A breakthrough on the American hostages in Iran seems closer than ever since their seizure over 14 months ago -- although hope has been dashed before and could be once again.
This time it has been raised by the Iranian government's unexpected introduction of two bills in the Majlis (parliament) Jan. 12 for urgent consideration. If enacted, the two bills would seem to open the way for Iran to reach an eventual compromise with the United States over releasing the 52 captives.
Beyond the bills, other considerations may help give Iranian Prime Minister Muhammad Ali Rajai the courage to make the politically risky decision of concluding a deal with the US and ordering the hostage release. These are:
* The questionable outcome of last week's Iranian "offensive" against the Iraqis in the Gulf war gives Mr. Rajai and his fundamentalist supporters a trump card to play against President Abolhassan Bani-Sadr, their archrival. A sweeping victory in the counteroffensive would have reflected a favorably on Mr. Bani-Sadr in his titular role as commander in chief.
* Mr. Rajai's apparent success in lessening the isolation of his decisionmaking position in the hostage negotiations. First he drew the Algerian go-betweens into a participatory role in the compromise now evolving; second he brought the Iranian parliament into the act with his unexpected legislative proposals Jan. 12.
* Recognition by Mr. Rajai and the fundamentalists that Iran's need for hard currency is growing acute as the Gulf War drags on inconclusively. Hence, both their internal political position and the Iranian national interest would be served by making a deal with the US before the Carter presidency expires and a more hard-line Ronald Reagan takes over.
It is a measure of the persistent differing perceptions in Iran and US that, in Tehran, the "Reagan factor" is probably the least compelling of these three considerations. As on Day 1 of the hostages' captivity, they have been pawns in an internal Iranian power struggle (basically between clerical fundamentalists and so-called revolutionary liberals) more than in the cross fire of Iranian-US relations.
Brown University's Iranian specialist, William Beeman, says there may be another element just as compelling as the imminence of the Reagan presidency in getting Prime Minister Rajai to strive for a resolution of the hostage crisis as soon as possible. That is the report from well-informed Paris-based Iranian journalist Amir Taheri in the London Sunday Times that the "liberal" Mr. Bani- Sadr wanted a settlement with the US on the hostages delayed.
The reason for this, according to Mr. Taheri, was that Mr. Bani-Sadr thought the position of the clerically backed Mr. Rajai (whom the President yearns to discredit) would be strengthened significantly if the latter god his hands on any money the US unfroze as part of a hostage deal.
The first bill asked the Iranian Parliament to authorize the settlement of differences between the Iranian and US governments "through an arbitrator acceptable to both sides."
The second proposes the formal nationalization of the wealth of the Shah and his family -- a legal step beyond the confiscation ordered after the 1979 revolution.
Nationalization could facilitate the Iran government's efforts to recover the Shah's wealth through US courts, since it would legally elevate such action from the private level on one side to government level on both sides. The legal introduction of an arbitrator -- a role Algeria is already filling de facto -- formalizes in the Iran-US dispute (as Professor Beeman points out) a procedure long accepted with Iranian society when two parties to a dispute are not on speaking terms.
Reports that Iran now is willing to cut back on its original demand for $24 billion from the US before the hostages were freed tend to confirm that the Iran government is persuaded of the wrongness of initial advice from its US lawyers that the US president could legally deliver such a huge sum.