irony in all this for both Mr. Rajai and the fundamentalists.

Until a few weeks ago, the Prime Minister and the IRP fundamentalists seemed to have jointly won out in the power struggle under way in Iran all year long. The IRP had achieved its aim of isolating President Bani-Sadr and securing control of the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of government.

With this apparent triumph behind them, the fundamentalists were at least willing to take up the question of freeing the hostages, whom they had used to their advantage in the internal power struggle. The Iraqi invasion in September provided a further reason to end the hostage impasse.

In that same September, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini enunciated four basic conditions for release of the hostages. Next came his public commitment to releasing the hostages, reportedly in response to representations from President Bani-Sadr. The effect was to ensure that from then on, resolution of the hostage problem became the responsibility of the IRP-controlled Majlis (parliament) and the IRP's nominee for the premiership, Mr. Rajai. In other words, Mr. Bani-Sadr managed to unload it all back on them.

By early November, the Iranian parliament -- after prodding from Ayatollah Khomeini -- put its own seal on a formula for the hostages' release, based on the Ayatollah's conditions of September.

But no sooner had this happened than two almost concurrent events brought home to the IRP fundamentalists that their popular support was being eroded. This must have been a shock to them because the common wisdom had been that the Iraqi invasion of Iran had rallied most Iranians to support of the government. The two events were:

* On Nov. 4, the fundamentalists resumed the long-delayed trial of Muhammad Reza Saadati. The former leader of the radical, leftist, Marxist Mujahideen-e Khalq was identified by the fundamentalists as the most immediate threat to them from the left. The prosecution demanded a capital sentence.

* On Nov. 7, the fundamentalists arrested their most vocal and persistent critic in the "moderate" secularist camp, former Foreign Minister Ghotbzadeh.

In both cases, their apparent aim was to consolidate their power, of which they by now felt so sure. But both moves backfired.

The resumption of the Saadati trial reportedly produced behind-the-scenes representations to the government from its supporters that if the former Mujahideen leader were executed, there would be an explosion from the left. Universities have been closed since the end of 1979 -- an implicit admission of the extreme left's latent strength, since the college campuses are their main base.

As the result of these private representations, Mr. Saadati got only a 10 -year jail term --background of the many summary executions ordered by revolutionary courts since early 1979.

To the government's surprise, Mr. Ghotbzadeh's arrest produced mass protest demonstrations. Significantly, these were led by the merchant-class of the bazaar, not many months earlier a main buttress of the fundamentalist clergy and their cause.

The result: Mr. Ghotbzadeh was released after a few days.

These events brought home to the fundamentalists that their bedrock support had been whittled down to the slum class, the illiterate poor -- the same kind of people called "sand-culottes" two centuries earlier in revolutionary France.

But the loyalty of these impoverished people is in fact personal and specifically to Ayatollah khomeini, whom they equate with fundamentalism. If he were no longer on the scene, their loyalty to the IRP fundamentalists might no longer be guaranteed -- and the fundamentalists know it.

For them, the only card to play -- or play again -- was the hostages. In the emotional climate of today's Iran, anti-Americanism remains the yardstick for measuring revolutionary purity; and the IRP seems to have concluded that the best way to reassert its revolutionary purity is to put as much distance as possible between itself and Prime Minister Rajai as he wrestles with the exchanges between Tehran and Washington.

The IRP cannot come out unequivocally against the hostages' release because Ayatollah Khomeini has given his blessing to the principle of freeing them. But the party is being as obstructive as possible.

For instance, the IRP headed off any move by Mr. Rahai to try to get the IRP-dominated Majlis to help him draft the Iranian reply to communications from Washington to recent weeks. And on New Year's Eve, IRP leader Ayatollah Beheshti was more uncompromising on the hostage impasse than PRim Minister Rajai's top aide, Behzad Nabavi, had been 24 hours earlier.

Both Mr. Rajai and Mr. Nabavi seem to want to get almost anybody to share or take over from them final responsibility for any decision to release the hostages. They apparently sense that a definitive move in that direction might be politically suicidal for them. Hence, perhaps Mr. Nabavi's suggestion that any US guarantees deemed acceptable by the Algerian middlemen in the negotiations might be acceptable to Iran.

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