The death of the former shah of Iran is unlikely to precipitate the release of the 52 Americans who have been held hostage in Tehran for nearly nine months, despite the original call by their captors for the shah's extradition.
The fate of the hostages has now become so deeply involved in Iran's internal power struggle that current efforts to form a new Cabinet in Tehran may have more effect on resolving the U.S.-iranian crisis than the death of Mohammad Reza Pahlavi in Cairo, State Department officials said.
These officials added that the formation of a new government under President Abol Hassan Bani-Sadr is likely to be followed by a new American overture to end the hostage crisis. White House press secretary Jody Powell said yesterday that efforts to free the hostages were still under way, but delclined to discuss them.
The shah's death was shrugged off in Iran yesterday by government officials and by a clergyman close to the hostages' militant Moslem captors. The militants deferred comment on the shah's death.
"Since the shah's death was predictable, it won't change anything," presidential spokesman Hossein Navvab told the Reuter news agency in Tehran. "Concerning Iranian - American relations and the hostages, it won't have any considerable effect. Our reaction cannot be anything extraordinary."
According to Agence France-Presse, Ayatollah Moussavi Khoeni, the clergyman closest to the captors, said: "Our position on the hostage problem does not change with the shah's death. We do not want his corpse. Now we are demainding restitution of his wealth." He reportedly added, "We believe America killed the shah."
The Iranian revolutionaries have claimed that the shah and his family transferred as much as 20 billion out of the country, but this estimate is discounted by financial experts. Much of the imperial family's holdings remained in Iran after the revolution and were impossible to liquidate.
The shah was known to have maintained large personal foreign bank accounts, but no reliable current figure for his fortune has been disclosed.
The captors' original three demands for the release of the hostages were the shah's extradition for trial in Iran; the return of the imperial fortune, and a U.S. apology for past crimes" in Iran.
There have been strong indications from the beginning of the siege of the U.S. Embassy, however, that the militants' objectives were far broader than Pahlavi's extradition. Their targets have appeared all along to include also the moderate secular politicians who headed the first revolutionay government under Khomeini, and the prospect of a renewed U.S. relationship with postrevolutionary Iran.
The militants, fervent followers of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, share the Iranian revolutionary leader's view that U.S. influence in Iran must be wiped out before the Islamic republic can succeed in "purifying" Iranian society. While seeking to sever Iranian relations with the United States, and the West in general, the militants have promoted the idea of an Islamic "cultural revolution" that would reject both capitalism and communism.
They have been sufficiently successful to be able now to ignore the shah's death and to continue to resist any U.S.-Iranian agreement to free the hostages, in the view of a number of U.S. experts on Iran. The extremists are likely now to push for parliamentary endorsement of a major objective: a hostage trial to condemn the United States.
State Department officials appear at the moment to be paying attention to the formation of a new government under Bani-Sadr as an opportuity to seek resolution of the hostage crisis.
Mostafa Mir-Salim, 33, a French-trained engineer serving as Iran's national police chief and deputy interior minister, was nominated as prime minister Saturday by Bani-Sadr in an apparent compromise with his hardline Moslem rivals of the Islamic Republican Party. While he is a member of the party's central council, Mir-Salim is considered a relative independent.
A test of the new government's political colors -- likely to affect its orientation of the hostage issue -- will come when the new Cabinet is chosen and presented to parliament for a vote of confidence within the next few days.
"Once the new government is chosen, obviously we are going to try to establish some kind of contact with it and try to get the hostage thing moving along," a State Department official said yesterday.
In any case, the shah's death seems unlikely to deter the Iranian exile groups opposing the Islamic republic.
The immediately stated willingness of the former royal family to have the shah's eldest son, Crown Prince Reza, proclaimed the new "king" of Iran suggested that the struggle to overthrow Khomeini will continue, and that it will continue to be divided.
The exile groups have been divided among those still suppotring the monarchy and those, such as the group led by former prime minister Shahpour Bakhtiar, that seek on their own to replace Khomeni. The United States has tried to avoid any public connection with the exile groups, a policy that is likely to continue.