The Iranian parliament appears to have taken a giant step toward freeing the American hostages being held in Iran. An agreement between the United States and Iran over the issue may be imminent.
But enough details need to be settled to make it doubtful that the hostages could be released before the US election Nov. 4.
In a television appearance on Nov. 2, Secretary of State Edmund Muskie declared that negotiation of some of the details would be time consuming. Iran's former foreign minister, Sadeq Ghotbzadeh, indicated that as many as 10 days might be required for a hostage release.Some US officials think it may take longer.
The important points seem to be that the Iranians have definitely dropped their demands for any kind of humiliating "apology" from the United States and that most of the Iranian leadership has concluded it would be better to start making a deal with President Carter before the US election rather than after.
There appear to be two reasons for this: (1) Iranian bargaining power may be stronger before rather than after the election, and (2) given Ronald Reagan's expressed sympathy toward the late Shah and rhetoric that sounds tougher than that which has been coming from President Carter, it might be best not to wait to have to deal with Reagan should he become president.
There is much, however, that remains unclear. It is not yet clear, for instance, whether Iran is demanding that the US supply it with military spare parts, delivery of which was frozen following the seizure of the 53 hostages a year ago. And it is still not entirely clear what the Iranians mean when they say they want the US to drop all claims against Iran. Also, it is not yet certain how far they want the US to go in meeting their demand that it return to Iran the wealth of the late shah. Finally, it is not clear whether the Iranians intend to release the hostages all at once or in stages. US officials have declared in the past that a partial release of hostages would be unacceptable.
Secretary of State Muskie, in his appearance on the ABC television program "Issues and Answers," said that until the US sees the "fine print" of Iran's proposals, it cannot be sure of how it is to react.
Contrary to speculation in the press, the US is "not waiting just to leap" at any proposal from Iran, Mr. Muskie pointed out.
According to the White House, President Carter needs more information before he can make a decision on the Iranian parliament's terms. The US is waiting for the Iranian government to amplify on those terms either directly or through Swiss and Algerian diplomats acting as intermediaries.
The Iranian parliament voted on Nov. 2 to release all the hostages once the United States had met four conditions which were originally set down by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. Those conditions were spelled out only in general terms, but the parliamentary decision was enough to trigger an emergency meeting of President Carter and some of his top advisers. The president was informed of the vote at about 4 a.m. He broke off campaigning to return to Washington for the early morning meeting. It lasted two hours and was to be followed by another meeting later in the day.
The most difficult of Iran's conditions may prove to be the demand for the return of the wealth of the late Shah. American officials say that the US won't stand in the way of Iranian legal claims against the Shah. The US may even help with some legal technicalities.
But it is extremely difficult to assess the Shah's total wealth. Most of it is believed to be in banks and investments outside the United States -- possibly in Western Europe. Estimates of the total run from $1 billion all the way up to to comment on the size of the Shah's US accounts. Missing and destroyed records in Iran have further complicated the question.
Three other conditions set by the parliament were these:
* The US must make a commitment not to interfere in Iran's internal affairs. This demand has already been met in letters to the Iranians from Secretary Muskie.
* The US must "unfreeze" all Iranian assets in and outside the United States. Muskie has stated that as a "general proposition" this would be done once the hostages are released. But there could be legal complications, not in unfreezing of the assets but in returning them to Iran. The claims of US companies against Iran for losses in Iran are involved. But Washington could theoretically provide compensation to those companies as part of an arrangement.
* The US should guarantee Iran's immunity against legal claims arising from the seizure of the US embassy in Tehran. According to United Press International, the government has tried to delay claims against the Iranians in US state and federal courts but has been overruled by a judge in at least one case.
President Carter faces one further complication in all this. If he agrees to send military spare parts to Iran as part of a hostage deal he may be accused by Arab countries friendly with the United States of "tilting" toward Iran in its war with Iraq. The US is in the difficult position of wanting to prevent the disintegration of Iran -- a development which could favor the neighboring Soviet Union -- while at the same time consolidating ties with "moderate" Arab countries, as such Saudi Arabia which supports Iraq's claims against Iran.
Most foreign policy experts seem to find it unlikely that in the midst of all these complications, President Carter could manipulate a hostage release solely with his own political advantage in mind. Iran, rather than the President, appears to be setting the pace -- with its own interests in mind.