The 50 American hostages held in Tehran can be expected to return home at or near the end of the month. This will be one result of a secret and comprehensive package deal which has been struck by the United States and Iran through the offices of United Nations Secretary-General Kurt Waldheim.
The exact terms of the elaborate scenario agreed on by both parties have not been officially revealed in public. Nor will they be. But they are known to include:
* The appointment of an international commission of inquiry, which will leave Geneva for Tehran this week to investigate the Shah's "crimes."
* The transfer of the hostages from the American Embassy, where they are held captive by the students, to a safer place where they will be held in the custody of the Iranian government itself.
* A statement by the US government expressing in general terms its "regrets" for an action that is historically on the record (the CIA coup which in 1953 returned the Shah to power) and assuring Iran that it does not intend to interfere with its domestic affairs.
* The hostages' return to the United States in about two weeks.
* The return of the inquiry commission to UN headquarters in New York at about the same time to submit a report to the Security Council.
* The freeing of Iranian assets now frozen in US banks and the dropping of any US sanctions against Iran.
* The seeking by Iran, through legal channels, of the Shah's extradition from Panama and eventually the rejection of this request by Panama for legal reasons of its own. (According to its Constitution, an individual cannot be extradited if he may face death in his own country.)
For domestic reasons, both the US and the Iranian governments reportedly wish to keep the exact provisions of their agreement secret. They prefer each step of their intricate pas de deux to appear independent of the previous step, as though the ballet were being improvised.
This procedure has the advantage of taking both sides off the hook. To get the process moving, they will both be portrayed as responding to a UN initiative; hence they do not lose as much face as if they appeared to be bowing to the wishes of the other side. Thereafter, each "gesture" on the part of Iran and of the US will seem to have been generated by a previous gesture of the other.
The inquiry commission, which in effect will function as an international grand jury, is composed of five members: Louis-Edmond Pettiti of France, former president of France's Bar Association; Mohammed Bedjaoui, Algeria's Ambassador to the UN and a member of the UN Committee for International Law; Andres Aguilar , former Venezuelan ambassador to Washington and former head of the Inter-American Human Rights Commission; Dr. Adib Daoudy of Syria, political adviser to President Assad; and Hector Jayewardene from Sri Lanka, brother of Sri Lanka's President and member of the UN subcommittee for the protection of minorities.
This commission is by no means a tribunal. It will merely gather facts concerning the Shah's "crimes" and look into the American complaint concerning the seizing of the hostages.
Iran is no longer making the return of the Shah a precondition for the release of the hostages. It is content with the US recognizing its rights to seek the return of the Shah and his wealth through legal channels.
The US has long since dropped the argument about its right to offer hospitality to whom it wishes and has "allowed" the Shah to move to Panama.
The delicate matter of the hostages' release has been kept secret because, more than any other aspect of the deal, it represented an almost unsurmountable obstacle.
How could President Carter allow the establishment of an inquiry commission without firm assurances of the hostages' release? And how could Iran's President Abolhassan Bani-Sadr present his case to the students and set a date for the release of the hostages before a UN sponsored commission arrived in Tehran and began its work?
The agreements, therefore, had to be made in absolute secrecy.
The credit for snatching the hostages away from a possibly tragic fate appears to belong largely to Mr. Waldheim and the United Nations. Mr. Waldheim conceived the idea of the package deal as early as Nov. 17. At that time Iran considered the UN as an American puppet, while in the eyes of the Carter administration the UN was but one instrument among others through which to exert pressures on Iran.
Mr. Waldheim stuck to his compromise plan, however. And his trip to Tehran in early January represented a turning point in the crisis. He managed for the first time to persuade the members of the Revolutionary Council that he was not an American stooge and that his package deal had possibilities.
Mr. Waldheim tried very hard to sell his approach to President Carter when he went to the White House on Jan. 6. But, according to the most reliable sources here, he was firmly rebuffed. Instead, say officials who have been closely linked to the crisis from the very start, the US remained firmly committed throughout January to a policy of pressure against Iran.
Two events then breathed new life into the Waldheim mediations efforts:
1. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan provided the United States with an opportunity to change the anti-American feeling in Iran, and indeed in the Muslim world, into anti-Soviet sentiment instead.
2. The elections in Iran allowed establishment of a genuine center of authority.
Even so, Mr. Waldheim, in his efforts to tie the various ends of the complicated package together, was moving through a mine field. Several times during the last two weeks, the package deal came close to failure. But the deal that now has been struck and will gradually unfold represents a considerable softening of position on both sides.