A long-awaited breakthrough appears at last to have been made in the Iran-US crisis -- with strong indications that the American hostages' four-month captivity may be nearing an end.
The sudden decision of the militant youths at the US Embassy in Tehran to hand over the hostages to Iran's ruling Revolutionary Council, and the council's acceptance of the proposal, means at the very least that the hostages soon will be taking an important step toward complete freedom.
By late March 6 the question had become not so much whether, as how and when, the nearly four-month-old hostage ordeal would peaceably end. Foreign Minister Sadeq Ghotbzadeh indicated that a government committee would be set up March 7 to work out arrangements for the hostage hand-over.
"We declare that the Revolutionary Council should take the hostages, or the American spies, from us to do with them what they think is best," the embassy students declared in their statement broadcast on Tehran Radio.
Previously the militants had always insisted that the hostages would be handed over only when the Shah was returned to Iran. And the embassy was originally stormed last Nov. 4 in violent reaction to the appearance of the Shah in New York for medical treatment.
In Iran's turbulent politics much could still go awry. But the students' unexpected reversal implies that the United Nations plan for untangling the crisis has again moved forward. And, in Washington, the new developments were welcomed cautiously as a critical, though not final, step toward the hostages' eventual release.
What will happen after the Americans arrive in the care of the Revolutionary Council is unclear. Heading the council is President Abolhassan Bani-Sadr, who since his landslide victory in late January has sought to wind down the hostage crisis and thus consolidate effective control over Iran's somewhat splintered revolution.
That process -- given the delicacy of Mr. Bani-Sadr's task in Iran's highly charged atmosphere -- could still take time. Ayatollah Khomeini has gone on the record as saying that the country's new legislature, to be elected this month with perhaps a run-off next month, should ultimately decide the hostages' fate.
Yet from the outset of Iranian government efforts last December to wind down the embassy crisis, Tehran officials have indicated privately that one key would be to wrest control of the captive Americans from the militant youths at the US compound.
UN officials, for their part, also saw this step as crucial to the task of the United Nations investigatory commission currently seeking an end to the hostage impasse in Tehran. According to a "gentlemen's agreement" mediated by the international body, these officials say, President Bani-Sadr's government would then turn the hostages over to international caretakers -- perhaps to the commission itself.
Other "near-solutions" since the storming and capture of the downtown Tehran compound Nov. 4 have broken down. But now there appear to be at least two major reasons for hope:
* The encouragement this time came not from Iranian officials seeking to curb the embassy students, but from the captors themselves.
* The embassy militants did not merely offer a negotiated exit from the crisis, but envisaged a hand-over of the hostages.
At time of writing at least one snag remained: The students' statement did not say when Mr. Bani-Sadr's Revolutionary Council could actually have the American hostages. Indeed, in a pouting postscript, the militants seemed to be appealing for a final ruling in their favor from Ayatollah Khomeini.
"What should we do," the statement asked, "when the people who are responsible for the [UN] commission have accepted that the commission is allowed to do everything it wants?" The students said they were confident that "the Iranian nation is guarding the line of the Imam [Ayatollah Khomeini] and will respond to any deviation [presumably in the person of Mr. Bani-Sadr] from this line."
Special correspondent Louis Wiznitzer reports from the United Nations, N.Y.:
The American hostages could be released in a matter of days, as a result of a real breakthrough that has occurred in Tehran.
The package worked out by UN Secretary- General Kurt Waldheim to bring about an end to the Iranian-American crisis appears to be very much on track, if slightly behind schedule.
Should the students allow the government to take the hostages into its custody -- as they have now for the first time said they would -- then the 50 Americans might very well not only leave the embassy but Iran in the very near future. (The students themselves claim to be holding only 49 hostages).
Much will depend how on the American quid pro quo which was included in the secret UN-sponsored scenario. First the UN inquiry commission was to be appointed. It was to look into Iranian grievances against the Shah and the US -- and to visit the hostages.
Then the hostages were to be removed from under the control of the students. This apparently is about to happen. In turn, the US government was expected to make a gesture and to express regrets about the 1953 Central Intelligence Agency coup which put the Shah on the throne. Such a statement might be taken by the Iranians as an apology while it may be worded in such a way as to simply describe a historical fact as a mistake.
More or less simultanously, the hostages would leave Iran and the inquiry commission would present its report to Mr. Waldheim, who in turn would submit it to the Security Council.
Finally, Iran having had a chance to air its grievances and to legitimize its right to seek the extradition of the Shah, and the US having brought its hostages home, the way would be paved for nomalizing relations between the two countries.
* That presumably would include the lifting of punitive measures against Iran. Not only would Iran cease to be an outcast at the UN, but also it would be in a position to play a leading role among the nonaligned nations.