It is unlikely that the American hostages in Tehran will be released in the immediate future; but United Nations mediation may yet be able to bring about their liberation within a few months, perhaps even earlier.
This assessment is offered by a small group of high-ranking diplomatic here who are very well informed about all that is going on behind the scenes.
Contrary to all appearances, they say, the Soviet veto against sanctions at the Security Council last week in no way halted UN diplomatic efforts to achieve a peaceful settlement of the American-Iranian crisis.
Not only has Secretary-General Kurt Waldheim intensified his drive for a negotiated solution, but he also still has a solid mandate to do so. The mandate flows from both the UN Charter itself and from the Security Council resolution of Dec. 31, which asked him "to intensify his efforts" and took note of "his readiness to personally go to Iran." This resolution was not affected by the Soviet veto of the subsequent sanctions resolution Jan. 9.
Furthermore, Mexico and Bangladesh now are working behind the scenes to try to convene the Security Council again under the presidency of Jacques Leprette, France's permanent representative, maybe as early as next week. The aim would be to renew the Council's encouragement and support of the Waldheim initiatives.
What is publicly know of Mr. Waldheim's efforts throughout the last seven weeks is only the tip of the iceberg.
According to senior international officials who may not be quoted, Mr. Waldheim's personal role has not only been central and much more intense than is generally known, but also has been more successful than the initial visible results might suggest.
In fact, according to these sources, both Washington and Tehran speak privately in an entirely different language from their public pronouncements. In public they use strong words, essentially for domestic consumption. But when they talk to each other through Mr. Waldeheim, they are much more conciliatory.
The situation in Iran, as has been reported, but as the American public has perhaps not fully understood, is quite unusual. It is comparable to the anarchy that prevailed during the French revolution.
AT that time French society was in a state of permanent disruption. There was no central authority, and leaders such as Danton, Marat, and Robespierre were ideological leaders rather than authoritative spokesmen for the government. During the French revolution people in the streets were busy redressing century-old wrongs of their society and could have cared less about what the powdered nobles of Vienna, London, and St. Petersburg thought of their behavior.
Under the present circumstances, a shootout cannot, therefore, bring about the desired results -- much as some people might be temperamentally inclined to favor one. "Trying to rescue the hostages is an operation as delicate as trying to save people caught in a building that is on fire. It requires courage, but also caution, patience, and skill," says a third-world diplomat whose country is making an effort to be helpful.
There is good reason to believe that Iran's Revolutionary Council favors the package deal put together by Mr. Waldheim. The hostages would be set free and an international inquiry commission would be set up under UN auspices to examine Iran's grievances against the Shah and the US.
Two difficulties yet to be resolved are:
1. The timing of the two moves in relation to each other.
2. The precise nature of the mechanism by which the inquiry commission would be set up.
Washington wants the hostages to be freed before the commission is appointed. Tehran has been saying that the hostages would be freed after the commission has done its work. Obviously, according to those who are privy to both American and Iranian thinking, at some point both sides will agree on a simultaneous compromise solution.
The other difficulty comes from the fact many third-world countries, particularly in Africa, are wary that such a commission creates a precedent. It empowers the UN, in the future, to pass judgment on former chiefs of state whose successors might call them "criminals" and want former rulers brought home from exile to face execution squads.
To avoid this pitfall, several ideas are being carefully studied behind the scenes. One would have the Iranian grievances presented to the UN Human Rights Commission, in a way similar grivances against Chile's Augosto Pinochet Ugarte, for instance, have been presented. The commission would then report its findings to the General Assembly. No precedent would thus have been created.
Another scenario would have the Secretary-General, with clear encouragement from the Security Council, personally appoint such a commission, which would then present its report to the Security Council. This commission could not be considered as institutionalized, but rather as a unique initiative.
In any event, there is a strong feeling here, among a few key officials who are familiar with the Waldheim-Vance and Waldheim- Ghotbzadeh secret meetings, that the Iranians want a negotiated settlement even though they are not yet in a position to have it implemented.
UN officials believe the expulsion of American journalists, inasmuch as it deprives the students from using the media to their advantage, will isolate them and help defuse the highly explosive situation.
There is also the feeling that at some point, another Waldheim trip to Tehran may be necessary -- when an if it becomes clear to him that it might help to finalize the package.
If his quiet and, in fact, secret efforts are allowed to run their course, if no false moves such as provocative rhetoric or resort to force are made, the hostages might be released unharmed "in the not-too-distant future."
Next week's expected Security Council meeting will be aimed at "keeping the ball rolling," according to one of its key members. He believes that "given the fluid nature of the Iranian situation, there is no guarantee for a happy end, but to say that Mr. Waldheim's efforts may pay off in the not-to-distant future is more than idle speculation."