The hostage drama in Iran appears to be ending as the drama of the Reagan administration in Washington begins. Two features in the hostage episode cause deepest interest here:
* From beginning to end, anti-Americanism was used in Iran to unify the nation; Washington asks, is this a trend in third world countries?
* The Carter administration adopted a "short-of-force" response -- except for the April 25 rescue attempt that was aborted before a shot was fired. National humiliation helped defeat Mr. Carter in November. Does this indicate a tougher attitude in the future?
The iran/hostage episode is likely to affect American politics for years to come, and it may also influence the image of America held by allied nations and the USSR. Is a tough line better in dealing with world problems than the short-of-force policy of Carter?
President-elect Reagan, with Gen. Alexander M. Haig Jr. (USA, ret.) as secretary of state, promises a "stonger" policy. Fear of such policy, they argue, helped cause Iranian leaders to make negotiation concessions to Carter before the Reagan team took over. Mr. Reagan declined to spell out specific proposals on Iran during the election campaign, arguing that his comments would interfere in negotiations. But he has repeatedly emphasized "linkage."
"I don't think we can sit here and talk about weapons," he said in a recent interview, "and ignore what they're [the Soviets] doing with regard to intervening in other countries -- taking over other countries."
Reagan's foreign policy leaves loose ends. He opposes the SALT II treaty negotiated by Carter demands more concessions from Moscow. He has decried the Carter grain embargo against the Soviets, arguing that it hurts American farmers more than Russians. Reagan also criticized the Carter-requested draft registration as unnecessary and undesirable.
The hostage episode leaves questions about America's force and resolution at home and abroad. Has America's leadership role in the free world been damaged by one of the most protracted and mortifying episodes in its history?
Some observers in America praise Carter's patience and pragmatism. Abroad, the London Economist concludes that direct armed American intervention was just what pro-Moscow elements wanted; it would have pushed the unstable country into Soviet hands.
Certainly, one man appears to have garnered highest honors in the hostage chapter, Deputy Secretary of State Warren M. Christopher. Working tirelessly behind the scenes for the hostage release, he has just received the Medal of Honor from President Carter. The medal is the nation's highest civilian award.
If the hostages are released, the American news media are expected to take over in anoutburst of emotion and hero worship -- in which the "happy ending" is likely to be depicted as an American victory.
Actually, from the point of view of the cold war, it will mean little more than the rescue of a besieged platoon where whole nations are engaged.
In the meantime, the US appears ready to take a tougher line in El Salvador -- where helicopters are being sent to the beleaguered pro-American government.
In the long run, the significance of the hostage episode will probably lie in the impression it leaves on the world of America's force, patience, and constancy, and from the mood it creates at home -- in a deeply troubled nation that is preparing for a new president and a new secretary of state.