President Carter's bid to free 53 captive Americans seems to have condemned them instead to weeks of fear, uncertainty, separation, and almost inevitably harsher conditions. It may even end in the very "spy trial" he strove to avoid.
If there is any silver lining in the "rescue" drama -which culminated April 27 in the macabre display of the charred remains of at least eight Americans at the captive US Embassy they had hoped to liberate -it is that the militant student captors mentioned a trial, not the execution threatened earlier in case of any US attempt to free the captives.
The militants also implied they wanted to try the United States, more than the individual hostages, and for the first time portrayed such a trial as an alternative to the return of the deposed Shah and his wealth.
But the failed American attempt to end the 25-week hostage ordeal, and its truculent aftermath, also afforded the strongest proof yet of the growing impotence of nominal "government" in a body politic dominated by militant youths and Muslim mullahs (teachers) beholders only to Ayatollah Khomeini.
"The danger," one diplomat said, "is that, given the mood in Iran, even a show trial of American policy would not necessarily mean the release of all the hostages."
Ayatollah Sadeq Khalkhali, the one-time revolutionary "hanging judge," assisted in handing over remains of the rescue-mission Americans to the militants. His involvement contradicted assurances from President Abolhassan Bani-Sadr that the bodies would be returned to Washington through the Swiss ambassador.
A student spokesman said "It is not determined yet" when asked whether or not the militants would honor the President's promise.
As the students invited foreign reporters to an embassy courtyard to view the remains, President Bani-Sadr's spokesman sheepishly acknowledged, "I knew nothing about it. I knew only that they were bringing the remains back to Tehran."
Also underscoring a seemingly growing irrelevance of "moderates" such as Mr. Bani-Sadr was the announcement by the embassy captors that all 50 hostages there had been scattered outside, a maneuver requiring an operational alliance with revolutionary guards controlled by Ayatollah Khomeini and other Muslim hardliners.
By late April 27 there was growing circumstantial evidence that hostages had indeed been shunted elsewhere, virtually ruling out a further American rescue operation. But there was no concrete proof of this.
Among the evidence was the militants' insistence the transfer had been completed, the presence of ambulances and vans at the embassy April 25 and 26, and the erosion of security reinforcements effected when news of the failed US rescue broke on Tehran radio April 25.
In what is surely the most grostesque media event in a crisis which has had more than its share, Ayatollah Khalkhali directed Revolutionary Guards to pick over the remains of the individual Americans. He looked unmoved during most of the performance, but at one time even cracked jokes.
Before the militants showed the perished Americans April 27, the sprawling embassy compound looked once again a little like an exclusive -if somewhat shabby -country club, with the militants' privileged supporters banging lightly on a padlock marked "Made in USA" in order to gain entrance.
A few revolutionary guards, looking only slightly more alert than before the US rescue bid and occasionally smiling good naturedly at American reporters, lolled by an outer wall bearing faded slogans like the elusive "Yankee, go home" President Carter had so wished to implement.
Diplomat felt it was virtually certain that at least some of the hostages had been moved from the embassy. Some ambassadors had privately predicted the move from the moment they learned of the aborted US military effort. Yet a number foreign envoys suspected not all of the captive Americans had left, if only because this might provide ammunition for what the militants term "counter-revolutionary forces" to press for evacuation of the prime symbol of the students' power.
Former US charge d'affaires Bruce Laingen and two other "forgotten" hostages outside the embassy when it was seized and held ever since at the Foreign Ministry, appeared still to be there. A ministry spokesman, while not directly confiming this, said, "They are safe. They are comfortable. They are under our protection."
But "comfortable" can be a slippery word. The Monitor learned from well-informed Iranian and diplomatic sources that treatment of the hostages, even the relatively "lucky" prisoners of the Foreign Ministry, has varied with the temperature of Iranian-US relations.
One downturn, for instance, is said to have occurred following the Canadian-sponsored escape some three months ago by six Americans who had eluded the militants' grasp.
Diplomats feared that the militants, who said they were accompanying the hostages to new places of confinement throughout Iran, would now tighten the reins again. At the very least, International Red Cross requests for improvement of an embassy routine providing hostages only 25 minutes of fresh air a week were seen as virtually sure to be ignored, given heightened Iraninan-US tension and the students' presumed preoccupation with the secrecy of new hostage locations.
In any case, compliance would be impossible to verify. The students made it clear they were scattering the hostages to keep Washington from mounting a second rescue mission. Diplomats, who had been trying with an agonizing lack of success to arrange regular visits to the embassy hostages, felt it was unlikely that such visits would be allowed to the new hostage sites.
Mail deliveries, the captives' lifeline with home, will also be more difficult to arrange with the hostages confined to separate locations hundreds of miles apart.
The militants, while not pinpointing the new sites, did mention at least two cities where they were situated; the Muslim religious center of Qom, south of Tehran, and the northwest city of Tabriz. Shiraz, near Iran's southwest coast, was mentioned as another possibility.
The transfers could well end in a spy trial after the sitting of a still unelected parliament empowered by Ayatollah Khomeini to decide the fate of the hostages. That will not happen before mid-May, at the very earliest.