Ten days of decision-making and diplomacy, deeply affected by domestic political struggles both here and in Iran, preceded the arrangements announced yesterday which may lead to a transfer of control of the American hostages in Tehran.
As depicted in the public statements of President Carter and Iranian President Abol Hassan Bani-Sadr and in private amplification by American officials, the arrangements are conditional and tenuous at best.
While the White House sought to place a positive construction on them at this crucial point in the presidential primaries, well-informed officials were far from certain that a meaningful step forward will take place.
What is clear, whatever the next developments in the confusing round of international jockeying, is that this latest chapter in the long-running hostage story introduced several new elements.
First, the Carter administration for the first time gave the Iranian government a definite deadline for positive action. In a "personal" message dispatched from the United States last Tuesday, March 2, Bani-Sadr was informed that a transfer of control of the hostages must take place by Monday, March 31, or unspecified U.S. action would follow. This deadline and demand for immediate action was repeated in a second U.S. message to Bani-Sadr last Saturday.
Second, the deadline set in Washington generated pressures on Iran from America's major allies in Europe and Asia, which seek to avoid a U.S.-Iranian confrontation, and precipitated a new maneuvering and policy-making in Tehran. Though its ultimate effect is unclear, it is beyond dispute that the deadline produced serious consequences.
Third, Washington and Tehran have engaged more fully and far more openly than before in diplomatic exchanges regarding next steps in the development of the crisis. As in the case of the Vietnam war diplomacy a decade ago, the communication was complicated in Washington's eyes by the willingness of its negotiating partner to make parts of the dialogue public on a selective basis.
According to Bani-Sadr's account of his messages from Washington, explicit reference was made to the domestic political situations in both countries. These were underlying factors of major importance on both sides in the recent developments.
The starting point of this latest chapter in the hostage story was the day-long review of U.S. policy conducted by Carter and his top diplomatic and military advisers at Camp David on March 22.
After the collapse of the U.N. commission's efforts in Tehran, and faced with the imminent departure of the deposed shah from Panama, it was clear to Carter and his advisers that the prospects for negotiated progress were temporarily stymied -- and that public impatience was growing in the United States.
Carter reviewed all possible options open to the United States, according to administration sources, ranging from doing nothing to the most Draconian military actions. Carter is reported to have reaffirmed his overriding commitment to the safe return of the hostages, which is a major constraint on U.S. use of force. He is also reported to have decided that some new political and economic actions were imperative.
A deadline date of March 31 for transfer of control of the hostages was decided upon, and detailed study was begun of political and economic actions to be imposed in the absence of this action. It could not be learned whether anyone in the high councils mentioned that the following day, April 1, was voting day in the Wisconsin and Kansas presidential primaries.
At the time of the Camp David discussions, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) had not yet won in New York and Connecticut, and thus the political pressures on Carter were not as strong as they would be several days later.
The message to Bani-Sadr of Tuesday, March 25, was dispatched to Tehran through the Swiss Embassy there. U.S. sources said it called for the hostages to be taken under Iranian government control by March 31, but did not give details of what U.S. action would follow if this were not done.
Around the same time as the warning to Bani-Sadr, presidential messages were dispatched to Carter's regular summit partners -- the chiefs of government of Britian, Canada, France, Germany, Italy and Japan.They were informed that the patience of the American public and government was wearing thin, and a deadline was being given to Iran.
The summit partners, and several other nations, made private diplomatic representations at high levels to Iran late last week.
According to Bani-Sadr's account, which was included in a lengthy address yesterday in Tehran, he responded with renewed promises through the Swiss diplomatic emissary that the hostages will be transferred to government control.
But in the absence of clear movement toward this end, Washington dispatched a second message to him last Saturday reiterating the deadline and the U.S. concern.
In the Iranian's account, the United States pointed out its great restraint in word and deed up to that point, and said that the political conditions in Iran and the United States would make removal of the hostages from control of the militants "much more difficult at a later time."
By last weekend, Carter's decisions had been made about the retaliatory measures to be taken, and the allies had been informed that an announcement was scheduled for Monday afternoon, March 31, the steps that were planned -- and that still may be taken, if the hostage transfer collapses -- included:
Formalization of full U.S. economic sanctions against Iran, and renewed pressure on the allies for matching measures.
Closing of the Iranian Embassy and all Iranian consulates in the United States, and expulsion of their diplomatic personnel.
Cataloging of private U.S. claims against Iran, a legal process which is a step toward confiscation of blocked Iranian assets here.
In the midst of the maneuvering, Washington was taken aback on Saturday when the office of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini published a purported conciliatory message from Carter. American officials from the top down insist that there was "no such message" from Carter and that nothing in the U.S. communications of recent days could be interpreted to fit the message as published.
Administration officials speculated that someone in Tehran, possibly the Argentine-Parisian lawyer, Hector Villalon, had drafted such a "message" on his own in an effort to break the deadlock. This theory has it that Villalon showed it first to the Iranians, who took it mistakenly or deliberatley as an authorized U.S. statement. U.S. officials insisted that they did not originate or authorize such an effort.
Just after 1 p.m. last Sunday, Carter was informed that Iran would make an authoritative statement around 3 a.m. Washington time Monday concerning transfer of control of the hostages. Late Sunday he was informed that this had been delayed for 24 hours.
Bani-Sadr's speech yesterday provided the statement that had been promised. But whether it will prove to be definitive, in view of Khomeini's attitude and the conditions of American silence that Bani-Sadr attached, remains for events to prove.