At the turn of the year, one of the vital questions hanging over the future of the 52 American hostages had become: How is President-elect Ronald Reagan playing in Iran?
As the latest United States proposals for ending the crisis were en route to Tehran, top Carter administration officials and other analysts stressed privately the importance of Mr. Reagan's offstage role in the negotiating process.
In the last week of 1980, Mr. Reagan characterized Iranian revolutionaries as "barbarians . . . kidnappers." One key to any early release of the hostages, in the eyes of the US officials, is an Iranian perception that President Reagan will be a nasty adversary . . . but not toom nasty.
"On the one hand, it is important that the Iranians sense that it is in their interest to resolve the issue promptly," a source close to the hostage negotiations told the Monitor. "But, given the fact they still fundamentally mistrust the United States, it is also crucial that Mr. Reagan be seen as committed to implement any agreement made before he takes office."
The paradox seems somehow appropriate to a hostage ordeal whose one constant has been confusion.
At this writing, experts in Tehran and Washington were providing a customarily fuzzy overall picture of the hostage negotiations. The answer to just about all the relevant questions appeared to be a simple: "Yes." And "no."
* Did it look likely President Carter's last chance at freeing the captives would work?
Yes and no.
"I would still have to bet against this," a presidential aide told the Monitor. "But I would not rule it out completely."
He indicated that the latest talks with Algerian mediators had produced a new sense in the administration that Iranian negotiators really want a resolution of the hostage crisis, and that the Iranians increasingly grasped the legal limits on what Mr. carter could do to secure one.
The crucial question, depressingly familiar to longtime students of the impasse, was still seen as whether these particular Iranians had enough will and power to put together such a resolution.
* Are the Algerians, as reports from Iran have suggested, suddenly doing more than mediating?
Yes and no.
They are certainly spending a lot of time and effort sounding out each side, providing each with a nuanced view of the other, and occasionally helping to search for compromise ground.
But if (as a senior Iranian negotiator suggested publicly Dec. 30), the Algerians will now have a decisionmaking role, someone apparently forgot to tell the Algerians.
Sources close to the mediatory team said there had been no indication by Dec. 31 of such a change.
* Does the lates US proposal resolve all the outstanding issues on a hostage release?
Yes and no.
Yes (US officials hope) because the Iranian regime could conceivably seize on (still undisclosed) changes in "formulation" to tell its constituents that the americans are buckling. More than a few Tehran analysts have long been convinced that this ability to claim "victory" is, in the end, the only immutable Iranian prerequisite for an agreement.
Yet in cold print, the Americans reportedly have not given in on at least one substantive and emotionally charged demand: a "guarantee" the US will "return" the wealth of the late Shah and his family.
President Carter just can't do that, according to US law. Moreover, one senior US official notes, there probably are no sizable assets of the royal family left in the US.
* And what about the question you began this story with? How do the Iranians feel about all this?
In Tehran's revolutionary tradition, the answer to this question remains unclear.
"The final answer may come very starkly," one veteran observer of the hostage crisis commented Dec. 31. "That is, it will come in an announced decision either to free the hostages before Mr. Reagan takes over or not to."