It is a question whether the latest developments in the hostage crisis represent a small step of progress for the United States or a further obfuscation of an already muddled problem. To put the best light on things, there does seem to be a genuine effort on the part of President Bani-Sadr to bring about transfer of the captives to government custody. President Carter, for his part, has chosen to respond favorably to signals from Tehran by holding off taking new economic and diplomatic action against Iran. The decision seems prudent. If there is any hope at all of removing the hostages from the hands of the militants, it ought not to be lost. Their transfer to Iranian government control would mean better treatment and, presumably, lay the ground for their eventual release.
Too much disappointment in recent months necessarily prompts a guarded reaction, however. President Bani-Sadr's statement that the hostages will be transferred only if the US promises to remain silent on the issue until formation of the new Iranian Parliament seems to compound the moral and diplomatic defiance of the US. Who, Americans will ask, ought to be issuing ultimatums in this situation? Also, Ayatollah Khomeini's stinging attack on President Carter in a speech marking the first anniversary of the Islamic republic again suggests that what the religious leader seeks is a total humiliation of the United States. The tone and thrust are ominous. Without the ayatollah's assent, the hostages will not be moved.
But, as this painful experience has taught everyone, words emanating from Iran cannot be taken at their face value. They are part of the labyrinthine maneuverings in the struggle for power and thus have to be weighed in terms of the domestic Iranian audiences for which they may also be intended. In this complex situation, Mr. Carter is acting not on the basis of these shifting public pronouncements but of communications sent and received behind the scenes. He reportedly has private assurances from Iran that the government will soon take control of the imprisoned Americans.
Given the unpredictable, obscure nature of Iranian actions, it is doubly important that President Carter not let himself be sucked into Iran's Byzantine intrigues. The White House handling of the mysterious US messages to Iran is a case in point. It would have been better to say nothing rather than deny an action which later proved to have some validity, a denial which only added to the public confusion. What a waste for the administration to spend so much time trying to straighten out the media on who sent what message to whom, instead of keeping energies focused on the main issue. And, perhaps, responding meaningfully to Tehran's concerns -- through an objective Senate investigation of the US role in Iran, for instance.
Mr. Carter, of course, is no less a hostage to the hostages in this sensitive election year than are the ayatollah, Bani-Sadr, and other Iranian forces vying for control. He is under growing pressures from his political opponents to take tougher measures against Iran. Even those who advocated a conciliatory route are beginning to have doubts.
Yet the fact that the American hostages are alive is a credit to the President's willingness to resist bravado in favor of the harder road of patience and restraint. He certainly must not foreclose the possibility of using stronger measures in this seemingly endless diplomatic battle. But, if he sees glimmers of hope, he is right in pressing for a negotiated solution without resort to sanctions, a move giving no assurances the hostages would be freed. In the long run the American people may be grateful for his dogged self-control.