From the start of today's session of the Majlis (parliament) there were signs that a crisis was about to break into the open.
At exactly 8 a.m. the speaker of parliament, Hojatoleslam Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, was about to open the session. The seats reserved for the citizenry and the journalists were overflowing. Television cameras were rolling. Photographers were shooting the deputies as they arrived.
All the leading figures of all the factions were present, from former premier Mehdi Bazargan to Ayatollah Sadegh Khalkhali, one of the assembly's most anti-American figures. Curiously, however, the chamber remained half-empty even though the Islamic leaders normally are punctual.
Successively, embarrassment, anxiety and then tension spread through the hall.
At 8:33 Rafsanjani spoke. In an expressionless voice he announced that the absentees were in fact gathered in the assembly's hallways and were refusing to enter the chamber. Since there was no quorum, the speaker added, the debate on the U.S. hostages would be delayed.
The absolute silence was broken by Ayatollah Khalkhali. Short, round, his stomach protruding, he rushed to the lectern muttering unintelligibly. "Quorum or no quorum," he said at the microphone, "we should start work immediately. The problem is crucial for us and no delay can be allowed."
"Shut up!" cried some of the dissident deputies, all of whom had by now entered the chamber and were standing up behind the seats of the semicircle.
With the shouts of his opponents drowning him out, Khalkhali responded angrily. He shouted, "Our brothers and our children are falling by the hundreds on the battlefields. You have no right to engage in petty maneuvers. Your boycott is revolting. You are not fit to represent the people. You are traitors, yes, traitors to the nation."
"He would have them all executed on the spot if he could," said an Iranian sitting next to us. Khalkhali, who heads a traveling Islamic court, has ordered hundreds of death sentences since the start of the revolution. Just last week, he is said to have had several high-ranking officers shot because they retreated before the Iraqi Army.
After restoring order by repeatedly ringing his bell, the speaker said, "No one here is responsible for this morning's incident. We were about to settle the matter of the hostages when America and its allies started the war against Iran. They repeated their crime on Monday by savagely bombarding the civilian population of Dezful with rockets.
"The anger of the people and the Majlis is therefore understandable. But we have stated and reiterated that we are not going to link the crimes of the United States or the war to the fate of the hostages. The Majlis will meet again on Sunday at exactly 8 a.m."
Khalkhali was indignant. While the deputies headed for the exits, he continued to hurl invective: "It is not for the Majlis to decide the fate of the hostages. Fortunately, the people have their imam. He and he alone will decide."
The judge's reaction was not totally unexpected. Since the occupation of the U.S. Embassy Nov. 4 last year, he has contended that the hostages should be freed as soon as possible, adding that some of them should be tried for their membership in the Cia, preferably before his court.
Yesterday, he confided to some journalists that he thought the diplomats should be freed before the U.S. presidential election, adding: "We should take advantage of President Carter's claims of generosity to obtain the delivery of the weapons and spare parts we bought and paid for. It is vital for our national security and for the lives of our fellow citizens."
The arms blocked by Washington since the start of the embargo are estimated at $500 million worth. Half the material, according to informed sources in Tehran, is within arm's reach, already in Greece waiting for word from Washington.
Almost all the Iranian leaders, friend and foe alike -- Premier Mohammed Ali Rajai as much as President Abol Hassan Bani-Sadr -- tried in the past few days to promote a settlement with Washington. Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, Iran's spiritual and political leader, omitted from his speech on Tuesday his customary reference to the United States as "the great satan."
Press, radio and television have practiced a rare moderation in recent days.
For the first time, yesterday, a Tehran radio commentator said that the "internment of the hostages no longer makes any sense" since "America has just capitulated" and that a good lesson had been administered "to anyone who bothers to mix in our internal affairs."
Things are less simple when it comes to the public. The Iranian people are having difficulty understanding the sudden turnaround of so many of their leaders. If, as the public has been told, it is true that Iran is indirectly at war with the United States through the Iraqis or that the dead of Dezful, Khorramshahr and Abadan are victims of Washington's Machiavellian behavior, how can the strange swap of "spies" for American weapons be justified?
A number of deputies of the majority Islamic Republican Party, whose leadership is pressing for a settlement, feel swindled. They showed their anger this morning to Ayatollah Khalkhali. Only Khomeini could change their minds, but he will agree to accept that heavy responsibility?