Washington — After 444 days of long-drawn-out captivity, freedom has come at last for the 52 American hostages. In a matter of days they will be back at home in the United States, reunited with their families.
And with this moment of relief and joy for Americans comes also new freedom for United States foreign policy.
New freedom to maneuver.
Freedom from a burden that has preoccupied American policymakers for more than 14 months.
In the short run, the US faces almost as many difficulties and strains in its relationship with Iran as it faced before. In the long run, the way may be open for a more constructive relationship between the US and Iran, based on a common interest in maintaining Iran's unity in the face of outside pressures.
The incoming Reagan administration would clearly like some day to reconstitute the old alliance with Iran. It will be many months, perhaps years, before that becomes a realistic wish.
Meanwhile, Ronald Reagan is expected to formulate a tougher set of US responses to potential hostage takers. Statements from appointees to the new administration indicate that the policy will start with a refusal to negotiate with anyone who takes American hostages. This apparently is to be coupled with a warning that if an embassy is ever taken again, there will be severe US reprisals.
Consideration also would be given to declaring a state of war against any nation which supported hostage takers, such as the leadership did in Iran. The hope is that all this will add up to a deterrent which will make potential attackers think twice before attempting to seize an American embassy.
From the Iranians' point of view, release of the 52 American hostages will allow them to pursue more effectively and single-mindedly their war against Iraq. The hostages had become a distraction and a liability. They no longer served as a much-needed unifying symbol. Iraq now provides that symbol.
Perhaps even more important to the Iranians than the billions of dollars in frozen bank funds which they will be receiving will be the reopening of trade with the West European nations which the freeing of the hostages will allow. The hostage release will help end Iran's diplomatic, political, and economic isolation.
Iran has been short of food, fuel, and ammunition.
But while the hostage release makes good sense in terms of Iran's war effort, it is bound to raise some harsh questions among that nation's long-suffering citizens. Some of them are certain to start asking, "What did we get out of all this?'
The only clear-up again Iran's new leaders made from the seizing of the Americans was that they used the hostages to consolidate, or stabilize, their revolution. The leaders can also say, as some already have, that for more than a year we "rubbed the great Satan's nose in the dirt."
But beyond that, a strong argument can be made that nothing was gained and much was lost. To start with, many Western experts think that Iraq would never have dared to attack Iran had it not been for Iran's isolation and the Western economic sanctions which were imposed on that country. Iran did not secure the return of the former Shah nor did it gets its hand on his personal fortune. That will have to go to the courts.
Iran never got the apology it wanted from the United States. And the Iranians had to drop the demand for $24 billion which they originally made, settling in the end for a total of some $9 billion.
Iran is getting less than it might have for its money because it is having immediately to repay loans. Without the hostage crisis, it could have had the money on longer terms.
The Iranians made concessions on almost every point.
All of this makes it exceedingly difficult to answer the key question of what impact the hostage release will have on the internal political struggles in Iran.
The bank assets that are part of the hostage-release deal apparently will be controlled by the Islamic fundamentalists. They can be expected to use the funds in part to strengthen the Revolutionary Guards who are loyal to them, as opposed to the national Army, which is more supportive of President Abolhassan Bani-Sadr.
Until the problem of rivalry between Iran's Army and its Revolutionary Guards is solved, it is difficult to see how the government can prosecute the war against Iraq as effectively as it would like.
What seems certain is that the Carter administration cannot be accused of paying "ransom" to secure the return of the hostages. The Iranians are getting back what was originally theirs.
When asked whether she thought the deal was an honorable one, Louisa Kennedy, the wife of one of the hostages who has often acted as spokeswoman for hostage families, declared, without hesitation: "Absolutely. No doubt about that."
This also seems to have been the reaction in the US Congress, where a number of senators and congressmen praised President Carter for his patience and steadfastness in pursuing a resolution of the hostage crisis.
But while credit was being given to Mr. Carter, there was also a widespread feeling in Washington that the "Reagan factor" played a key role, along with other elements, in securing the hostages' freedom.
It is thought that the Iranians' reluctance to deal with an unpredictable President Reagan created pressure on them to move more swiftly than they otherwise might have toward a resolution of the crisis. The war with Iraq was, of course, another pressing factor.
Now that the US-Iran deal has been struck, American scholars with experience in Iran are warning the Reagan administration not to rush toward trying to establish a new relationship with that country. They think that any such move would merely create suspicion among the militant mullahs.
"The Iranians can turn to the Europeans for economic and technical help," said Ruhollah Ramazani, an Iranian-born American who is chairman of the department of government and foreign affairs at the University of Virginia.
"There are technological areas where the United States could eventually be of more help to Iran than anyone else," he continued. "But a low profile would be advisable. We must not rush."
But Vice-President Walter Mondale seemed to be expressing the view of both the outgoing and incoming administrations when he declared in an interview not long before the hostage deal was announced that Iran is a strategically important country and that it is "in the long-term interests of the United States to have relations with Iran."
There are many months of argument in store over the lessons to be learned from the hostage crisis. These seems to be agreement here at the outset, however, that the crisis weakened the image of American power overseas.
One lesson which the Reagan administration officials seem to be drawing from all this is that they must move more forcefully than ever to establish a permanent American military presence in the Middle East, while at the same time continuing to build the "rapid deployment" military force which was planned by the o utgoing administration.