Iranians play election-eve politics with US hostages

Only 48 hours before crucial parliamentary voting, hard-line statements from Ayatollah Khomeini and a top member of Iran's Revolutionary Council threatened a further setback for efforts to free the American hostages.

Amid serious differences between government officials and the militant students holding the US Embassy captives, the Ayatollah has said that the yet-to-be-elected legislature will have the final word on the hostages.

Iranian President Abolhassan Bani-Sadr has long been angling to end the 18 -week hostage ordeal, and thus consolidate his own power. At the same time, he has been seeking support for his own followers in the March 14 first round of the legislative elections.

Indeed, on the heels of his own landslide presidential victory in January, most Tehran analysts expressed confidence that Mr. Bani- Sadr would be handed a cooperative parliament.

But back-to-back statements by Ayatollah Khomeini and Revolutionary Councilman Ayatollah Muhammed Beheshti March 12 appeared to cloud the picture.

Ayatollah Khomeini, in a Tehran radio message, called for a large turnout in the parliamentary voting -- but also added an appeal to thwart the designs of "the United States. . .and other enemies of Iran."

The anti-American twist, although stopping far short of an endorsement for hard-line legislative candidates, could be interpreted that way by an Iranian electorate that still views Ayatollah Khomeini as ultimate guide and arbiter of Iran's revolutionary process.

Ayatollah Beheshti clearly hopes so. He figures among the prominent "political" clergymen who soared to power after the revolution, only to fade almost as quickly in the past few months.

Seizing on mounting confusion inside Iran over the UN mission to free the American hostages, Ayatollah Beheshti aired a hardened stand on the issue at a Tehran press conference.

Although he had at times in the past made relatively moderate pronouncements on the embassy ordeal, he now stressed that Iran would stand by its demand that the deposed Shah be returned for trial before the captives were freed.

Ayatollah Beheshti's statement, said one diplomat who has been following the Iran crisis, "seems aimed partly at cashing in on the more hard-line atmosphere in Tehran to try to get support for the clergy's candidates in the legislative poll."

Analysts in Iran seemed reluctant to predict how successful such efforts might be -- although one Tehran report cited indications of voter "apathy" before Ayatollah Khomeini's call to the polls.

What seemed certain was that a strong showing for hard-liners in the two-stage election would spell further trouble for efforts to free the hostages. The second round of voting comes about two weeks after the first votes are cast March 14.

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