After an apparent all-night debate, the radical Islamic militants who have held an estimated 50 Americans at the U.S. Embassy since Nov. 4 said this morning they will turn over the hostages to the Revolutionary Council at 5 p.m. (8:30 a.m. EST).
A statement, broadcast early this morning in Tehran, was made in the wake of a stern midnight warning from Foreign Minister Sadegh Ghotbzadeh. He said the 13-member Revolutionary Council was determined to take over the embassy and transfer the hostages to a yet undisclosed location under government supervision.
The news broadcast did not mention his demand that the militants vacate the embassy, indicating that in a face-saving gesture he may have agreed to let them stay on there, if perhaps temporarily.
The communique said that the "spy hostages" -- as the detained Americans were referred to -- "will b ready for transfer to the Revolutionary Council at 5 p.m." upon receipt of written authority and after receiving a medical checkup and being photographed.
As late as last night, militants who have held the hostages in increasing defiance of the Iranian government, had sought to fight yet another delaying action.
"The transfer cannot happen easily," their spokesman had said. He had suggested several more days might be required and said the militants had been promised time on television to explain their case. He also said discussions with the council about the transfer were planned.
But a confident Ghotbzadeh said in an interview with The Washington Post in the Foreign Ministry Friday that he doubted the militants "are able to do anything -- maybe they will make little obstacles -- but not major ones."
Friday's events appeared to bear out Ghotbzadeh's optimistic view, since anticipated demonstrations of support for the militants failed to materialize.
The students' main ally, the rightwing, clerical Islamic Republican Party, called off plans for major street demonstrations that were to have ended in front of the embassy.
Instead, the biggest crowd was a thousand people gathered to watch the slaughter of a camel in thanksgiving for the improved health of ailing revolutionary leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. Earlier in the crisis, throngs would answer the militants' call for protests.
Inside the embassy, the militants met with the Iranian press and broadcast the news conference from loudspeakers installed on the compound's walls -- a far cry from the days when dozens of foreign television crews filmed their every move.
It was the militants' suggestion to stay in the embassy and allow the hostages to be taken elsewhere, Ghotbzadeh noted.
The promise of the transfer came Thursday when the militants agreed to the deal after losing their desperate attempts to block a meeting between the hostages and a U.N. fact-finding panel. The announcement marked a major victory for the government in the ongoing power struggle between the militants, who claimed to be acting out the public will, and the government, which was growing more eager to find a solution to the crisis.
Barring last-minute hitches of the kind that so often have characterized the U.S.-Iranian crisis, the U.N. commission was expected to visit the hostages Sunday before flying back to Geneva Monday to prepare its report on its two-week stay in Tehran.
Informed sources suggested that the Iranian authorities may publish a complete list of the hostages once their transfer has been completed.
Neither the students nor the United States has ever published such a list.
The hostages' next destination was not disclosed, but in the past it has been suggested that they might be moved into a military hospital or barracks in Tehran.
In the interview, Ghotbzadeh recounted the dramatic encounter Wednesday night between a group of Revolutionary Council members and the student delegation in President Abol Hassan Bani-Sadr's office in the old Prime Ministry building.
Buoyed by his success in finally overcoming division inside the Revolutionary Council and winning what he said was unanimous approval for his approach, Ghotbzadeh, said he called the militant students' bluff.
He recalled that although the Revolutionary Council had demanded that the U.N. panel be allowed to see all the hostages, the militants said they would allow only 30 captives to be interviewed or would challenge the Revolutionary Council to take responsibility for all the Americans.
He intimated that the students never thought the Revolutionary Council would accept the responsibility for the hostages. The fact that the council did has involved the Iranian government in their continued detention for the first time.
The sources dismissed the clerical faction headed by Ayatollah Mohammed Beheshti by saying "They've been outmaneuvered."
If indeed that proves to be the case, observers consider the militants to be the big losers. Only days ago they were calling the shots, tacitly approved by the ailing Khomeini's silence, and challenging the authority of a president elected by 75 percent of the voters.
"Once they lose control of the hostages they will become just another of the some 50 political groups in this country," an observer said.
Nonetheless, observers doubted that the hostages would be freed before the third week in April, when a newly elected parliament is expected to get down to business after spending two weeks at its own general organization. Two weeks ago Khomeini said it was up to the parliament, which formally meets April 3, to decide the hostage problem.
Even if the militants' unpredictable actions prove to no longer be an issue, observers stressed that purely bilateral government problems between the United States and Iran remain.
The Revolutionary Council members expect the United States to come forward with major gestures to match their own.
The secretary has asked the United States to admit its past interference in Iranian domestic affairs under the deposed shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, foreswear such action in the future, and do nothing to prevent the extradition from Panama of the shah and the return of his fortune.