Hostages: months -- or weeks?

There is good reason to believe that the hostage crisis may be resolved in a matter of weeks rather than months. Even though the trip of the UN inquiry commission to Tehran has not in the end achieved what it was supposed to, it came very close to doing so and contributed substantially to solving the problem.

It worked as the first step in a two-stage process and paved the way for the second stage, which now stands a good chance to lead the Waldheim plan to a successful conclusion.

This is the conviction of sources with precise knowledge of the workings of the commission of inquiry and with an inside track into the Iranian political world. These informed sources admit that there can be no absolute guarantee that the scenario will work out as expected, but they stressed the fact that the UN effort has not been returned to Square 1, but is moving forward in stages.

According to these diplomats, who are in a position to know, the opponents (mostly Islamic extremists) of Iranian President Abolhassan Bani-Sadr suffered a stunning defeat in the presidential election. Mr. Bani-Sadr thought he had knocked them out and as a result proceeded to try and resolve the hostage crisis as rapidly as he could.

At the time, Ayatollah Khomeini was in the hospital and free from the extremist influence of the members of his personal "office" -- mostly mullahs. As he thought that he had only a few days to live, he gave his support to Mr. Bani-Sadr because he did not want to leave the country without firm leadership.

Mr. Bani-Sadr's rivals and enemies, inside the Revolutionary Council as well as inside Ayatollah Khomeini's "office," used dilatory tactics to slow down the implementation of the Waldheim plan, hoping to be able, with the passing of time , to undermine Mr. Bani-Sadr's leadership and bring about a reversal of public opinion.

At one point, however, Mr. Bani-Sadr seemed to have won a decisive victory in the intense and complicated infighting. During a visit to Ayatollah Khomeini last week, he obtained approval for the transfer of the hostages to a government building where they were to remain under the custody of the government. At the same time the "students" were unable to meet with Ayatollah Khomeini.

Mr. Bani-Sadr then made what appears to be a serious tactical mistake. He did not follow up on his visit to Ayatollah Khomeini and thought that he could on his own take the next step without again referring to the Ayatollah.

In the meantime, Ayatollah Khomeini had left the hospital and fell once again under the influence of the mullahs. He allowed the students to establish contact with him once more. At the last minute, March 10, Iranian Foreign Minister Sadeq Ghotbzadeh and Mr. Bani-Sadr asked the commission to delay its departure by a few more days. They suggested that the commission might meet with the entire Revolutionary Council and with Ayatollah Khomeini, provided it made a statement acknowledging past American interference in Iranian affairs.

The Commissionm could not accept this because it was outside its mandate and also because it had no absolute guarantee that it would meet with Ayatollah Khomeini even after making such a statement.

However, the sources close to the commission stress the fact that in last month's statement Ayatollah Khomeini did side strategically with President Bani-Sadr, even though for tactical reasons he later opposed him. In leaving the fate of the hostages to the decision of the new parliament, Ayatollah Khomeini clearly told the students that this matter was not for them to decide.

Both Mr. Bani-Sadr and his arch adversary, Ayatollah Behesti, are fully aware that the "students" are a mixed group to say the least and that, alongside with Muslim fundamentalists, there are among them anarchists and ultra-leftists -- perhaps some acting as agents provocateurs. In their desperate struggle against Mr. Bani-Sadr, some mullahs don't mind using these leftists as allies, even though they have little in common with them ideologically.

The students are equally aware that their "friends" in high places merely use them as pawns but, reportedly, they hope to exasperate the United States to the point where it would resort to force and presumably rouse the fury of the Islamic masses from Pakistan to Morocco.

What is at stake, according to these sources, is not only the welfare of the hostages, but also the political future of Iran.* While Mr. Bani-Sadr cannot be considered to be a "moderate," he is what may be called a "modern." While ideologically committed to Islam, he wants to keep Iran outside both the American and Soviet embrace and use Western technology to build his country's economy. The West therefore has every reason to allow him to consolidate his power. Under his leadership, Iran, much like Algeria, would take a leading position in the third world, while trading with the West. By no means would it act as a Soviet surrogate.

According to the best available information, Mr. Waldheim's trip to Tehran at the beginning of January helped unfreeze the atmosphere and demonstrate to many Iranians that the UN is not a US stooge.

"The commission had a powerful healing and moderating role," says one high official who believes in the ultimate success of the step-by-step approach. "A few months ago the hatred for the West and for the UN in Iran was total and irrational. Last week, the Waldheim plan almost moved the rock over the mountain. In the end, it lacked a little extra push, having come a long way indeed."

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