The Iranians are at their cat-and-mouse game with the United States once more. The shifting of three of the 52 American hostages in Iran from their hitherto relatively comfortable captivity in the Foreign Ministry in Tehran is tantalizingly ambiguous at this stage. So, too, are the latest commentaries put out by Tehran radio.
Does transfer of the three US diplomats from the Foreign Ministry "to a more appropriate place of residence" Jan. 3 (according to the official announcement in Tehran) mean they are being shifted to join the other 49 captives as a prelude to release?
Or is the downgrading of the place of detention for the three -- until now separate, never bound or blindfolded, and relatively favored -- a hint that the Iranians have it in their power to make things tougher for all the hostages if the US does not meet promptly and fully all the conditions set by Tehran for their release?
In this interval of waiting for Tehran's response to the Carter administration's latest and presumably last communication before the Reagan administration takes over, there are three options that both sides have to face:
1. Acceptance of the compromise terms offered by President Carter in the message just delivered in Tehran by the Algerian go-betweens. To most outsiders , the Carter offer has gone to the limit consistent with legal possibility and national honor to meet Iranian demands.
Reportedly the Iranians have been told that if their response is going to be positive, it must be delivered by Jan. 16. This would ensure that things can be set in motion for the freeing of the hostages before Ronald Reagan becomes president four days later.
2. The US could walk away from the whole hostage issue and put it on ice in the event Mr. Reagan inherits either a negative or haggling and inconclusive Iranian response to Mr. Carter's final proposal.
3. A vigorous US response by the incoming Reagan team to continued detention of the hostages -- beginning, perhaps, with tighter economic and diplomatic sanctions, but involving the eventual threat of force against Iran.
Mr. Reagan reportedly has given his word to the Carter White House that he will honor whatever commitments the President makes to secure release of the hostages before Jan. 20. This means that if they are released before that date, as in Option 1 above, denouement of the hostage crisis should be relatively smooth -- despite the assumption of office of a new US President perceived as tougher than the outgoing one.
Implicit in both Mr. Carter's and Mr. Reagan's signals to Tehran is the possibility that if there is not a positive Iranian response now, everything could return to square one, with that tougher new President calling the shots from Jan. 20 onward.
It is the incoming President who will then have to decide between Options 2 and 3 -- between putting the hostage question on ice and reviving the eventual threat of force. Either course could exacerbate the situation significantly for either or both of the two sides.
To take Option 3, the threat of force, first. If Mr. Reagan, once in the White House, chose this route he would have to be sure that his administration had the means and the will to follow through effectively, should this (in his eyes) become necessary.
A repetition of the failure of last April's rescue attempt in the desert, which hung thereafter like an albatross on Jimmy Carter, would have incalculable effects on the global image of the US as a superpower under its new President. Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev, the Saudi royal family, and allies of the US in Western Europe (to name only the most important onlookers) would take note -- and draw their own conclusions.
In Iran itself, a US resort to force probably would have two prompt effects. First, it would endanger the lives of the hostages. Second, it would play straight into the hands of that segment of fundamentalist Shia Muslim opinion that exploits in the current internal power struggle both the belief that martyrdom is the road to salvation and the propagated image of the US as "the great Satan."
Whether use of US force would also bring about a change of regime in Tehran more conducive to stability in the Gulf area is another question.
If Mr. Reagan decides on Option 2 -- putting the hostage question on ice -- this would be tantamount to letting the Iranians stew in their own juice for a while. Withheld from them would be the hard-currency assets still frozen in the US but needed with growing desperation in Iran because of the Iraqi invasion and the stoppage of the currency-earning flow of Iranian oil to the world market.
Simultaneously, Iranian extremists, clerical and leftist alike, would probably have less scope to exploit the hostages to their advantage in the continued fierce internal power struggle in Tehran. This the extremists have managed to do whenever the American captives were center-stage in US public thinking.
The extremists might conceivably try to force the hostages back to center-stage by some rash act and thereby provoke the Reagan administration. But short of that, if the Reagan administration were to walk away from the hostages for a while, it could provide time for resolution of Iran's internal power struggle.
The US hope would be for a resolution in favor of a more stable central authority capable of taking decisions and making them stick -- above all, on releasing the hosta ges.