Iran's internal struggle over the US Embassy hostages has shifted back into high gear, obscuring at least one bit of good news for Washington: Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini finally seems to be laying the groundwork for the captives' eventual release.
Ayatollah Khomeini had bad news for Washington as well when he issued a broadcast message Feb. 23. He said that any such release could take as long as two months, until the early sessions of Iran's still unelected legislature. The legislature is scheduled to be elected next month, but it is unlikely to convene until early April.
The hospitalized Islamic leader unleashed a bitter attack on US "help" for the dictatorship of the deposed Shah. Iran', Ayatollah Khomeini said, must continue to press for the Shah's extradition. But, apparently for the first time, he made it clear that the hostages held since Nov. 4 might be freed even without the Shah's extradition.
He said that would be up to the "Islamic Consultative Assembly" elected in a forthcoming vote, which was taken by diplomats to mean the National Assembly envisaged in Iran's post-revolutionary Constitution.
Voting for parliament begins March 14, with a possible runoff of close candidates later in the month. It is not clear when the assembly will begin meeting, but Tehran news reports Feb. 24 said it could be as late as April.
"The issue of the hostages will be up to the representatives of the people," Ayatollah Khomeini said, "so that they can decide about the release of the hostages and the concessions they should obtain in return for their release."
Significantly, he did not say what those conditions should be.
He could later harden that stand, although Tehran reports that the Ayatollah would be shielded from visitors for the time being seem to suggest he was taking himself out of the fray.
His statement seemed likely to intensify efforts by President Abolhassan Bani-Sadr to garner support for his own associates in the legislative elections. Since his own landslide victory in January, Mr. Bani-Sadr has been stressing the importance of a cooperative parliament.
Even before the Ayatollah's latest message, Iranian and Western analysts in Tehran emphasized to this reporter that the process of resolving the hostage crisis could take longer than Washington had hoped.
Mr. Bani-Sadr's efforts to end the embassy stalemate have become a test of his ability to exert control over Iran's diverse revolutionary power center.
Ayatollah Khomeini has been quietly supporting him, and in his latest statement gave credit to "his Excellency, the President" for arranging the current United Nations investigation of the Shah's regime.
But the Ayatollah's words implied that if the hostages are finally to get out , the President must first win greater leverage through the parliamentary elections.