The 52 American hostages appeared Jan. 18 to be on the verge of their liberation. "It's over," a senior diplomat close to the indirect negotiations between Iran and the United States told the Monitor Jan. 18.
Following two months of intensive via Algerian intermediaries, Iran's official Pars News Agency Jan. 18 quoted Behzad Nabavi, the Iranian chief negotiator, as saying, "The government of the Islamic Republic of Iran and the United States finally reached an agreement on resolving the issue of the hostages today."
At time of writing, what Mr. Nabavi called "several wholly trivial points" were still being sorted out. But diplomats close to the negotiations believed that the release would take place before President-elect Ronald Reagan's Jan. 20 noon inauguration.
The final differences undoubtedly centered on the complex tangle of legal and financial moves to unfreeze Iran's assets in the United States. Deputy Secretary of State Warren Christopher has spent the past 10 days in Algeria working out the blow-by-blow details of the deal. Sources close to the negotiations listed the "headlines" of the agreement as:
* The United States will immediately release to Algeria approximately $5 billion of the Iranian assets in the US, valued by Iran at $13 billion.
* Following the liberation of the hostages the United States will immediately release to Algeria a further sum of approximately $1.5 billion.
* Algeria will act as a guarantor for noncash guarantees it has received from the United States.
* Outstanding legal and financial differences, including Iran's demand for a transfer of the estate of the Shah and his family, will be settled by an international commission. This will consist of Iran, the United States, and one or more third parties, probably including Algeria.
* The United States will publicly pledge not to interfere in the internal affairs of the Islamic Republic of Iran.
By concentrating of financial details in this last intensive round of negotiations, Iran has created the impression of being merely interested in what some critics have dubbed a "ransom" for the 52 hostages. But pointing to the strange mixture of religious and secular radical ideology in the Islamic revolution, political observers maintain that Iran's Islamic fundamentalists successfully pursued political goals.
"Iran deeply distrusts the United States. It wanted solid guarantees for the return of what it considers to rightfully belong to the Islamic Republic," a third-world diplomat said.
At the same time, Iran has achieved:
1. A serious damaging of US prestige by virtually holding the United States hostage for 14 months.
2. The eliciting under duress of a pledge of noninterference -- normally viewed as a cornerstone in international relations.
3. Portrayal of the United States as a less reliable and more vulnerable ally.
4. A strengthening of the position of Iran's fundamentalists in the bitter domestic power struggle.
Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini himself prepared the ground for the resolution of the hostage crisis last September by laying down the guidelines for the conditions for releasing the 52 Americans. These guidelines were embodied in the Nov. 2 Majlis (parliament) decision that served as a basis for the negotiations.
Diplomats and political observers alike believe that the timing of Ayatollah Khomeini's remarks was influenced by the knowledge of the approaching Iraqi attack on the southern Iranian oil province of Khuzestan.
Iran's President Abolhassan Bani-Sadr revealed in several newspaper interviews last year that his country was aware of the planned Sept. 22 Iraqi attack (which started the Gulf war) six weeks before Iraqi troops actually invaded Iranian territory.
The occupation of the US Embassy compound in Tehran served the fundamentalists as a means of weakening their liberal critics, people who propagate a synthesis between Islam and Western technology and development. Those accused of being too soft and not sufficiently revolutionary and anti-American were either politically eliminated or severely restricted in their room to maneuver (like President Abolhassan Bani-Sadr).
With the Gulf war, the fundamentalists obtained a more powerful rallying point in their attempt to Islamicize Iranian society and institutions. Their urge to export the Islamic revolution remained strong, but the war rendered the embassy occupation superfluous for this purpose.
Instead, Iran's inability to force Iraqi troops to withdraw from its territory now serves the fundamentalists as the means of discrediting President Bani-Sadr. Mr. BaniSadr has tied his political future to the course of the war by emphasizing the role of the armed forces -- distrusted by the fundamentalists as potential supporters of the ousted monarchy.
At the same time, the fundamentalists, aware of Iran's dire need of international material and political support in the war against Iraq, hoped to score points by successfully resolving the hostage issue in Iran's favor.
"The fundamentalists can now claim to have achieved what weak Western liberals like Bani-Sadr described as impossible," an Iranian political analyst said. "Now that the hostages are gone, we can fully concentrate on waging war on each other in an attempt to fundamentally influence not only Iran's political and cultural future but also th e future of our Muslim neighbors."