Iran's Revolutionary Council has reached a consensus that the captives being held at the U.S. Embassy should be used as witnesses in a hearing to expose American "crimes" here and then released, according to high-ranking members of the council.
These members said the nominally ruling body of Islamic religious leaders, government officials and others had agreed to ask Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, Iran's actual ruler, to endorse a proposal by Foreign Minister Sadegh Ghotbzadeh to convene an international "grand jury" to investigate U.S.-Iranian relations.
In a related development militant Islamic students, who have often taken stands in conflict with statements by government officials, agreed today to work more closely with those officials seeking to resolve the seven-week-old crisis.
It was not immediately clear if the two developments, disclosed to reporters here today, would put an end to the pattern of contradictory stances taken by the officials and by the Islamic extremists who have physical control of the embassy.
But the apparent willingness now by students to coordinate their decisions with the Revolutionary Council could be a significant conciliatory gesture, and possible opening for moderate views to influence their consistently hard-line demands.
Members of the Revolutionary Council, in the most explicit high-level explanation so far of how they view the outcome of the crisis, refused to rule out altogether the possibility of individual trials for those accused of being spies.
But they insisted that the council's goal was to expose abuses under the reign of the deposed shah rather than to punish the hostages.
If the council can impose this moderate approach in a country with several power centers, this would mark a retreat from earlier insistence that the hostages themselves should be put on trial unless the former shah is returned to face punishment for his deeds while in power. At the same time, it indicated little hope of an early release since preparations for an international tribunal to hear charges against the United States are proceeding slowly.
"It may look like we want the trial of a group, but truly it is the trial of a policy," said Ayatollah Mohammed Beheshti, secretary general of the Revolutionary Council and its presiding officer. "When we want to show that some of the hostages are spies, we want to show that the U.S. policy in Iran was not right. We hope the U.S. nation and government will be able to understand it and accept it."
Beheshti, asked at a meeting with several correspondents whether this means all hostages eventually will be freed without facing the threat of individual punishment, replied: "The door to pardon is open.
"The purpose of the trial is not the punishment," he added. "The purpose of the trial is the explanation to the world of the case."
His comments reflected a widely shared desire among Iran's new rulers to reveal to the world what they regard as systematic exploitation of Iran by the United States in conjunction with former shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. This, council members say, has become the prime reason for holding onto the hostages despite international opprobrium and the threat of U.N. economic sanctions.
"We want to go thoroughly through all the documents at the embassy to see what was the reason for all these aggressions against the Iranian nation," said Hojatoleslam Javad Bahonar, another council member whose title indicates he is a lower-ranking Islamic cleric than Beheshti.
"The people of Iran want to make an international demonstration of the abuses of the United States in its relations with Iran in the last 25 years," he added in an interview.
Bahonar cautioned, however, that Khomeini himself has not yet publicly approved the council's idea or ordered the students holding the embassy to carry it out. Student spokesmen continue to insist that only the shah's return can persuade them to release their captives.
"What we are saying is a general expression of what the people and the students want," Bahonar said, alluding to the fuzzy lines of authority in Iran's still evolving Islamic regime. "It does not mean that we can force the people or the students to do what they don't want to."
The council also is reported to have urged Khomeini to have the students release a few hostages who clearly were without authority at the embassy, presumably as a goodwill gesture clearing the air for the tribunal. Although the 79-year-old Khomeini has announced agreement in principle with the idea of a tribunal, he has not publicly urged the student captors to cooperate with efforts to set it up or endorsed the reported plan to free some hostages as a preliminary step.
The council, still secret in principle, comprises between 12 and 15 of the country's top Islamic rulers under Khomeini, about half of them clergymen. It includes Ghotbzadeh and Finance Minister Abol Hassan Bani-Sadr as well as former prime minister Mehdi Bazargan and other lesser known political and religious figures who meet early every night under Beheshti.
In apparent recognition of difficulties between the council and the students, Ghotbzadeh announced today that the council has appointed him as a "contact" with them "to create more understanding."
Undefined relations between the council and the students on one hand, and between the council and Khomeini on the other, have been seen by observers as a major obstacle to swift creation of the international tribunal called for by the council.
Ghotbzadeh said today that the council's new "coordinating committee" with the students and his own liaison role will enable him to negotiate with the revolutionary youths on "all the questions relating to the hostages."
"I was appointed as the contact," he said, "because sometimes things are reported by journalists, in particular the foreign ones, in a contradictory manner and this is why misunderstandings are created. To prevent that, the council decided to have direct contact with the students."
Since taking over the embassy Nov. 4, students have steadfastly held to the same position: Spy trials for the hostages unless the deposed shah is returned to Iran. At the same time, they have rejected proposals by officials like Ghotbzadeh to impanel a grand jury in which the Americans would serve as witnesses, not defendants.
Several times, Ghotbzadeh has suggested the possibility of partial hostage releases or alternative remedies for the crisis, only to have the students publicly rebuff him. The customary student response to Ghotbzadeh's initiative has been, "The foreign minister speaks for himself."
Although the students have enjoyed a strong popular following and the backing of Khomeini, their position has eroded in recent days as a result of the embarrassing mix-up in the hostage count.
Their conflicting explanations, feeding fears that some of the American captives may have been taken to a prison outside Tehran, are seen as further evidence of chaos within the embassy where several groups are believed to be competing for influence and attention.
Disarray within the student ranks contributed to another slipup that sparked the first sharp domestic criticism of the Islamic radicals during their seven-week vigil and forced the youths to apologize publicly.
On Christmas night, two student captors, appearing on national television, declared that on the basis of captured embassy documents the centrist Iranian Liberation Movement collaborated with the United States during and after the February revolution.
The Liberation Movement, according to the students, established contact with the U.S. Embassy in Tehran through a party member and former deputy prime minister, Abbas Amir Entezam, who was recently arrested by Iranian authorities as a result of embassy documents that said he cooperated with American officials to improve U.S.-Iranian relations.
The broadcast drew a storm of criticism by Iranian political leaders, including Ghotbzadeh, who said revealing such documents before taking them to the revolutionary prosecutor "is not revolutionary." The movement's founders, including former prime minister Bazargan, sued the students, claiming they unfairly defamed the political party.
The Liberation Movement, a reformist political party, defended itself in a statement saying the student broadcast was "simple-minded" mudslinging, and "it is neither a farsighted political act done with revolutionary responsibility, nor behavior according to Islamic criteria."
Reacting to the first criticism directed at them since the embassy takeover, the student leaders issued a public apology, declaring that their two fellow captors erred in judgment and "confessed their mistakes in front of other brothers and sisters inside the espionage nest, and have declared their readiness for any religious punishment."