Once the cheers fade and the yellow ribbons flutter away, the hard questions will be asked. While official Washington feted the 52 released American hostages, several congressional committee were quietly preparing to investigate the broad implications of the seizure of the US Embassy in Iran.
Hearings are not expected to begin until late February or early March, but there is growing consensus on Capitol Hill that there should be thorough congressional scrutiny.
"We must find out what happened and see how it can be avoided in the future," says a senior member of one House committee now gearing up for an inquiry.
The principal investigations apper likely to be conducted by the foreign affairs committees of the Senate and House of Representatives, perhaps with supplementary probes by the armed forces and banking committees.
The coming inquiries are expected to hone in on:
* Terms of the hostage release agreement. Questions are surfacing about the fairness, validity, and possible precedents set by swapping $10.9 billion in frozen Iranian assets in the United States for the hostages' freedom.
This concluding act of the 14-month hostage drama is likely to be the curtain-raising issue in the investigation by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
* Treatment of the hostages. The angry congressional reaction to charges that the American captives may have been mistreated seems to assure a searching look into the conditions of their detention.
Majority leader Howard H. Baker Jr. (R) of Tennessee pledges that the Senate "will inquire fully into the brutal treatment of these hostages."
* Embassy security. There is much concern, not only about the takeover of the American Embassy in Tehran by a mob in November 1979, but over a series of similar assaults on US diplomatic facilities, most recently in El Salvador, Pakistan, and Libya.
"There are solutions to these problems," says Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman Charles H. Percy (R) of Illinois. "We solved the kidnapping problems in the '30s after the Lindbergh incident. We had a rash of [airplane] hijackings, but we tightened security and have virtually stopped those. We have not tightened security a great deal for our diplomatic corps abroad."
An examination of embassy protection could well lead committees in both houses to review safety precautions taken (or not taken) at the embassy in Tehran when the exiled Shah was admitted to the US for medical treatment -- and how that mob-inciting decision on the Shah was reached.
* Future US-Iran relations. The House subcommittee on the Middle East plans hearing peering ahead to the next phase in relations between the United States and the Islamic government of oil-rich Iran.
This forward look may require a retrospective gaze at the close American ties with Iran since assisting the Shah to the throne in 1953.