Despite a series of encouraging and optimistic remarks by prominent officials here, Iranian negotiators appear to be putting seemingly insurmountable obstacles in the way of a resolution of the hostage crisis.
The Algerian intermediaries are believed to have received Iran's response -- described by diplomats in Tehran as "very weighty" -- to the latest US proposals late Dec. 16. Earlier, in a meeting with Prime Minister Muhammad Ali Rajai, Iran's spiritual leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, approved the Iranian response.
Following this meeting, Mr. Rajai reaffirmed that the occupation of the US Embassy in Tehran had served its purpose and therefore, "As far as we are concerned, the problem is dead and standing in the way of our normal work."
He added on Tehran Radio that after the transmission of the Iranian reply to the Carter administration, "The US can decide when and how . . . it wishes to take out its spies."
Although this was initially interpreted favorably by some Westerners, diplomats close to the talks between Iran and Algeria appeared Dec. 16 to be anxious to suppress high hopes for a quick release of the 52 Americans, now held captive for more than a year.
Instead, they pointed out that since the Majlis decision Nov. 2 that spelled out the conditions for the release of the hostages, Iran has twice hardened its negotiating stand.
"Iran is once again emphasizing its claims on the estate of the Shah and his immediate family," a senior diplomat told the Monitor Dec. 16. During the past weeks the Algerian intermediaries had gained the impression that Iran was ready to accept a US presidential freeze on the estate of the Shah, pending procedures in US courts.
But in recent years Iranian negotiators appear to be returning to their original positions, demanding the immediate transfer of this estate.
"The Iranians are demanding that they receive all their assets," one usually well-informed source said. He added that "they are lumping Iranian assets frozen in the US together with the estate of the Shah."
Diplomats point out that an immediate transfer of the Shah's wealth is "a legally impossible condition for the United States to meet." The diplomats cautioned that their remarks reflected the current status of the Algerian-Iranian talks but that the official Iranian reply would have to be awaited. Diplomats described their Algerian colleagues as "tired but not in a depressed or very pessimistic mood."
Iran's apparent insistence on the immediate transfer of the Shah's estate follows its earlier demand that all Iranian assets in the US be not only unfrozen, but also transferred immediately to a "third-world country," presumably Algeria. Diplomats in Tehran believe such a transfer of Iranian assets "is not difficult to solve." But the immediate transfer of the Shah's wealth is almost impossible.
Tehran Radio Dec. 16 quoted Mr. Rajai as saying: "What we want is financial guarantees via the Algerian authorities." Algeria is believed to be eventually prepared to guarantee the transfer of Iranian assets in the United States to non-American banks. Furthermore, the settling of US nongovernmental claims against Iran is not viewed as a major obstacle but as soluble with the arbitration of an international commission.
But when it comes to the wealth of the Shah and his family Algeria will refuse to act as a guarantor, since the United States legally cannot simply transfer this estate. Diplomats and political analysts believe one of the major problems in the talks between Algeria and Iran is the Islamic Republic's fundamental distrust of the United States.
"Every time an agreement on a certain issue appears to have been achieved, the Iranians waver because they worry what will happen if. . . ," one source close to the talks said. These diplomats and political analysts, moreover, list several reasons for Iran's seemingly hard stance on the Shah's wealth:
* Iran worries that a battle in a US court for the Shah's estate will be an endlessly long affair.
* Iran's leadership fears a negative reaction if the Shah's wealth is not transferred within a reasonable period of time following the release of the hostages.
* A transfer of the Shah's wealth will serve as a justification of the Islamic revolution, demonstrating to the world that "the Shah was a thief."
* By achieving a transfer of the Shah's wealth Iran wishes to cast doubt on the integrity of the United States. "A transfer would serve as a warning that the same thing can happen to other rules in this area," one Gulf- state ambassador said.
Diplomats here fear the hostage crisis once again may be becoming an issue in domestic Iranian politics. "Everyone is afraid to take a position which could harm his power base," one third-world representative said.
The United States appears to have done its utmost to prevent such a situation from arising. Included in US messages over the past few weeks are what is described in Tehran as 18 "US presidential decrees." These are said to refer to a US pledge not to interfere in the internal affairs of the Islamic state, the defreezing of Iranian assets, US claims against Iran, and the Shah's wealth.
The Carter administration offered the Algerian intermediaries signed but undated and unnumbered copies of the documents as a guarantee that it was sincere in its intentions. But the offer was rejected by the Algerians, pending talks with their Iranian interlocutors.
"The problem is," one ambassador said, "that the Iranians read every dot on the 'i' in the American documents and do not take the spirit of the American proposals into consideration." He added that "if Iran's official reply really reflects the atmosphere of the talks, then only God knows what is going to happen next."