The U.S. Embassy here looked desolate today without the crowds that have stood outside in past months and with few signs of activity inside the sprawling compound. Bored-looking Revolutionary Guards sat with automatic rifles behind sandbag emplacements with beach umbrellas to protect them from the hot noonday sun.
The embassy's empty look seems to provide mute evidence that most of the 50 American hostages seized here Nov. 4, have been moved after the aborted U.S. rescue attempt 47 days ago, just as their militant student captors have claimed.
Most diplomats here believe that few if any of the hostages still remain in the embassy compound. But very few are certain of how widely the hostages are dispersed throughout the country.
The student militants have said that the hostages had been moved to 14 other cities and few observers here believe Washington intelligence reports claiming that most of the hostages remain on the embassy grounds.
"Unless the CIA has been checking the food going in and the garbage going out, or analyzing the amount of laundry or the water and sewage, I don't know how they can think most of the hostages have not been moved," said one usually well-informed Asian diplomat here. "All evidence we know points the other way.
"It is possible there is a good deal of disinformation built into the list of 14," he continued, "but I'll bet they're in at least four or five other cities."
The alleged transfers of the hostages were carried out secretly in late April, and early May and were only announced by the captors after they said the transfer had taken place.
Two American clergy men, John Walsh and Charles Kimball, who visited the student militants at the embassy last week, commented that everyone seemed more relaxed now. Their observation added weight to diplomats' belief that most of the hostages had been moved.
Only two of the hostage transfers were seen by outsiders. A foreign pilot under contract to Iran Air, reported that four of them -- tied and blindfolded -- were put aboard his flight to Mashad in the northeast corner of Iran. The pilot told friends he refused to fly the plane until the hostages' blindfolds and ropes had been removed to conform with international safety regulations.
Iranians who work in office across from the embassy said they could see a number of the hostages loaded into vans to be taken away.
The best guess here is that the hostages have been moved to Mashad; the holy city of Qom; Tabriz, the capital of the Turkish-speaking province of Azerbaijan; Isfahan, in central Iran, and Shiraz, in south central Iran.
In addition, three U.S. diplomats are still under house arrest in the Foreign Ministry here.
They live in a comfortable suite on the third floor, right next to the office of Foreign Minister Sadegh Ghotbzadeh.
Other cities where the students said they have sent hostages are Mahallat, Arak, Gorgan, Hamedan, Qazvin, Yazd, Najafadad, Zanjan and Jahrom.
By scattering the hostages the students said they have involved the entire country in their holy war against America.
Some observers here believe that the hostages are being moved to towns where the students have close political and family ties.
But one danger for the militants is that scattering the hostages will cut into the strong group solidarity among the captors, one diplomat said.
"It's not quite as exciting keeping two or so hostages in Qom as it is having 50 in Tehran, with the crowds outside cheering you all the time. It could be a psychological drain," he said.
Nonetheless, one of the student spokesmen was reported to have told friends in Tehran with a knowing grin that he could not see them as much as he used to because he is constantly traveling.
The students have warned residents in the cities where the hostages are said to be held not to ask the locations of the hostages and to beware of strangers -- especially foreign journalists and tourists -- who are too nosy.
"Now that the Iranian nation is in a face-to-face war against the big devil [the United States], the existence of groups in the names of tourists or foreign reporters in the country seems suspicious and we request officials to pay the utmost attention in this regard," the militants said late last month.
There have been reports of attacks in Tabriz and Mashad on buildings where the hostages are thought to be held and reports that guns having been fired at night at the U.S. Embassy here. It is not known who fired the shots or if they are merely the results of over-anxious guards.
The only hostages to have any visitors are the three in the Foreign Ministry charge d'affaires, L. Bruce Laingen, chief political officer Victor K. Tomseth and security official Michael Howland. Other diplomats see them occasionally to check on their welfare and bring them little comforting gifts. Nepal's charge d'affaires brought them a Thanksgiving turkey last November.