Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's eloquent silence has twice doomed efforts to transfer the estimated 50 American hostages to Iranian government control -- and perhaps President Abol Hassan Bani-Sadr's ambitious plans for a thorough-going revolution as well.
With Bani-Sadr frustrated by both Khomeini's oracular utterances and the right-wing clerics' manipulation of the students holding the embassy hostages, the president's friends are desperately casting around for a substitute cause to divert attention from the hostages.
To prevent, as one wag put it, "the children from devouring the revolution," Bani-Sadr and Foreign Minister Sadegh Ghotbzadeh recently accused the Soviet Union, Iraq and the homegrown, often anti-Moscow left of all manner of skulduggery.
Some of the charges have struck home, as in the case of the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan.
But perhaps because Iran is in an inward-looking mood -- and is still slumbering through its long, although now officially ended new year holdiay -- the charges have changed the basic equation but little.
Iranians and foreign observers keep coming back to the same conclusion -- that Khomeini is at the very center of Iran's inability to move convincingly one way or another.
What makes Khomeini really tick remains as mysterious as ever.
Some critics invoke his age -- almost 80 -- as proof that he fears decisions. Others insist that the very charm of his oracular style is to encourage one group or another to act without ever backing anyone to the hilt.
Elaborate theories are spun suggesting that despite Bani-Sadr's convincing presidential victory in January with 75 percent of the vote, Khomeini wants no one but himself to enjoy unquestioned power.
If indeed that is the case, Khomeini may secretly rejoice in Bani-Sadr's apparent inability to win enough seats in the continuing legislative elections to pick his own prime minister. The best guess is that the prime minister will be chosen by his clerical archrivals, the Islamic Republican Party, which has a commanding lead of the minority of seats already decided in the first round of voting.
Khomeini's hand-tailored constitution gives the prime ministers -- not the president -- the real powers not reserved to the faqih, or religious leader himself.
Bani-Sadr's friends are reduced to saying that party labels will mean little once the parliament eventually convenes and that the president should enjoy a honeymoon to galvanzie the nation behind his radical economic and social reforms.
All this adds up to paralysis, at least for the moment. Bani-Sadr's friends insist he will force -- and win -- the showdown with the students and their clerical backers.
They also argue that Bani-Sadr will unveil an alternative and equally revoluntionary goal that might allow Khomeini to free the hostages without standind accused in Iranian eyes of giving in to the United States and stopping the revolution in its tracks.
They privately say that diversions or a series of mass mobilizations could take the form of Bani-Sadr's long-promised root-and-branch economic revolution, which more than the hostages' detention would seek to eradicate American influence in Iran.
"Five months ago, life in Iran stopped," remarked a respected lay politician long prominent in fighting the shah. "This is mad -- a country run by 200 children at the American Embassy."
"No one knows what is happening and what will happen," he said. "But it's hard to be anything but pessimistic. When 13 men on the supposedly ruling Revoluntionary Council cannot do anything, what makes anyone think that the 270 members of the new parliament will be able to decide about the hostages or a dozen other problems infinitely more important to the revolution?"
Khomeini has said that the new parliament will decide the fate of the hostages. But with the first-round vote still not counted, and no firm date for the runoff likely before mid-April, that solution is at best far in the future.
Meanwhile, "they've done nothing about housing, land reform, public hygiene, factories that are closed, unemployment," the irate politican said, "and if they don't, the second revolution is coming."
"The president of the republic has to travel to a little town on the Caspian Sea to have three judges released by street rabble who arrested them," he said. "That is not revolution. It's anarchy."
That throught both attracts and repels even the most revoluntionary Iranians, who are now worried that a modicum of law and order may be necessary to save the state, but perhaps at the expense of total, permanent revolution.
"It's the students today and the workers or peasants perhaps tomorrow," said one young Bani-Sadr supporter, obviously torn by conflicting loyalties to the revolution and the need to consolidate authority.
But the price for ignoring self-imposed discipline, if Iranian history is a reliable yardstick, is the "man on horseback." He may come along once Khomeini, the man who chased out the shah, is no longer around.