WASHINGTON — THE moment has passed for an early breakthrough in the Lebanon hostage crisis, and the Bush administration is now settling in for the ``long haul,'' to quote White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater. That means months of behind-the-scenes maneuvering, watching, and waiting while Iran - believed to exert varying degrees of influence over Lebanon's kidnap groups - sorts out its internal politics and decides how it wants to handle the issue, administration officials say.
When the Israelis captured Shiite Muslim leader Abdul Karim Obeid from southern Lebanon July 28, leading one cell of the radical group Hizbullah to release a videotape of a hanged US Lt. Col. William Higgins, the stalemated hostage situation was jolted loose. For several tense days, it dominated world attention. Now Syria's escalation of the war in Lebanon - where the intensity of the fighting in recent days led to an emergency session Tuesday night of the United Nations Security Council and calls for renewed Arab League mediation - has pushed the hostages back down on the region's agenda.
In Tunis, Tunisia, a three-nation Arab League committee mediating in the dispute made a fresh appeal for an immediate cease-fire. ``The fighting now going on cannot solve any problems,'' it said in a communiqu'e.
Amid the current flare-up in fighting, the hostage crisis still looms. At the very least, says a ranking State Department official, Iranian President Hashemi Rafsanjani needs to name his cabinet before he can act on the hostages. That is expected to happen by the end of the month. Then Iran's key political actors must come to grips with a longstanding question: whether to reintegrate into the ``family of nations,'' and seek reconstruction aid from the West, or continue the pursuit of spreading Islamic revolution as the main foreign policy objective.
``If Iran's top priority is to improve living standards and to rebuild, then it will have to stop behaving like an international outlaw,'' says the official. ``Iran can't have it both ways forever.''
So far, the barrage of shifting Iranian demands and conditions for help on the hostages have been aimed at ``deflecting attention'' from the fact that they haven't yet made up their mind on whether to use their influence with the kidnappers to free hostages, the official continues.
The sensation of the Higgins video and the subsequent videotaped plea for help from hostage Joseph Cicippio once again riveted public interest in the drawn-out hostage ordeal. This has tended to distort the importance of individual statements and events, leading to an exaggerated sense of either hope or futility on the fate of the remaining 15 Western hostages.
One United States analyst points out, for example, that recent hard-line statements by Iran's new religious leader, Ali Khamenei, were made in the final days of Ashura - the high point of the year in Shiite Islam - and therefore were not surprising or cause for special alarm.
Too much, also, has been made of a recent report in the Tehran Times that Iran and the US were about to start indirect talks with Pakistani mediation, says Shaul Bakhash, a professor of history at George Mason University. True, the Tehran Times often reflects Mr. Rafsanjani's views, he says. And Pakistani Foreign Minister Sahabzada Yaqib Khan was in Tehran yesterday talking to Iranian officials, on the heels of a visit to Washington.
But ``a lack of intermediaries is not the problem here - anyone could have done it,'' says Professor Bakhash, calling the Tehran Times story a ``trial balloon.'' Furthermore, he adds, the paper's editor, himself a Pakistani national, seemed less than assertive about the authority of the story in a BBC interview.
Analysts agree that, at this point, there's little the US can do to pressure Iran that would bring results on the hostages anytime soon.
``They have got to want to keep [the momentum] going themselves,'' says Richard Murphy, former assistant secretary of state on the Mideast. ``What incentive is there? Their economy is in very serious difficulties. But those who don't want a particular change in the relationship with Washington will be telling those who think Washington may be key to the recovery, `You don't have to worry about that. The Japanese and Europeans will be interested in loans and investments. We don't need Washington.' So if there isn't that strategic interest in Tehran in any permanent relationship, it's very hard to see how you do keep things going on anything to do with the economy.''
In the longer run, Iranian assets frozen from the 1979 hostage crisis could be a leverage point. But the gain for Iran would not necessarily be immediate or dramatic. The United States government doesn't have the power to settle the disputed claims at will. The process is taking place in the Iran-US Claims Tribunal in The Hague, in an atmosphere of acrimony. So, if Iran were helpful on the hostages, US officials say, Iran-US relations would improve, thereby smoothing the way for a speedier assets resolution.
Another way Washington could win favor with Iran, suggests Professor Bakhash, would be to pressure Iraq toward a formal peace agreement on their now-ended war with Iran. It was Iraq that started the war, and also Iraq that made wider use of chemical weapons, for which it got relatively little international condemnation.
Syria's potential as a helpful force on the hostages has been negated for now by its decision to launch an assault on its Christian rivals in Lebanon.
If Syria wanted, it could make life difficult for the Iranian-backed kidnap groups by blocking their supply lines from Iran and harassing Hizbullah family members and supporters, some of whom live in Syrian-controlled areas of Lebanon. But it needs Hizbullah's support in the battle against the Iraqi-backed Christians, and so does not want to anger Hizbullah.
Furthermore, even if Syria were not currently locked in a pitched battle to assert its dominance of Lebanon, it is arguable whether it would be willing to lean on Hizbullah, despite its publicly professed desire to help with the hostage crisis.
So far, Syria has paid little for allowing Shiite extremists to take advantage of Lebanon's instability. And the Soviets, who supply Syria with arms, apparently have not decided to turn the screws - either for the sake of the hostages or for Lebanon itself.