An October hostage surprise is looking less and less likely. In the wake of news reports of bargaining over American hostages in Lebanon, the Reagan administration and the Bush campaign have sent out clear messages that they are not seeking a campaign deal.
Informed Washington insiders say a hostage release that even smells like a deal could easily backfire politically on the vice-president.
This probability has not been lost on his campaign staff. The recent rumors have already resurrected charges that domestic political maneuverings during the 1980 presidential campaign delayed the release of 52 Americans. (Story, Page 6.)
United States officials stress that there will be no deal, because it is just bad policy. The firm US stance against any hostage deals, since the Iran-contra affair, is working, they say, and is strengthening the fight against terrorism.
``All the international pressures - Iran's need to break its isolation and garner international support, Syria's pressure on the [pro-Iranian] Hizbullah in Beirut - are pressing in the same way,'' a top US official says. ``The Iranians seem to be edging up to action on the American hostages.''
Still, Iran remains a wild card.
``In the past, the Iranians have seemed addicted to playing with elections, but this time I just don't see what their calculus would be,'' says a well-placed US terrorism specialist. ``A release now would not particularly help either candidate and could hurt Bush.... Maybe they could see it as a goodwill gesture, but we just don't know what they're really thinking.''
An American hostage or two - most likely from among the three professors kidnapped in January 1987 - could be released at any time, including before the elections, informed officials say. But this conclusion is based on the assumption that Iran has the influence to win their freedom, they say, and not on any hard information that Iran intends to press for a release.
Washington's understanding of Iran's internal political maneuverings and Iranian government intentions remains very limited. Reports from Tehran continue to indicate substantial debate about how to deal with the US. Other reports suggest that even those Iranians who see the value of releasing Americans will have a hard time persuading some of the hostage-holders to do so.
But a senior US official says indications are that Iran wants to address the hostage issue soon. The Reagan administration is putting the onus for action on Tehran. ``This is a problem Iran created; it's up to them to solve it,'' sums up a second senior official.
The US and Iran have regularly communicated through third parties, such as Switzerland, in recent months. But officials say there have been no direct talks and that messages have not touched on specifics.
The US, officials say, has consistently told Iran it should use its influence to free the hostages before normal bilateral relations can resume, and without strings attached.
In early October, amid the rumors about hostage deals and secret US emissaries, Iran agreed that further contacts would be limited to official channels, US officials say.
A consensus is emerging in Washington that a period of transition in US-Iran relations has begun. Tehran is getting credit here for its flexible stance on the United Nations-sponsored peace talks with Iraq and its apparent desire to resume a normal role in the world.
Reported overtures from Iran are closely held and reviewed at the administration's highest levels.
``The recent reports of secret US overtures to Iran had a good result,'' a well-placed specialist says. ``They got all of us in the bureaucracy to reexamine the issue and again agree it isn't worth the risk to try.''
Nevertheless, some officials say the time is right to lay the groundwork for the day when Iran makes an overture that Washington can accept. ``We're both moving to the stage where we will have to talk,'' says one.
A ``no negotiations'' stance does not preclude direct talks about hostages, others add, if the talks are authoritative.
US analysts have concluded that Iran was behind the Oct. 3 release of Indian professor Mithileshwar Singh, who was kidnapped at the same time as the three American professors. West Germany was apparently informed of Mr. Singh's release in advance by Iran's Foreign Ministry, adding to other indications that Iran, not Syria, was the initiator.
But Washington is still puzzling about what it means. ``Singh just came out of the blue, and no Americans have yet been freed,'' one specialist says. Despite a normalization of British-Iranian relations, no British hostages have been released. Nor have Irish hostage talks with Iran yet shown results, he says.
Western hostages remaining in Lebanon 1985* Terry Anderson (American) Thomas Sutherland (American) Alberto Molinari (Italian) 1986 Brian Keenan (Irish) John McCarthy (British) Frank Reed (American) Joseph James Cicippio (American) Edward Austin Tracy (American) 1987 Terry Waite (British) Jesse Turner (American) Robert Polhill (American) Alann Steen (American) 1988 William Higgins (American) *Year they were taken captive