Some senior U.S. officials keeping close watch on the war between Iran and Iraq now say privately that, while there has been no movement to date, they would not be surprised if a break in the U.S. Embassy hostage crisis comes in the next two or three weeks.
These officials claim they have no personal knowledge or hard evidence of any deal that may be under way to gain the release of the 52 Americans who have been in captivity for almost a year now.
Rather, their assessment is based on the strengthened political position in Iran of President Abol Hassan Bani-Sadr since the outbreak of war with Iraq, and on the continued international isolation of the Tehran government at a time when it needs help to fight a war that shows no sign of ending soon.
Obviously, any deal on the hostages now would be a great political boon to President Carter, and administration officials acknowledged last week that they had recently stepped up diplomatic activity in search of a solution. However, the view of nonpolitical professionals in the government is that the outcome at present is mainly Iran's to decide. On the other hand, these specialists also believe there may be some grounds for optimism.
In this view, release of the hostages would have two timely advantages for the Tehran government. As part of a deal in which the United States would agree to release about $8 billion in Iranian government assets that were frozen by Carter in the aftermath of the embassy takeover, the Iranians would gain access to about $370 million worth of military equipment paid for by the former Iranian government under the shaah and part of those frozen assets.
But much more importantly, these officials believe, is that release of the hostages would remove the international stigma on Iran and open the door to a much quicker and more important resumption of trade with many other countries that have cut off Tehran because of the hostage taking. There are suggestions that some of the smaller European countries would move quickly to restore trade ties with Iran.
Officials believe these third-country relationships would be most important for Tehran because, while there would be some immediate benefit in terms of release of the previously paid for U.S. equipment, it is apt to be a long time before the United States would consider any new supply relationship with Iran.
Though Iran is getting some help from North Korea, Libya and Syria, officials say it is not nearly enough nor the right kind of aid, and that the isolation of the Tehran government and lack of sympathy from the rest of the world are extraordinary, especially considering the fact that Iran clearly has been the victim of Iraqi aggression.
According to the Pentagon, the pre-revolutionary government in Iran ordered and paid for about $500 million worth of military equipment that is now frozen. About $130 million of this is still under contract with industry, and the rest is stockpiled in warehouses around the country.
Bani-Sadr has frequently made plain his desire to resolve the hostage crisis through a negotiated settlement. And, while it is far from clear that Bani-Sadr will continue to gain in a power struggle from Moslem clerics, the fact that his stock seems to be up now and that anti-American rhetoric has died down somewhat recently leads some experienced officials to believe that the kind of logic that consistently has led to disappointed U.S. expectations in the past may now have a chance to succeed.
Officials here are anxiously awaiting the report of the special seven-man commission set up earlier this month in Iran to recommend terms for release of the hostages. In September, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini spoke of four conditions for the release of the hostages and, for the first time, avoided mentioning a U.S. apology, something that has been a major obstacle.
One day after the Iraqi invasion began on Sept. 22, President Carter, at a question-and-answer session with students at Torrance, Calif., high school, said the war between the two nations could speed the release of the hostages.
"It could convince Iran that they need peace with their neighbors, that they need to be part of the international community, they need to be able to have a strong and viable economy, they need to get spare parts for their military weapons and so forth, and therefore induce them to release the hostages," the president said.