The latest flurry of speculation about a breakthrough on the American hostages in Iran must be seen against the background of: * Intensification of the internal power struggle in Tehran between the clerical fundamentalists (led by the Ayatollahs Behesti and Montazeri) and the secular revolutionary moderates (symbolized by President Abolhassan Bani-Sadr).
* Imminence of the Jan. 20 transition of the United States presidency from Jimmy Carter to Ronald Reagan. In the thinking of many in both Iran and the US this date has become a tacit deadline for a resolution of the hostage crisis.
In Washington, a State Department official conceded Jan. 7 "some progress" in the latest exchange on the hostages between the US and Iranian governments. But the same official immediately added: "We would all be well advised not to jump to overly optimistic conclusions."
Within Iran, as Brown University's Iran specialist, Prof. William Beeman, points out, the war with Iraq is a much bigger issue than the hostages.But like the hostages, the war is being exploited in the country's internal power struggle. Professor Beeman, an anthropologist with long field experience in Iran, says that secular President Bani-Sadr has become identified with the war issue, the fundamentalists and their man in the premiership, Muhammad Ali Rajai, with the hostage issue.
While Prime Minister Rajai has found himself stuck in Tehran having to make a decision one way or another on the hostages, President Bani-Sadr has managed to distance himself from the hostages by being away at the front and in charge of the new Iranian "offensive."
As nominal commander in chief, President Bani-Sadr has good reason to be with his troops -- and to be seen with them. This is a more enviable position than that of Mr. Rajai, who lives in fear of the wrath of the most adamant fundamentalists should he end up as the man who "went soft on America" and ordered the hostages' release.
A typically Iranian twist has been reported in the London Sunday Times by Amir Taheri, a well-informed and once very influential Tehran journalist now in Paris. Mr. Taheri said Mr. Bani-Sadr, one of the earliest advocates of release of the hostages, now wants any resolution of the problem deferred until he has won his power struggle against the fundamentalists. This is because Mr. Bani-Sadr fears that if the fundamentalists get their hands on Iranian assets frozen in the US, they will use the money to consolidate their position.
Whether this is a correct analysis, it offers one explanation for the criticism of Mr. Bani- SAdr at the turn of the year by Ayatollahs Beheshti and Montazeri for the President supposedly having delayed, as commander in chief, the Iranian counteroffensive against the Iraqi forces.
Mr. Bani-Sadr's response came Jan. 5, when Iranian television announced that the Iranian counteroffensive had begun. The Iranians claimed early victories, and thousands of residents of Tehran climbed onto their rooftops the night of Jan. 6 chanting, in celebration of the offensive, "God is the greatest" -- a rallying cry of the revolution.
The extent of any Iranian successes has yet to be established. But the morning of Jan. 7 produced evidence of disparate Iranian and Western perceptions of what is important.
Foreign correspondents in Tehran were expecting news on the hostage issue when they were summoned to the Foreign Ministry "for an important announcement." When the correspondents turned up, what they were offered was an invitation to visit Iraqi prisoners captured during the Iranian offensive launched 48 hours earlier.
This left Mr. Rajai wrestling with the hostage issue and the Jan. 20 deadline. Mr. Bani-Sadr, on the other hand, was basking in the reported victories at the front, with, in his ears, the echo of those c hants of "God is the greatest" from the rooftops of Tehran