Carter administration officials believe the United States can satisy the conditions set by Iran by release of the 52 American hostages -- provided that Iranian authorities interpret these conditions with reasonableness and a sense of compromise.
That has been the feeling in U.S. official circles since last month when Iran's principal leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, said the hostages would be freed if the United States returned the property of the late shah, canceled its claims against Iran, releaed frozen Iranian assets and promised not to interfere politically or militarily in that country.
U.S. officials still were insisting yesterday that they do not know whether Khomeini's conditions, set by him Sept. 12, are the final word on what Iran wants, or whether the ongoing tug-of-war over the hostages will lead the further Iranian demands. However, a cautiously hopeful note was added yesterday when Iranian Prime Minister Mohammed Ali Rajai was quoted as saying that United States now appears ready to meet the terms stated by Khomeini.
In actuality, the Iranian conditions are regarded as including five points.
When Khomeini made his Sept. 12 statement, he did not mention a previous Iranian demand that the United States apologize for "crimes" it committed in Iran during the rule of the shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi.
Afterward though, several Iranian leaders said that had been an oversight and the question of an apology still applied.
That point appears to have been covered, at least to the satisfaction of some Iranian leaders, by the administration's reaffirmation of U.S. willingness to have Iran's grievances examined in an international forum such as a special United Nations commission. Iranian President Abol Hassan Bani-Sadr has said he regards that as satisfying the demand concerning "America's crimes."
Similarly, senior U.S. officials led by President Carter and Secretary of State Edmund S. Muskie have said repeatedly that the United States will not intervene in Iran's affairs in the future. Muskie put that pledge in writing in a letter to Rajai a few weeks ago.
As to the approximately $8 billion in Iranian government assets that Carter has had frozen, the president said Monday that he would release those assets as soon as the hostages are free.
Most of the assets are funds being held by American banks or their overseas branches and subsidiaries. But the assets also include a substantial amount of military equipment that could be of incalculable value to Iran in its war against neighboring Iraq.
According to the Pentagon, Iran's pre-revolutionary government ordered and paid for approximately $550 million worth of U.S. military equipment. About $130 million of this is still under contract with U.S. industry, and the rest is stockpiled in warehouses around the country.
Included in the more than $400 million worth of equipment that has been produced are air-to-air missiles, air-to-ground missiles and spare parts for jet fighters and tanks.
Pentagon sources noted that, even in the event of a deal over the hostages, the items would not necessarily be supplied to Iran automatically.
First, the sources said, Iran would have to specify which items it wanted, and the United States would examine the request and decide which items it was willing to send.
Another problem involving the assets concerns claims against Iran by American business firms and individuals, and that apparently is what underlay Khomeini's condition about such claims.
U.S. officials say the government probably could intervene to halt claims against Iran by the hostages and their families. But, the officials add, it is much less clear that the executive branch can intervene with the federal courts to sanitize the Iranian assets from corporate legal actions.
The officials say strenuous efforts have been made to communicate that fact to the Iranians. They hope Iranian leaders will settle for a "good-faith" gesture, such as the administration advising Iran on how best to proceed to legally protect its assets.
The same problem applies to the shah's assets. U.S. officials repeatedly have said that Iran's only real recourse is to pursue its claims through U.S. courts, perhaps with some advice from the executive branch. While conceding that this is "a very emotional issue" in Iran, the officials also said there are some signs that "the message finally is being heard in Tehran."