Somber mood prevails on release of US captives; Iran likely to free hostages only when good and ready, experts say

The Islamic Republic of Iran will free its 52 American political prisoners when the Islamic Republic of Iran is good and ready. Diplomats and other analysts reached Dec. 28, after the Tehran announcement of a "new" Iranian position on the crisis, seemed just about through guessing when that time might come: whether within days (thought less and less likely), within months, or years.

On one point, however, the crisis-watchers seemed increasingly agreed: the near-irrelevance, at least for the time being, of United States efforts to negotiate a resolution of the almost 14-month-old impasse on the hostages.

The picture of US experts swapping intricate legal formulas with a (largely Western-educated) sliver of Iran's jumbled political leadership was seen as roughly akin to serving tea in the midst of a rugby match.

Is it, then, inconceivable that the two sides might seal and implement a compromise plan?

No, said analysts reached in Tehran. But they stressed that such an accord would be an effect, and not a cause, of an Iranian consensus that the hostage ordeal had gone on long enough.

In this sense, nogotiating over the US captives may not resemble nogotiating over Arab-Israeli peace. Wording, in the end, does not matter much. Verbal formulas can be found for resolving the most divisive of issues. Indeed, parts of the 1979 Egyptian-Israeli accord read like pig Latin. If and when the will to resolve discord is present, the nouns and verbs and semicolons of accord fall (however slowly) into place.

"The hostages, fundamentally, remain an element in an internal Iranian power struggle," one Tehran diplomat, long involved in efforts to resolve the crisis, told the Monitor Dec. 28.

Asked to comment on Iranian Prime Minister Muhammad Ali Rajai's Dec. 27 presentation of an avowedly revised position on the hostages, the diplomat said: "At least, it doesn't make things worse. It means, theoretically, that discussions can go on.

"But I sensed no important, substantive departure from the Iranian position, no reason to expect a diplomatic breakthrough."

Breakthrough, most analysts still argued, would depend on conditions inside Iran.

Although loath to volunteer answers after months of unproductive guesswork on the hostage crisis, one veteran Iran-watcher identified instead key questions to be considered in evaluating chances for a compromise.

* Has any one faction triumphed in Iran's power struggle? If so, who precisely is the winner?

* Is the winner finally convinced the hostage crisis must be resolved?

* Is this faction really ready to bury the revolutionaries' resentment and mistrust of a foreign power that helped prop up the former Shah? And if so, does this political group feel secure enough to do so?

* Is Iran short enough on cash (or hardpressed enough in the war with Iraq, or concerned enough about dealing with US President-Elect Ronald Reagan) to feel moved by events to free the hostages soon? Do such considerations really matter to Iranians who really matter?

* Does the one Iranian who ultimately matters, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, want the hostage issue resolved? And if so, is he inclined to emerge from his habitual political ether to push through such a decision?

The more "yes" answers there are to the above checklist, the better would seem the chances for a happy end to more than 400 days of roller-coaster hopes for a hostage release.

Yet Tehran analysts remained reluctant to go beyond a "maybe" or two. They maintained that, at the very least, there appeared no concrete indication Iran was moving toward a negotiated hostage liberation.

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