Well-informed diplomats here are concerned that Iran, in its latest stand on the hostage issue, is "playing with fire and overestimating American patience." The Apparent reason for this is that Iran's leaders are torn between the impediments of their domestic power struggle and their sincere wish to resolve the hostage issue.
In an attempt to salvage the present efforts to achieve a release of the 52 captive Americans, Algeria's intermediaries have been trying over the past few weeks to explain to Iran the serious limitations placed upon the Carter administration by the United States legal system.
"The Algerian role has recently developed from postbox to mediator and guarantor," one knowledgeable source told the Monitor Dec. 17.
Iranian officials remain extremely optimistic in their public statements regarding the hostage issue. Speaking to a press conference Dec. 17, Ayatollah Muhammad Beheshti -- with the exception of Ayotallah Khomeini, Iran's politically most influential religious leader -- said:
"These last [US] responses could be nearly an acceptable answer to the conditions [set] by the Majlis [for the release of the hostages] -- but there are some necessary corrections. In this way we hope that the problem may be solved in the near future when the US gives its answer to these corrections."
Despite these optimistic remarks by Ayatolllah Beheshti and other prominent Iranian leaders, sources close to the Algerian-Iranian talks describe the situations as "extremely delicate."
In an interview Dec. 16 with Tehran radio, Prime Minister Muhammad Ali Rajai stated that Iran is asking for "financial guarantees via the Algerian authorities." Iranian government officials refuse to define what these financial guarantees specifically refer to. But usually well-in-formed sources in the Iranian capital told the Monitor Dec. 17 that Iran is demanding guarantees covering the transfer of Iranian assets held in the United States and of the estate of the Shah and his immediate family.
The delay in the transmission to the Carter administration of the Iranian response to the latest US proposals is believed to be caused by an Algerian refusal to transmit Iranian proposals that are legally impossible for the United States to accept.
In a surprise move, Algeria's ambassador to Iran, Abdul Karim Gherayeb, met Dec. 15 with Ayatollah Khomeini's son Sayed Admed. Having made insufficient progress in the talks with Prime Minister Rajai Mr. Gherayeb is said to have appealed to Iran's religious leader to take into consideration the constraints imposed by the US legal system.
Modifications in the language of iran's reply may be under way. But the Islamic Republic is believed to be insisting on:
* A transfer of the estate of the Shah and his immediate family.
* A transfer of Iranian assets to an Algerian bank account in the US.
Sources close to the Algerian-Iranian talks claim that the demanded transfers are considered by Iran as a "nonnegotiable." Iran is said to be demanding them "before or simultaneous to the release of the hostages." But these sources believe that, in fact, "There is no such thing as financial guarantees."
Usually well-informed circles in Tehran believe that despite the tough Iranian position, "All is not yet lost." These circles -- claiming that iran is aware that the Shah had time to place his estate in safe hands -- add a "face-saving device" could be worked out.
Ayatollah Beheshti, at his press conference, stated that if the demanded "corrections" were rejected by the US, "The next step should be an explanation by our government or Majlis and, it may be, a trial of these 52 Americans."
He added that "the aim of this trial would be to show the world more details about the US policy in iran and the different sorts of damage that this policy has caused the Iranian nation." He implied that the hostages might be released after such a trial.
Political analysts say that Iran is harping on the transfer of both its assets and the estate of the Shah for two reasons:
* The islamic Republic fundamentally distructs US courts. Iran is therefore unwilling to subject itself to the outcome of US legal proceedures regarding claims against the Islamic Republic and Iran's claims on the Shah's estate.
* Iran's fundamentalists hope to gain political capital from a resolution of the hostage crisis. "Rajai wants to be able to say: 'See, I got the Shah's wealth, I acheived the impossible,'" one analyst said.
But diplomats in Tehran fear that Iran is pushing itself into a corner. Says on senior diplomat, "We can only hope that the Iranians will be capable of overcoming the constraints of their domestic problems and the psychological hangups. If not they will be creating a potentially explosive situation."