THE MEANING of the latest cycle of confusion in Tehran is that the one visible road leading to the release of the hostages has been closed. The possibility had existed that a United Nations commission would make a report on the former shah's rule and on the American involvement with him; in return, Iranian authorities would find a way to remove the 50 Americans from their captors' grasp and to set them free. But yesterday Ayatollah Khomeini threw his crucial weight to the side of the embassy terrorists and of those in the governing Revolutionary Council who support them or manipulate them, as the case may be. He called for the U.N. panel to question (not simply to visit) those hostages cited in embassy documents and he indicated that the panel could see all the hostages (but not free any of them) only if it stays in Tehran to issue its report and the hostage-takers decide they like it. The U.N. commission, realizing it has been played for a fool, decided -- wisely -- to leave Iran.
The disagreeable truth may be that although one faction in Iran, headed by President Bani-sadr, wishes to bring the crisis to an end and get on to other things, a second faction, led by religious figures in the Revolutionary Council, seems more interested in perpetuating the crisis. The holding of the hostages gives this second faction a position in the internal political infighting that it could not otherwise maintain. Holding the hostages also gives Iran a degree of leverage on the United States, and a claim on world attention, that would be dissipated if the hostages were freed.
President Carter's first policy after the hostages were taken was to "tighten the screws." His second policy, adopted after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, was to ease back. He figured that pressure might merely drive Iran toward Moscow and that conciliation, including a hint of readiness to acknowledge policies of the past and a pledge of future good will, would help the relatively better elements come forward on the Iranian scene. This is the hope that has now been frustrated in Tehran.
What Iranians and others need to understand is that, in an effort to end a crisis created entirely by an illegal act of Iran, Jimmy Carter has gone a long way toward accommodation but Iranians are still playing games. The crisis endures because some Iranians want it to. This makes it unavoidable for the United States to start reviewing what other measures, beyond the careful negotiations in which it has been engaged, might satisfy the American interest in reclaiming the hostages and in asserting American seriousness. It makes it equally unavoidable for other nations, in the Third World and elsewhere, to intensify their efforts to persuade Iran to act fairly and sensibly in its own interest, while there is time.