Given the Byzantine twists and turns of Iranian politics, it would be folly to raise hopes for sudden release of the American hostages in Tehran. But it is clear the Iran-Iraq war has introduced a new element in the almost-year-long crisis that, ironically, may break the deadlock. Two things seem to be needed as Iran and the United States maneuver gingerly around each other to explore the possibilities. The US must do everything possible to convince the Iranian leadership that it is not backing the Iraqis. Iranian suspicions remain deep. Iran, for its part, must come to the realization that it will not obtain international support in the war as long as it rebuffs the UN's appeals for a freeing of the US prisoners. It cannot flout world opinion in one instance and expect its sympathies in another.
On the first score President Carter is sending some pointed signals to Tehran. He has said that territorial disputes should not be settled by "aggression," an apparent slap at Iraq. He has also stated that the US opposes any effort "to dismember Iran," a reference to any move by Iraq to detach a piece of Iranian territory. And while the US asserts impartiality in the Iran-Iraq confrontation, Secrtary of State Muskie suggests that its policy "may have to be adjusted as circumstances develop."
These are significant utterances. They in effect add up to a tilt toward Iran and this, together with conveying US readiness to end economic sanctions, to release Iranian assets, and to give assurances on US noninterference in Iran's internal affairs, may help improve the climate for negotiation.
It goes without saying that Washington must regard warily any new Iranian demands. At the United Nations Prime Minister Mohammed Ali Rajai seemed to up the ante by calling on the US ro remove the four US bia to monitor military activity in the crucial Gulf area. These planes, contrary to Iranian charges, are not spying for Iraq. They are intended to help Saudi Arabia keep peace in an area vital to its and the West's economic interests. Tehran must understand that, while the US does not side with Iraq and does uphold the territorial integrity of Iran, the US cannot abandon its strategic responsibilities.
The frustration, of course, is that the hostage issue remains captive to the ongoing struggle for power within Iran. Iranian authority is still divided. President Bani-Sadr is eager to resolve the issue, especially now when Iran could well use the American military equipment which has been froze in the pipeline, and when an Iraqi dismemberment of Iran could lead to Soviet intervention as well. Yet hard-line Prime Minister Rajai seemed to do little at the UN but air Iran's grievances, and with the characteristic emotionalism and convoluted allusions making it so difficult to fathom Iranian thinking. And where Ayatollah Khomeini and the fundamentalist-dominated Parliament stand at this point is anyone's guess.
Yet it is important that a senior Iranian official has visited the US for the first time since the hostages were seized, and has ended the Iranian boycott of the UN. This suggests Iran does want to break out of its isolation. Mr. Carter is therefore right in stepping up efforts to gain the hostages' release -- not, as we read because such a development would be an enormous political bonus on the eve of the election, but because the Gulf war provides an opportune moment for the two sides to settle the crisis and begin building relations on a new footing.
Knowing how many disappointments there have been in the past, however, US policy-makers will have to be "wise as serpents, and harmless as doves."