Foreign Minister Sadegh Ghothbzadeh indicated tonight that U.S. Charge d'Affaires Bruce Laingen would remain in the Foreign Ministry despite demands from the militants holding the American Embassy that he be handed over for questioning about alleged espionage documents.
Meanwhile, antigovernment outbursts continued in Iran's provinces. Four government military officers were killed in confrontations with Kurdish rebels in the west, and demonstrators in the northwest Azerbaijani city of Tabriz staged a large rally in support of opposition leader Ayatollah Kazem Shariatmadari.
In Tehran, Ghotbzadeh, who appealed three days ago to Iranian leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini for a ruling on the demand to turn over Laingen, gave the first sign of a decision tonight.After leaving a meeting of the ruling Revolutionary Council, he was asked for Khomeini's response.
"What has happened is the answer," said Ghotbzadeh, apparently referring to Laingen's continued stay in the ministry, where he and two other American officials have been held under protective custody since the embassy was seized and its occupants taken hostage nine weeks ago.
Khomeini's studied silence on the captors' demands has been interpreted as a significant victory for political forces here who are reportedly looking for a way to release the hostages. They fear that handing over Laingen would further inflame the crisis.
In recent days, mounting ethnic and religious tensions in Iran's autonomy-mined provinces have exerted increasing pressure on the central authority of Khomeini. The office of the 79-year-old spiritual leader said today he would take to two-week rest beginning Saturday, at his residence in Qom, 100 miles southeast of Tehran.
Laingen's fate has become the latest litmus test of who is in control on the hostage issue -- more pragmatic elements in the Foreign Ministry and Revolutionary Council or the militant Islamic captors who insist on the return of the deposed shah before the Americans will be freed.
Forcing Ghotbzadeh to deliver Laingen to the occupied embassy for questioning, according to diplomatic observers, would have revealed Khomeini's preference for the hard-line stance of the Islamic revolutionaries and drastically retarded hopes of release in the near future.
The request for Laingen was delivered Saturday and at the same time the radical Moslems announced that Vietnamese would be invited to participate in the trial of a hostage named David M. Roeder, who they said flew bombing missions over Vietnam for the U.S. Air Force.
Coming after a period of relative passivity on the part of the normally aggressive embassy keepers, the two-part announcement was seen as an attempt by the captors to gauge support from Khomeini, the spiritual as well as political ruler of Iran.
Ghotbzadeh, who is believed to view Laingen as an important liaison to Washington if serious negotiations on the hostages begin, has said the three men are not considered hostages and will not be tried as spies. He has rejected past demands by the captors to question Laingen.
Problems in the provinces have distracted Khomeini from the hostage issue in the past several days. More than 50 Iranians have been killed and more than 200 injured in intense antigovernment fighting throughout the nation, presenting Khomeini with his most serious challenge to central government control since he rode the Islamic revolution to power last February.
Today, insurgents in the Kurdish region of west Iran ambushed 120 government military officers in the city of Mahabad, critically wounding one of the officers. Four more government officers were killed and four wounded when a truck ran into a group of soldiers who had been stopped by insurgents, according to the official Pars news agency.
In the Kurdish city of Sanadaj, all office buildings were closed and villagers poured into the town to join a sit-in at the governor general's office where they continued pressing for withdrawal of the central government's militiamen, according to local sources.
In the northwest provincial capital of Tabriz, where supporters of Khomeini and Shariatmadari have battled for weeks, antigovernment crowds rallied in the center of town while schools and shops remained closed for the third consecutive day.
Estimates of the number of demonstrators varied betwen 20,000 and 100,000, but despite the size of the crowd, there was no repeat of last weekend's violence, which resulted in several deaths and more than 150 injuries.
Unrest in Tabriz and the surrounding provinces of east and west Azerbaijan is considered the most disquieting development in Iran because of the large number of Turkish-speaking residents who trace their origin to that northwest region.