Iran has responded, with signals of recent days regarding the American hostages. Such is the opinion of the best-placed analysts here at the United Nations.
Whether this means that a deal now is possible between Iran and the US remains to be seen. But Iran's present attitude, as expressed publicly and privately by Prime Minister Muhammad Ali Rajai during his recent UN visit, made two basic points:
1. Inflexibility regarding Iraq in the present Gulf war.
2. Readiness to come to terms with the United States.
"The hostages could be released very soon." This is what Mr. Rajai said four times during a press conference in New York Oct. 18 and what he indicated repeatedly and pointedly to Kurt Waldheim, UN secretary-general, during their two private meetings.
Although hopes based on similar statements in the past have proved vain, it nonetheless is plain that Mr. Rajai did choose to comment about the US hostages at this time and in the UN limelight.
On the strength of a mandate given to him, according to reliable sources, by Ayatollah Khomeini himself and by Ayatollah Muhammad Beheshti, head of the Islamic Republican Party, (the two strong men in Iran), Mr. Rajai felt free to:
* Apparently remove the one single most thorny condition previously set by Iran for the release of the hostages: namely, a US apology. "This condition has in practice already been answered, informally," he said, adding, cthat is the least of our concerns."
* Add a new condition: the removal of the four American AWACS radar surveillance planes stationed in Saudi Arabia to protect that country from a surprise attack.
This latter demand stems not so much from Iranian concern that the US planes somehow are being used to Iran's detriment militarily, but from Iran's desire to have a token gesture from the US, a symbol of US neutrality, that can be used at home, according to sources close to the Iranians.
With regard to the hostages, Mr. Rajai pointedly referred to the "solution" the Majlis would reach "very soon,c as being a "humanitarian" move.
The freeing of the hostages detained for nearly a year would thus be a result of a humanitarian gesture, rooted in Islamic teaching, rather than as part of a deal with the US.
Fully aware of deep suspicions held by many Americans about the capacity of the Iranian regime to implement a decision to free the hostages, Mr. Rajai went out of his way to explain why he could give "100 percent assurances" on this score:
The hostages, he explained, were taken by the people. "Ayatollah Khomeini authorized the representatives of the people -- the Majlis [parliament] -- to decide on their fate, and nobody in Iran would dare oppose their decision."
He did not explain what would prevent the Majlis from deciding to continue to hold the hostages, or ven put them on trial as spies, as has sometimes been suggested by Majlis members, rather than release them.
The parliament is expected by Mr. Rajai to make its conditions for releasing the captives known very soon. But these, it was indicated, would not go beyond the conditions spelled out by Ayatollah Khomeini in September, which did not include a demand for an apology and reportedly were considered acceptable by US authorities.
The Khomeini conditions included a promise by the US not to interfere in the internal affairs of Iran, the unfreezing of Iranians assets in the United States , and the return of the Shah's assets to Iran. (This latter could be dealt with by allowing Iran to present its claims before Us or international courts.)
Contrary to some reports, Mr. Waldheim's talks with Mr. Rajai did deal with matters of substance. According to sources close to the secretary-general, he brought up the problem of the hostages and conveyed to Mr. Rajai the points made earlier by Warren Christopher of the US State Department.
With regard to Iraq, Iranian diplomacy also seems to be moving behind a smoke screen of fundamentalist propaganda.
Before the Security Council, Mr. Rajai made a tough speech in which he denounced the "cruel Iraqi aggression" and vowed to fight IRaqi leader Saddam Hussein's "forces of evil" until they are thrown out of Iran.This speech seemed destined for use at home.
Two less-publicized diplomatic moves by Iran are seen by analysts here as indicating Iran's desire to seek international support before moving to the bargaining table, when the time is right:
* Iran has agreed to participate in a meeting of the Nonaligned Coordinatng Bureau Oct. 20 in which Iraq will also participate. The meeting is to appoint a goodwill commission that will travel to Baghdad and to Tehran to tryto find a formula to bring aobut a cessation of hostilities.
* Mr. Rajai is visiting Algiers on his way home. Officially, this is to express Iranian solidarity with Algeria with regard to the eartquake at Al Asnam. High-ranking diplomats here are quick to point, out however, that the Algiers Agreement between Iraq and Iran, which settled their 1975 border dispute , had been worked out by Algeria.
A few days after the present war started, President Abolhassan Bani-Sadr sent a signal to IRaq that President Hussein, who then felt that he was in a strong position, chose not to pick up:
"The Algiers Agreement has provisions concerning the settlement of disputes without resorting to war," Mr. Bani-Sadr said, clearly indicating a desire to negotiate.