New statements from Tehran and hints from third-world diplomats working behind the scenes point to a possible release of the American hostages in Iran even before the US election on Nov. 4.
But State Department officials who have dealt with the problem for many months now are skeptical. For one thing, they say that the United States has yet to hear directly from Tehran or through diplomatic intermediaries any of the statements that have been made recently to newsmen in the Iranian capital.
"If they want to tell us something, they know how to get in touch with us," said one State Department official.
Officials also note that there was some apparent hedging in Prime Minister Muhammad Ali Rajai's latest statement. According to one account, Mr. Rajai said on Oct. 22 that the US was ready to meet all conditions posed by Ayatollah Khomeini for release of the 52 hostages. So much for the positive side.
But the prime minister also was quoted as saying that the final decision on the hostages would have to be taken by the Majlis, or parliament. And perhaps more important, he added that Iran has "yet to explain what is meant by all the demands" it has made on the US -- an indication that existing conditions might be expanded or further conditions imposed.
It should be recalled also that one of Iran's Muslim "hard-liners" told a reporter two weeks ago that the hostage situation would be frozen until the end of the Iraq-Iran war. His statement was another indication that the tug of war over the hostage issue between Iranian "moderates" and militants still may be raging. If that is the case, then a clear directive from Ayatollah Khomeini himself may be required before the issue can be finally resolved.
Among the nations that have been particularly active. Senior Western diplomats in Tehran said that an "Algerian option" was among those being discussed in the Iranian capital.
But one diplomat added a word of caution about this option:
"This is only a possibility," he said. "There is nothing. . . . My own personal own personal impression is that substantial difficulties and technical matters remain to be resolved."
The diplomat acknowledged that a major problem was the continuing existence of various power centers in Tehran. But on the positive side he said that he had the impression that Ayatollah Khomeini now wants the hostage issue to be resolved -- and resolved relatively soon. All that may remain is for the Ayatollah to depart from his previous approach on the issue and give a "clear sign" that it must be resolved, the diplomat said.
Yet another indication that the hostage issue may be in the process of resolution came from a member of the seven-member Iranian parliamentary commission that is supposed to propose conditions for a hostage release. According to Reuter news agency, parliamentarian Hojatolislam Musavi Khoeyni said that his group might announce its terms on Oct. 26, and if the United States accepted those terms, the hostages could be freed on the following day.
"Probably in the Majlis session on Sunday the issue of the hostages will be discussed, and the terms for their release drawn up by the commission will be announced in a public session," Hojatolislam Khoeyni told Reuters.
Conditions previously laid down by the Iranians for the release of the hostages included return of the late Shah's wealth, a US apology for past actions, a pledge of noninterference in Iranian affairs, and the unfreezing of more than $8 billion of Iranian assets in US Banks.
For more than two weeks now there has been speculation that the US was prepared, if the US captives were released, to send to Iran military spare parts whose delivery had been blocked because of the hostage crisis.
State Department spokesman John Trattner said on Oct. 22 that the United States "stands ready to take a number of steps." He declined to list those steps. But in a letter sent to Iran, Secretary of State Edmund S. Muskie had offered noninterference in Iran's affairs and, in effect, to resume normal trade relations following release of the hostages.
Mr. Trattner added that the current atmosphere of optimism about a resolution of the crisis arises from "facts which are simply not in view."