The next 10 days or so will be crucial for the UN-sponsored package deal agreed upon by the United States and Iran. So far, despite all the ominous noises coming from Tehran, the plan worked out through the good offices of UN Secretary-General Kurt Waldheim is still on track.
Senior officials here concede that there has been some loss of momentum in implementing the intricate secret deal. But they emphasize that up to now Iran has not reneged on its word. And iranian authorities at the highest level insist, in their communications with UN officials, that they remain intent on carrying out their part of the bargain.
The big question that hangs over the whole delicate structure is whether Iranian President Bani-Sadr is in a sufficiently strong position to actually do so. That will become clearer when the five-member UN commission of inquiry returns from Tehran after having completed its work.
By that time the hostages should at least have been removed from under the control of the militants and into the custody of the Iranian government itself. If that minimum step has not been achieved, then, and only then, will the US-Iran agreement have come undone.
That, in turn, would present President Carter with some very difficult choices. Aiming to preserve the lives of the hostages and to keep Iranian anger focused on the Soviet Union rather than on the US, he could decide to grant Mr. Bani-Sadr more time to consolidate his authority and that of those who are known to favor the release of the hostages. Or Mr. Carter may feel impelled to begin increasing the pressures on Iran -- diplomatic, economic, and, at the last resort, military -- with incalculable consequences.
According to information that cannot be doubted, a comprehensive and explicit package deal was indeed made and spelled out in writing by both the US and Iran through the mediation of Mr. Waldheim. It depended, for its implementation, to a large extent on its secrecy. But it did contain various elements that would ultimately lead to two key results:
1. Iran would be able to air its grievances through the report that the UN fact-finding commission would present to the Security Council regarding the "crimes of the Sha".
2. The hostages would be released more or less simultaneously.
No absolute deadlines were stipulated for these two events, but they were supposed to happen roughly two weeks after the UN commission arrived in Tehran. The commission now is nearing the end of its first week of on- the-spot investigations.
Two intermediate steps leading up to these final results were "expected" to take place.
* An American statement of regret regarding its role in toppling former Prime Minister Muhammad Mossadeq's government in 1953 and in putting the Shah back on his throne. (Since this event is on the record, historically speaking, and belongs to the distant past, it was thought that the US government could present a mildly phrased apology concerning it, without damaging its prestige.)
* The hostages would be taken out of the embassy and placed, in the custody of the Iranian government. In effect they would thus cease to be hostages and become guests of the Iranians, simply waiting for the appropriate time to go home.
It was not stipulated which step would take place first. This whole scenario could yet occur, it is said here. The major difficulty, according to high UN officials, is that both President Carter and President Bani-Sadr are walking on thin ice politically.
For Mr. Carter, concessions to Iran that could be seen as involving US "honor" are made extremely difficult by the pressures of the election campaign -- even though many precedents exist. For Mr. Bani-sadr, any concessions to the United States run into formidable opposition in Iran, where a stormy revolutionary situation still prevails.
Mr. Carter and Mr. Bani-Sadr are likened to two men standing at opposite sides of an abyss and stretching out their hands to each other. If they move one inch farther toward each other they run the risk of being hurled down into the political chasm.
The situation in Iran is seen as the most volatile. Despite the fact that Mr. Bani-Sadr has to a large extent consolidated his authority with the backing of Ayatollah Khomeini, a formidable struggle for power -- ideological, political , personal -- is still under way. ACcording to authoritative analysts, the Iranian revolution has not yet fully played itself out.
Fiercely antagonistic social and political forces are positioning themselves for renewed battles. And one of the few unifying factors between them is the anti-American feeling.
Mr. Bani-Sadr himself is considered to have little more love for the United States than his radical opponents of the Left and of the Right. But he has a different idea about the best way for Iran to become politically and economically independent and to play a leading role as a progressive, nonaligned country.
He is known to believe that the best way for Iran to assert itself on the world scene, to promote the welfare of its people, and to strengthen its economy , is not to take diplomatic hostages. In fact, he was understood by UN officials and by high-ranking diplomats who were in personal touch with him to have decided to put the hostage problem behind him as quickly as possible so as to have free hand "for more important business."
However, he is still faced with the need to outmaneuver his more radical opponents, especially as he tries to cement his authority by getting his supporters into the Islamic assembly due to be elected in two stages in March and April. The hostage crisis plays a role in this process.
Until recently he was moving firmly on a direct confrontation path with the militant students in the American Embassy. Indeed, he had warned them, "There cannot exist several centers of authority in Iran."
According to reports from Iran, Ayatollah Khomeini was becoming alarmed that such a course might split the Islamic unity that had propelled him to power in place of the Shah. The Ayatollah is seen as backing Mr. Bani- Sadr "all the way." But he is also seen as determined to avoid confrontation and the use of force to resolve the hostage crisis. Instead, he is described as wanting to outflank the students and those who support them within the Revolutionary Council.
Thus the idea to let the Islamic assembly decide on the fate of the hostages, which, of course, could delay their release by another couple of months. Ayatollah Khomeini's central aim, according to these sources, is that the release of the hostages should have the backing of the overwhelming majority of the Iranian people. He wants the freeing of the hostages to have the ligitimacy not only of Mr. Bani-Sadr's overwhelming majority but also of parliamentary approval.
An apology, however vague by the US, would have greatly strengthened the hands of Mr. Bani-Sadr and Ayatollah Khomeini, analysts here believe. And Mr. Bani-Sadr is reported from Iran to be upset that Mr. Carter appears to have taken so strong a public stand against any such apology. This is said to be one reason for the apparent slowdown in the process of easing the hostages out of captivity.
Meanwhile, the operational calender of the package deal could still be observed in the next 10 days or so. A key test will be whether the commission of inquiry will be allowed to see each hostage individually, as had been requested by the Iranian government itself. Mr. Waldheim now has an assurance in writing from the Iranian government that the commission will be permitted to see the hostages.
For such a meeting to take place, the hostages would have to be removed at least temporarily from under the control of the students.This first technical release then could become a conditional and temporary one, and later lead to the final and permanent one.
There is considerable anxiety here at UN headquarters about the survival of the gentlemen's agreement. But high officials remain cautiously hopeful as they watch their step-by-step plan unfolding.
"Everything that was supposed to happen has not yet happened," concedes on such senior official. "But some things that were expected to happen did happen. The US-UN-Iran pas de trois is being performed on a minefield and requires circuitous motions and unexpected steps. For the time being, the show is still very much on."
If the hostages have not been released in about 10 days, when the commission of inquiry returns, it will mean that the deal has collapsed. If so, the commission would be unlikely to write any report -- and the US government would then have to decide on a new course of action.