Kurt Waldheim's patient attempts to end the US-Iran crisis have shifted into high gear, generating hopes here that the Americans hostages may be freed within a matter of weeks, perhaps even as little as two weeks.
For the first time, the United States and Iran are talking to each other through the UN Secretary-General. Over the past of few days Mr. Waldheim has been in frequent, daily contact with US Secretary of State Cyrus Vance as well as Iranian Foreign Minister Sadeq Ghotbzadeh.
And, also for the first time, there are solid indications from both sides of a readiness to reach a compromise solution. The two key elements that have made it possible for Mr. Waldheim's quiet diplomacy to move from the previous phase of simply taking soundings to a phase of active mediation are described here as:
1. The consolidation of a center of author ity in Tehran.
2. A genuine display of flexibility in Washington.
Iranian President Abolhassan Bani-Sadr is seen as wanting to put the hostage problem behind him before it weakens his rule -- and while the immense popular backing he received at the election poll, as well as Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's repeated support, is still fresh in the people's memory.
According to diplomats from countries that enjoy friendly relations with the new Iranian regime, Iran wants to play a leading third-world role at the UN. This would be similar to that played by Algreia in the late 1960s and early '70 s.
It is for this reason, they say, and not because President Bani-Sadr wants a rapprochment with the US after the Soviet aggression against Afghanistan, that he wishes to remove the one obstacle that bars Iran from getting a hero's welcome at the UN. Over 100 countries feel basically sympathetic toward Iran, objecting only to its holding diplomatic hostages.
Mr. Bani-Sadr also is said to be determined to bypass the various self-appointed and sometimes self-serving mediators who have multiplied in recent weeks. Instead he will use Mr. Waldheim's good offices.
The package deal to bring about the release of the hostages, first suggested by Mr. Waldheim's as early as last November, is now being given final shape. It has three main elements:
* Mr. Waldheim would appoint an inquiry commission of five or perhaps seven members. They are likely to be representatives from Bangladesh, Mexico, and Algeria, plus Novel Peace Prize winner Sean McBride from Ireland and French lawyer Louis Pettiti. An Iranian and an American legal expert may be added to the list.
* Upon the commission's arrival in Iran, the hostages would be transferred from the American Embassy and placed under the care of the International Red Cross for a short time. Soon thereafter they would be released and allowed to return to the United States.
* The inquiry commission would in time present its report the UN Security Council.
Linking the release of the hostages to a certain timetable is, according to informed sources here, less important to the Iranian authorities than would be "an American gesture."
Mr. Bani-Sadr is reported to want above all a declaration in Iranian affairs and repenting for having supported the Shah. While the US government, which has its own public opinion to consider, is unlikely to make an outright admission of guilt, it might agree to some sort of statement recognizing the legitimacy of Iran's grievances and expressing regret for having caused suffering in Iran.
"Wording that would satisfy Iran without shaming the US can be found," one high official believes.
Should Mr. Bani-Sadr further assert his authority and have his way with the "students" holding the hostages at the US Embassy, a final agreement between Washington and Iran could be reached in a matter of days, it is said here. Mr. Waldheim would then make a second trip to Tehran to work out the final details of the package deal and give it a UN seal -- the symbolic approval of the world community.