Behind Waldheim visit, new hope for hostages?

Iran's Foreign Minister and other top moderates seem to be seizing on the visit by UN Secretary-General Kurt Waldheim as a step toward resolving the two-month-old US Embassy hostage impasse.

Sadeq Ghotbzadeh, the Foreign Minister, met Mr. Waldheim Jan. 2 and was quoted by the state radio as saying the United Nations leader had shown understanding of Iran's grievances against the United States.

A commentary on the radio Jan. 1 all but omitted demands that the deposed Shah be returned for trial before the captives could be freed, calling instead on the Americans to "accept responsibility for the crimes of Iran's former regime . . . and attend an international court, accepting its judgment about what happened to the Iranian nation."

All, of course, still depends on Iranian religious leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who at this writing had not made it clear whether he would see Mr. Waldheim. But a number of senior officials now seem to envisage a show trial of at least some of the hostages -- with a public roasting of past US policy -- followed by the release of the hostages.

The earlier idea of a more general "trial" of US policy, with the hostages appearing only as witnesses, seems to have been dropped for the time being.

None of the prominent human-rights advocates whom Iran had sought for the tribunal has publicly agreed to participate, presumably because they feel the hostages should be freed first. But Foreign Minister Ghotbzadeh privately blames the West's coolness toward the idea for undermining it from the start.

Mr. Waldheim, and Washington and its Western allies, are in a tight spot. Diplomats stress that they cannot possibly appear to encourage any Iranian "trial" prior to resolution of the hostage impasse. But that is precisely what the Iranians seem to want.

"Washington must somehow make it clear that it understands that the hostage situation is part of the much larger, burning issue of American policy crimes," a Foreign Ministry official commented to the Monitor.

Mr. Waldheim, diplomats say, will be trying to imply he agrees without directly saying so. He is understood to be telling the Iranians that virtually every international forum -- including the UN court system -- would be open to them once the hostages were freed.

"He can't possibly encourage any kind of spy trials," one Western ambassador commented. "None of us can . . . . But if the Iranians make it absolutely clear they are going to stage such a trial anyway, and then free the hostages, my guess is that Waldheim will, in effect, say: 'Get on with it, then, and let's get the Americans out.'"

Whether this will work is no more clear now than when militant Muslim students stormed and captured the embassy compound Nov. 4. But there are increasing indications that the door to a resolution of the conflict may be slowly creaking wider.

Mr. Ghotbzadeh "gave the strong impression that the Waldheim visit could genuinely help things," in a private meeting in late December with a visiting Pakistani envoy, an informed diplomat said. In a press statement Jan. 1, the Foreign Minister seemed to bend over backwards to prevent a preliminary UN move toward possible economic sanctions against Iran from undermining the Waldheim visit. Mr. Ghotbzadeh argued that sanctions were still not definite, that in all likelihood they would not be approved, and that the Waldheim visit had been announced before the preliminary UN vote Dec. 31.

The embassy captors, meanwhile, have rolled back on their initial rejection of Mr. Waldheim's visit and have brought their position nearly into line with Mr. Ghotbzadeh's. They say they would not negotiate with the UN chief, but leave open the possibility of a meeting to fill him in on their position regarding the embassy crisis.

Ayatollah Muhammad Beheshti, a member of Iran's Revolutionary Council, told reporters Jan. 2, that the idea of a general "grand jury" type of investigation of US policy did not seem to be getting off the ground. But he indicated that a trial of the hostages, with a generous dose of foreign news coverage, might be a step toward winding down the embassy problem.

Earlier, he had told a Japanese newspaper that even if some of the captives were "convicted," they would be pardoned and released.

Ayatollah Beheshti does not speak for Ayatollah Khomeini any more than Mr. Ghotbzadeh does, but he enjoys a singular distinction. He has commented only sparingly on the embassy situation, and none of his previous remarks has been proven wrong by either Ayatollah Khomeini or the student captors.

Iranian officials decline to predict how or when they might eventually move from mere hints of conciliation toward a practical solution to the crisis. But the Foreign Ministry official insisted the key was "a show of clear US understanding of the roots of the situation."

This, he said, might also involve US willingness to "renegotiate some of the bad arms and commercial deals the Shah got us into" -- an issue Iran tried to resolve after the revolution but, in the official's words, "did not succeed in resolving."

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