A single Islamic Revolutionary Guard, cradling his rifle, paces nonchalantly before the main American Embassy gate in Tehran. Guards chat easily outside the captive compound's wall, giving no hint of the renewed wave of optimism outside Iran for a speedy resolution of the nearly year-old hostage crisis.
But with the stated caveat that the release of the 52 Americans is still by no means certain, some Iranian analysts and foreign diplomats reached in Tehran were by late Oct. 23 pointing to reasons the latest hints of a breakthrough should be taken more seriously than earlier ones.
On the minus side, these analysts note that there remains no explicit public indication that Iranian religious leader Ayatollah Khomeini wants the crisis resolved. There had also, by late Oct. 23, been no direct comment on the matter from the militant Muslim youths actually holding the Americans and the embassy.
Also seen as unencouraging was a reported statement Oct. 22 by Ayatollah Muhammad Beheshti, a founder of the fundamentalist Islamic Republican Party (IRP), that the Americans did not seem to have met Ayatollah Khomeini's stated conditions for the hostage release.
But among the plus signs pointed to by analysts contacted in Tehran were:
* Iran may have achieved the purpose for which the hostages were held. Prime Minister Muhammad Ali Rajai told a press conference in Tehran Oct. 22, "We have already achieved whatever result we wanted from holding the hostages."
Mr. Rajai, who is believed to have substantial support among Ayatollah Beheshti's IRP, might have added that by cleverly manipulating the hostage issue to whip up public feelings, the fundamentalists were helped in securing a dominant position in the country. Eventually they captured the biggest bloc of seats in the parliament and forced President Abolhassan Bani-Sadr to name Rajai as premier.
The fundamentalists also were able to use the hostage crisis to silence the moderates and secularists in the country, suppressing almost all other political parties and groups.
But when Mr. Rajai bragged of having "achieved whatever result we wanted," he was not talking about this aspect of developments in Iran. What he meant was that by holding the hostages for almost a year Iran has succeeded in humiliating the United States -- and demonstrating to the world what a third-world country can do to a superpower for having allegedly intervened for more than a quarter of a century in its internal affairs.
This, in short, was Iran's answer to the United States for having imposed on Iran (as Iranians see it) a dictatorial regime, headed by the former Shah, through a military coup engineered by the Central Intelligence Agency in 1953.
* Moreover, with the war with Iraq continuing, the hostages have become a secondary issue. Ayatollah Khomeini is seen by some Tehran analysts as concerned that the hostage-holding may even be getting in the way of achieving a grander design -- that of exporting the Islamic revolution. The powerful Khomeini is increasingly thought to believe that the war with Iraq provides him with an excellent opportunity to widen the scope of the revolution.
Even though it may have humiliated the United States, the cost of the hostage operation has been extremely high. This is because of the economic boycott by the US and some of its Western allies, the freezing of Iran's assets, and the losses of oil revenue.
* Majlis (parliament) speaker Hojatolislam Hashemi Rafsanjani has told a number of Western journalists in interviews given since Oct. 18 that the hostage issue would be taken up in the Iranian parliament some time early next week. He disclosed that the special parliamentary commission set up to study the issue was intensively working on a plan that was to be presented to the Majlis.
* Prime Minister Rajai, who visited New York earlier this week, told an interviewer on his return to Tehran that he had spoken to a representative of the hostage families. Among other things he is said in Tehran to have told Katherine Keough, the families' representative: "Since your husband is a teacher , I will see that he is in the first group to be released."
This may have been a slip of the tongue. If so, there were two key words in the slip -- "release" and "group." Put together, observers interpreted this to mean that the Iranian authorities were seriously considering the release of the hostages and that a plan to fly them out in groups was one of those being considered.
As of now, Iranian leaders are not talking about a trial of any of the Americans being held. The main hitch that could arise, analysts believe, is that the Majlis commission would recommend that the US should be made responsible for returning the Shah's wealth before the hostages are released. This obviously would be a condition Washington would find impossible to meet.
What the exact conditions are to be, however, will not be known until Oct. 26 when the Iranian parliament is scheduled to meet to discuss the commission's report.