Iranian Foreign Minister Sadegh Ghotbzadeh said yesterday that he has arranged for the U.N. inquiry commission in Tehran to meet with the American hostages despite the bitter opposition of their militant captors, according to news reports from Tehran.
Late yesterday, Iran's official Pars news agency reported that the militants had reversed themselves and agreed to the visit, according to United Press International. Pars reportedly said that Iranian President Abol Hassan-Sadr would accompany the fact-finding panel.
But Reuter quoted a spokesman for the militants as saying they had not been asked to set up a meeting for the commission and have not made a decision on the visit. He said, however, that a decision by the governing Revolutionary Council could influence them.
According to Pars, Ghotbzadeh made his announcement after a council meeting. Earlier in the day, the council's spokesman, Hassan Habibi, said the commission could see the hostages only if they testified against the rule of the deposed shah.
Ghotzadeh said the panel would see the hostages at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, where they have been held for the last 17 weeks, but did not set a time for the visit, which is considered a key element in the still-secret U.N. plan to gain release of the Americans.
Approval by the militants of a commission visit would represent their first significant concession to government officials since they seized the embassy Nov. 4. In past months, they have deferred only to the nation's revolutionary leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.
Despite adamant opposition voiced by the embassy captors as late as Wednesday, Bani-Sadr and Ghotbzadeh have pressed for a commission visit to fulfill a pledge they made as a condition for sending the inquiry commission to Tehran last Saturday.
In their behind-the-scenes maneuverings and public statements yesterday, Bani-Sadr and Ghotbzadeh thus placed their prestige behind the commission's plans to see the hostages as a part of the plan to settle the protracted crisis.
U.S. officials insisted on the commission visit as part of the so-called "package deal" devised by U.N. Secretary General Kurt Waldheim to end the crisis. In such a meeting, the panel could ascertain the exact number and health conditions of the captive Americans.
On the fifth full day of its investigation, the panel of five lawyers met with about 1,500 Iranians injured during last year's revolution that overthrew the shah. According to news reports, several commission members expressed sympathy for the victims.
Commission cochairman Mohammed Bedjaoui reportedly told a chanting crowd at the Tehran Hilton Hotel that Iranians performed "an extraordinary" miracle in toppling shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi whom he described as "this power."
Displaying sensitivity to Iran's suffering under the deposed shah is considered an important gesture for the commission in gaining credibility for its work. In recent days, the panel has visited the nation's "Martyrs' Cemetery" and met with people who say they were tortured by the shah's secret police.
Earlier yesterday, the commission toured the shah's former Niavaran Palace and the Evin jail run by his feared secret police, SAVAK. At the prison, the panel heard from prisoners under the shah who spoke of tortures and murders allegedly committed by SAVAK.
Since arriving in Tehran, the commissioners have repeatedly expressed the hope to visit the American hostages. In their official mandate, they were instructed to speak to each of the estimated 50 Americans in the embassy and three in the Foreign Ministry.
But gloomy signals from Iran in recent days have clouded the U.N. mission especially suggestions from Khomeini and another religious leader that a hostage release could take two more months, after a parliament is elected and debates the issue.
With these disappointing developments, U.N. and U.S. officials have questioned whether the agreement negotiated by U.N. Secretary General Kurt Waldheim had collapsed, and they began focusing on the plans for a commission visit as a test.
A U.S. official who participated in the negotiations said that the visit with hostages was a "touchstone" for the entire plan. If Bani-Sadr was unable to make good on that promise, he said, he could not be counted on to gain release of the hostages.
Diplomatic sources of the United Nations said that "plans have been discussed" to move the hostages from the embassy to meet with the commission.