Iran leader moves to outwit opponents, free hostages
Despite some lingering opposition, there are clear signs in Iran that Prime Minister Muhammad Ali Rajai is trying to bring the hostage crisis to an end -- perhaps even in time to meet the Jan. 16 deadline set by President Carter.
Opponents of such a step may yet be able to sabotage it, as so often in the past. But the government's latest move was highly significant: the presentation of two "heavily urgent" bills to the Majlis (parliament) Jan. 12.
One bill seeks the Iranian parliament's permission for the government to solve by arbitration certain last-minute hitches in the current Algerian-mediated negotiations. The other bill calls for nationalizing the assets of the Shah and 53 members of his family.
At the same time, the whole tone of the government and the state-controlled news media over the past few days has been conciliatory.
Behzad Nabavi, chief negotiator, told the Majlis that there was need for urgency in solving the problem because by Jan. 20, "a new government will come to power" in Washington and "we will not know how they will continue the negotiations."
Nabavi explained that the conditions set earlier by the Majlis had called for all claims made by American companies and corporations in US courts against Iran to be dropped. However, some of these claims had been filed before the revolution and before President Carter froze Iranian assets in the US. Hence, Mr. Nabavi said, arbitration was needed to get around the resulting "financial and legal difficulties" between the two governments.
The idea of nationalizing the assets of the late Shah and his family was first proposed by a group of American lawyers. Once the nationalization bill is passed by the Majlis, it would enable Carter to extend this to the US by officially recognizing Iran's claims to the assets. He could then freeze them until US courts decide what should be done with them. Legal disputes over the assets are expected between the Iranian government and members of the Shah's family.
Meanwhile, opposition to the Rajai move has come from two sources:
* One moderate Majlis deputy, Ahmad Salamatian, expressed his dissatisfaction. But this was seen in Tehran as part of the internal power struggle and a token barb shot at the religious fundamentalists by the moderates. In principle the moderates are not opposed to a solution.
* The Islamic leftist Mujahideen-e Khalq guerrilla organization called for demonstrations Jan. 13 to occupy the Tehran University. The excuse is that the University has not been reopened since the summer vacation. But observers believe the real aim is to create an atmosphere in which it would be difficult for the Rajai government to let the hostages go.
When President Abolhassan Bani-Sadr attempted to have the hostages released last Easter, the Mujahideen played a major role in foiling him. The leftists gathered large crowds in front of the American Embassy and prevented a transfer of the hostages from the militants to the government.
This time, Mr. Rajai has been wise enough to remove the hostages secretly in advance. About a week before Christmas the 52 Americans are believed to have been moved from the embassy to a point about half an hour's drive away. Hence, if a deal is indeed reached within the next few days, the ability of Mr. Rajai to deliver the hostages is at least as great as President Bani-Sadr's when he tried to find a solution last year.
Mr. Rajai's decisions to present the two bills to the Majlis came as a surprise because earlier indications were that he would give his final okay to the latest American response Jan. 12 or 13. His aide, Ahmad Azizi, told a local newspaper that agreement had already been reached in principle to "international guarantees" proposed by the Algerians. And diplomats in Tehran indicated that Iran had dropped its original demand for a $24 billion guarantee for return of its frozen assets and the Shah's wealth.
Mr. Rajai has been preparing public opinion for a hostage release. "Our effort is to see that we deal with the problem in a rational manner," he told the state radio. "Even suppose the hostages are freed in the near future, we shall not quit our principal position, which is opposition to American i mperialism."