On their hundredth day of captivity, the 50 American hostages in Tehran are every bit as much pawns in a power struggle as they were when first seized on Nov. 4 last year.
But almost everything else has changed.
The hostage seizure has proved a powerful catalyst within the United States itself. It has united the American people in a way almost unheard of on a foreign policy issue since the deep divisions of the Vietnam war.
The subsequent Soviet occupation of Afghanistan added fresh momentum to the new American mood. In 100 days the Carter administration's foreign and defense policies took a stiffened nationalist turn. Presidential candidates, for the most part, followed suit.
Meanwhile, even the power struggle in which the hostages are snared has shifted its focus.
One part of that power struggle is between East and West. During the hostages' long ordeal, Iranian perceptions of the two big powers have shifted dramatically. With the Afghanistan occupation and the buildup of Soviet forces just over Iran's northeastern border, Iranians have been reminded that the US is not necessarily the greatest threat to their country's national identity and integrity.
The other part of the power struggle is between conflicting political-religious forces within iran. Today the more extreme religious and leftist forces backing the hostage seizure have been pushed off the offensive and onto the defensive. Where rational compromise once seemed impossible, it now appears around the corner.
Within Iran the offensive has been seized from the militants by recently elected President Abolhassan Bani- Sadr, backed by 75 percent of the voters and the declared support (since his election) of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.
Mr. Bani-Sadr stands for government by laymen, but laymen sensitive to the traditional demands of Shia Islam. Politically, he is for what he would call Islamic socialism at home and for strict nonalignment between the two superpowers abroad.
Ranged against him, but now on the defensive and wanting to trip him up are: the all- out religious fundamentalists who would welcome a government run by clergymen; political radicals, Islamic and Marxist, to the left of Mr. Bani-Sadr's relatively moderate Islamic socialism; and the out-and-out pro- Soviet communists of the Tudeh Party.
Signs point increasingly to Mr. Bani- Sadr's wanting to solve the hostage problem as speedily as possible. But until now he has been almost a hostage himself -- of the same forces that seized the 50 Americans and now are holding them. He has been a hostage in the sense that he cannot open himself to the charge that he is "selling out" -- by, for example, trying unconditionally to free the Americans.
This explains why, in its latest statement on regional security, the Iranian Foreign Ministry has balanced Mr. Bani-Sadr's earlier criticism of the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan with a call to both the US and the Soviet Union "to remove their forces from the Persian Gulf area."
This also explains why the Information Ministry published allegations Feb. 9 that US newsmen had accepted gifts from the deposed Shah. The allegations came immediately after, and helped "balance," Mr. Bani-Sadr's release of Information Minister Nasser Minachi from arbitrary arrest by the student- militants who charged that Mr. Minachi had had improper dealings with the US Embassy a year ago. As an added balance, two American newsmen who had managed to stay on in Tehran after the forced departure of other US correspondents were sent packing.
The fact is that the climate of opinion in Iran is such that it is still politically more dangerous to be identified as pro-American than pro-Russian. But since the Soviet move into Afghanistan, Mr. Bani-Sadr and other Iranian nationalists like him perceive that some counterweight is needed to the doubled weight of the Soviet presence along Iran's borders. Given this, they apparently recognize the importance of quickly solving the hostage issue, which has put Iran and the US at such loggerheads.
Iran's vulnerability all along its borders with the USSR was spotlighted again by a sudden revival of violence among dissident Turkomans in the city of Gonbad Qavus Feb. 9. This is just on the Iranian side of the border east of the Caspian. Turkomans live astride the border in this area. They are one of several major ethnic groups in Iran whose demands will challenge Mr. Bani-Sadr's attempts to forge a national unity.