Massive construction pipes run along the front wall of the American Embassy compound in Tehran. Sturdy enough to stop an elephant, the "railings" stand in iron testimony to the mass hysteria whipped up in the first few weeks after militant Muslim students seized the embassy last Nov. 4.
Today, the 50 American hostages still are held captive inside the compound. But outside, the huge crowds which once surged against the lengths of piping have melted away. Iraniansh interest in the embassy has dropped to a minimum. With rare exceptions, only a few pasdars (revolutionary guards), a handful of hangers-on, or at most a few hundred people gather there.
Even the student militants themselves have lost some of their initial revolutionary fervor. Many of them have drifted back to their university classes. And members of the remaining hard core themselves have taken turns to sneak back to their universities to take examinations or do what they normally would have been doing over the last 3 1/2 months -- studying. $K$As far as Iranians are concerned, time and Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini have drained some of the taut emotion out of the hostage drama. While American eyes are riveted on the Iranian government's efforts to get the visiting UN commission of inquiry int the embassy to see the hostages, Iranians themselves are far more concerned with the Forthcoming elections to their new Majlis (national assembly), which, in turn, will decide the hostages' future.
In the latest maneuverings March 4, the government and the militants reached yet another impasse. At time of writing it appeared that Ayatollah Khomeini was the only person with sufficient stature to resovle it.
The militants have demanded that the UN commission return to United Nations headquarters in New York to make its report on the Shah's alleged crimes; thereafter, they said they would invite the commission back to Iran to meet the hostages. for now, they said, only a few hostages would be allowed to appear before the UN panel as "witnesses" in the Shah investigation.
President Bani-Sadr, Foreign Minister Sadequ Ghotbzadeh, and the Revolutionary Council insist that they have agreed that the commission meet with all the hostages during its present visit. They reject the idea of the commission returning to the UN "without results."
Onece again the nation, and the outside world, waited on Ayatollah Khomeini's pronouncement. So far the Ayatollah has been firm in his support for President Bani-Sadr. Even the Ayatollahhs announcement that the Majlis would decide upon the hostages' eventual release is seen in tehran as an attempt to prevent the President getting entangled in, and possibly weakened by, the hostage issue. It is described as the best face-saving device he could think of to disentangle himself and President Bani-Sadr from the crisis.
It is no secret that the Ayatollah had cooled toward the students long before he made his announcement -- particularly after they began making derogatory "revelations" about the Iran liberation movement led by former Prime Minister Mehdi Bazargan. For all Mr. Bazargan's apparent weaknesses, Ayatollah Khomeini liked and trusted him. He knew the students were talking nonsense when they accused Mr. Bazargan, by implication of being a traitor to Iran.
Ayatollah Khomeini by then had also tired of the cat-and-mouse game he had been playing with the hostages, and most of his blistering attacks on President Carter had ended before he went to a Tehran hospital on Jan. 23 for treatment.
When Abolhassan Bani-Sadr emerged as President after the elections just two days later, one of the first problems he turned to was that of the hostages. And, to the pleasant surprise of many, Ayatollah Khomeini began backing him on his every move.
One of Mr. Bani-Sadrhs aides told this correspondent: "Yes, it is true that the Imam listens to Bani-Sadr. He also listens to a number of other people. But Bani-Sadrhs emergence as President with a massive majority has influenced Khomeini's attitude considerably. He could not treat lightly a leader who has proved to have that kind of public backing."
Mr. Bani-Sadr himself, two weeks before the Khomeini announcement, offered President Carter a quicker way out of the hostage problem by his "self-criticism" formula, for which he had obtained the Imam's approval. Mr. Carter responded with what was seen in Tehran as a slap in the face, refusing to accept US guilt for having backed the Shah during his rule.
The new Iranian President reacted by turning his attention to internal Iranian problems. "There are other problems in this country more important than the hostages," he told reporters.
One of these was to try to curb the "multiple centers of decisionmaking" that have been responsible for much of Iran's chaos over the past year. The student militants are perhaps the most visible of these.
So far, while their influence has been steadily eroded, it has not yet been broken. And since the use of force has been totally ruled out by the government -- it is determined not to repeat what it sees as the violent mistakes of the Shah -- the political maneuvering and infighting continues, especially to obtain the ear of the Ayatollah.