A confusing television "confession" from the captive US Embassy has diplomats and other analysts debating an issue they thought was closed -- a trial of the Tehran hostages.
Few are predicting a trial outright. Some speak of the prospect of individual "spy trials" raised repeatedly by the embassy's militant captors. Others refer to a more general anti-American show tribunal, as proposed unsuccessfully by Foreign Minister Sadeq Ghotbzadeh in December.
Yet no sooner had a relaxed-looking Army Staff Sgt. Joseph Subic pointed to an embassy wire box and said to the camera, "CIA," than Western envoys and other political analysts here began whispering that the question of trials seemed at least a live issue again.
When mentioned in the early weeks of the hostage ordeal, not 159 days old, the idea was seen alternately as a potential salvation, or a catastrope. That depended on who was proposing it, who seemed to be running Iran's revolution, and what the outcome of a trial process appeared likely to be.
By April 10, hours after athe surprise midnight television expose, diplomats seem increasingly convinced the outcome of a hostage trial might be negative.
Envoys and other Tehran experts, who once viewed a formal investigation and judgment as one faces-saving means for Iran to free the capitives, were now less sure those hostages specifically accused of "spying" would be condemned and then expelled.
As the diplomats debated, the student captors told reporters when the film was shot, what it meant, and how the right amount of money could get it shown again.
Hostages, the students found out early, are a marketable commodity. At this writing, a representative of the students was negotiating a possible sale of the "confession" footage to American television. The militant insisted that the Americans buy the film without screening it in Tehran, and show it uncut in the United States.
A film, one militant explained, had been produced "about Day 130" of the embassy crisis. The students had delayed showing it because "we wanted to keep a little quiet during the [mid-March] parliamentary elections."
The timing ot its release had nothing to do with recent US sanctions, another student said, but was "simply to show the crimes of the Unite States to Iran and the rest of the world."
Was it a prelude to "spy" trials? "No," the students said. Echoing directives from Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the one man the militatns seem to heed, a student explained that "We don't do anything [about trials]. It is the parliament that will decide."
But in the same breath he said: "If they [the American] are spies and did something making these problems for Iran, I think it's right to put them on trail."
Asked what would happen if parliament -- expected to convene in June after a second round of voting -- orders the hostages' release, a militant added: "I'm sure parliament won't do that."
Feeling increasingly that this may be right, in that some form of hostage trials may be Iran's only practical exist from the crisis, diplomats were trying to figure out just what was said by whom one the students' most graphic piece of "evidence" yet.
The students, Iranian television, and the viewing audience could not seem to agree on how many hostages actually appeared in the footage.
The announcer said there were two "spies who will reveal shocking things." Unalerted, no American journalists had seen the whole film, but some European and Iranian reporters, along with a few diplomats, did. They spoke of two captives -- one light-haired and wearing a sweater; the second a little darker, bespectacled, and dressed in a red shirt and military pants, and identified as Sgt. Joseph Subic.
The students insisted both were the same man, a young hostage who indeed introduced himseld halfway through the film as "Staff Sergeant Subic."
"We filmed in two segments. Subic was wearing different clothes," a student said.
But whether with one or two hostages, the militants appeared to have come up with their most forceful narrative of purported "espionage" since the release of alleged embassy documents saveral months ago -- whatever the method of obtaining it.
The hostage or hostages made the following points:
* A wire network concealed in a storage building on the embassy grounds helped "monitor" Iranian computer traffic.
* One junction box, Sergeant Subic said, went to "the National Security Agency . . . . This CIA," he said of another terminal.
* The Americans had used the "C-12" aircraft, a small executive plane, for photographic purposes. This, in a sometimes-intrusive Persian-language translation, was refered to as "espionage."
* Remarking on how embassy equipment had eased through Iranian customs, Sergeant Subic -- an Ohio native who had worked in the military attache's office -- commented that he did not "know whether the CIA has someone in customs."
The filmed testimony also mentioned a number of other hostages by name, but the Persian narration made it impossible to verify the exact context of these references. Nor was Sergeant Subic's own role -- or expertise -- in the activities mentioned immediately clear.
Asked what he thought the film meant, one European diplomat shot back: "It means they [the militants] cracked two of them," adding that some kind of trial looked increasingly like a "good possibility."
Another envoy agreed, arguing that there might be little other choice, given Iranian moderates' inability to wind down the crisis. "I think any further Western steps will automatically, inevitably mean this sort of thing."
He added, emotionally: "The film dosen't prove anything! Even a small country like ours -- in a place where we have as many national as the Americans have in Iran -- have computers like the one mentioned. . . . It doesn't prove anything specific."
The question among other diplomats was whether this would matter. Due process has never seemed the militants' chief concern.