11th-hour drama: why Iran kept US waiting until Reagan inauguration

With excitement and relief, intermingled with anxiety over one last-minute delay, the Western world Jan. 19 awaited the final release of the 52 American hostages.

Sources in Iran, reached by telephone, insisted that the delay flowed from a minor, temporary hitch. One version -- that it related to a missing Iranian signature opening an escrow bank account -- was denied by Iran's hostage negotiator Behzad Nabavi.

These sources in Iran also suspected that the Iranians might prefer anyway to hand the hostages over to the incoming Reagan administration, just to make sure Ronald Reagan felt fully tied into the deal. And some observers are convinced that the Iranians would be happy to upstage the pomp and ceremony of the Reagan inauguration.

Whatever the specific cause of the delay, Iranian central bankers worked late into the night, presumably to resolve the last-minute difficulties. At the same time, the Algerian doctors examining the hostages concluded their work late Jan. 19 and the team of Algerian mediators left Tehran by plane.

Meanwhile, the United States Air Force Rhein Main Air Base alongside the major European airport of Frankfurt showed tangible evidence of the anticipated arrival of the hostages.

Two US Air Force men pinned a 10-meter-long banner to one of the hangars welcoming the hostages "back to freedom." And, as more than 1,000 journalists milled around the airfield and the American military hospital in nearby Wiesbaden, US military and West German authorities stepped up their security activities.

Reporters were expected to be able to catch only a glimpse of the freed Americans as they emerged from their plane and stepped into a bus, whisking them away to the US military hospital. The top floor of the hospital has been furnished with 52 beds and 52 bedside telephones to enable the hostages to talk with their families.

Like the hostages, Iran also has to adjust to some kind of return to the fold of the international community. The width of the ideological and psychological gap between Iran and much of the rest of the world was demonstrated in a Jan. 19 broadcast on Radio Tehran.

Unprecedented in the history of the hostage crisis, Mr. Nabavi, the minister of state in charge of the hostage talks, appeared in the studio to field listeners' questions. Answering accusations that the Iranian government had sold out to the United States, Mr. Nabavi described the agreed resolution of the hostage crisis as "a great victory for the Iranian nation." The publication of the details of the agreement would prove this, he said.

Mr. Nabavi went on to say that "the United States has capitulated to Iran" and that Iran had "rubbed in the dirt the world's greatest oppressor and superpower."

Iran, indeed, can claim that the United States has accepted the conditions for release of the hostages outlined last September by its religious leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, and formalized in a Nov. 2 Majlis (parliament) resolution. In fact, however, Iran is only obtaining a return to the economic and financial situation as it was before the Nov. 4, 1979, occupation of the US Embassy in Tehran.

The Iranians' demand for the return of the ousted Shah was refused. Their demand for an apology has been ignored. Their demand for the state of the late Shah and his family will be subjected to US court decisions.

"The Iranians did not get very much," a senior diplomat in the Iranian capital, contacted by telephone, told the Monitor Jan. 19. "At this point the US is simply reestablishing the status quo ante [the previous situation]."

With the exception of outspoken Iranian critics of the hostage crisis solution -- whose criticism is influenced more by the domestic power struggle than by the crisis itself -- most Iranians do not really care whether the hostages are released. Most Iranians hold the US responsible for "the crimes of the deposed Shah" and the Iraqi invasion of Iran.

Although anti-American emotions still ride high in Iran, Iranians today are far more concerned with their economic problems and with the course of the war with Iraq. Fundamentalists and modernists alike will probably be satisfied to get the hostage issue out of the way and to try to break out of Iran's isolation.

But ultimately it is the resolution of the domestic power struggle that will determine Iran's future international relations.

"A regime led by the modernists will be much more appreciated than a fundamentalist government," an Arab ambassador in Tehran told the Monitor. "Mildly put, we are not particularly enchanted with Iran's revolutionary blend of Islam and its declared intention to export its revolution."

Mr. Nabavi's Jan. 19 Radio Tehran broadcast underlined the way in which the resolution of the hostage crisis was already becoming part of the domestic power struggle. He attacked President Abolhassan Bani-Sadr for asserting earlier that by waiting too long Iran had been forced to resolve the hostage issue from "a position of weakness.

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