The package deal agreed upon by the United States and Iran through the good offices of United Nations Secretary-General Kurt Waldheim has not come unraveled.
It has been substantially delayed, but its chances for being implemented eventually remain better than even.
This is the firmly held conviction of Mr. Waldheim himself, expressed in an interview with the Monitor, and of other diplomats in close touch with developments in Iran.
Basically, the US remains committed to a peaceful solution of the Iran-US crisis, and Iranian President Abolhassan Bani-Sadr has indicated that he has no intention of reneging on his word. Circumstance beyond the control of President Carter, of Mr. Waldheim, and of President Bani-Sadr himself have slowed down their scenario but have not derailed it.
As of now the commission of inquiry's work is suspended and placed on a back burner. "When the time is ripe, it may return to Iran and complete its task," Mr. Waldheim told the Monitor.
During the next few days the commission will consult in New York with Mr. Waldheim, and in the light of its briefing he will decide when and how to proceed. Before the commission is allowed to return to Tehran, assurances must be received that it may fulfill both aspects of its mandate. Meanwhile, the commission will not issue its report.
"Mr. Bani-Sadr and [Foreign Minister] Ghotbzadeh have simply not seen able to deliver on their pledge," says the UN Secretary-General, who remains convinced of their good faith. In the political turmoil that still engulfs Iran they have lost a battle -- but not the war -- against their radical opponents inside and outside the Revolutionary Council.
Two elements may now play into the hands of Messrs. Bani-Sadr and Ghotbzadeh:
* They will be able to blame Iran's failure to denounce the Shah's crimes to the world through the commission on the obstinacy of the students holding the hostages.
* The new paliament, when elected (following two-stage elections that begin March 14) and in session (next month) may further consolidate Mr. Bani-Sadr's position and lend legitimacy to his efforts to solve the hostage crisis quickly.
Even during the recent days, according to well-placed sources, the Waldheim scenario was very close to success. "It was a close call," says one diplomat, who adds, "[Ayatollah] Khomeini does not want Bani-Sadr to go down in defeat, but he wants him to outmaneuver his opponents, not to steamroller then. Thus the new delay."
Based on the information to which he is privy, Mr. Waldheim says in private that he "remains optimistic." He believes that there is no alternative to his solution and that "in the end it will work."
In a nutshell, what the Iranian leaders have told him during the last few days and are still telling him now is: "Please be patient, give us time."
Inasmuch as the US-Iranian agreement contained two elements that were to be dealt with simultaneously -- the freeing of the hostages and the airing of Iran's grievances through the commission of inquiry -- and one of the two elements could not at this time be obtained, the whole operation had to be put on hold.
It may take a few months, possibly less, for the volatile political situation in Iran to take a turn favorable to Mr. Bani-Sadr and enable him to overcome those who use the hostages as pawns in their struggle against him.
The key signs to watch now are the results of the parliamentary elections and whether Mr. Bani-Sadr receives the same overwhelming majority that he did during the presidential elections.
"Extracting the hostages from the jaws of a revolution in process, as Mr. Waldheim has tried to do, is the political equivalent of a very delicate operation. A setback does not mean ultimate failure," said one high official.
Western as well as third world-diplomats here fear that some interested parties will try to make the UN the scapegoat for the continuing captivity of the American hostages. "One can already see officials on either side positioning themselves to loose poisoned arrows at Mr. Waldheim," says one high-ranking Western diplomat who followed the process closely.
"The truth of the matter," this diplomat continued, "is that Mr. Waldheim worked in the closest cooperation with the American authorities, and when he took risks it was because they wanted him to take them. As for the prestige of the UN, it is not involved. The good offices of Mr. Waldheim were made use of on a private basis and not on behalf of the organization. The only prestige that may be involved is that of the Iranian and American leaders."