Iranian supporters of a quick solution to the American hostage situation marshaled their forces for a new attempt on Sunday following yesterday morning's debacle in which die-hard Islamic radicals blocked the parliament from achieving a quorum to open business.
The speaker of the Iranian parliament blamed stubborn anti-American sentiment and the war with Iraq for a stormy hard-liners' boycott that prevented the assembly from voting on -- or even discussing -- release of U.S. hostages on their 362nd day in the hands of Islamic revolutionaries.
The unexpected debacle, labeled "treason" by one prominent parliament member, highlighted the extent to which many assembly members in the fundamentalist Islamic bloc remain unwilling to be seen dealing with the United States despite an emerging consensus among their leaders that the hostage issue must be settled soon.
With another attempt at debate set for Sunday, it brought down to the wire any possibility of a breakthrough on the hostage issue before the U.S. presidential elections Tuesday, the first anniversary of the hostages' capture. Some of those who stayed away yesterday declared they did so precisely because the elections are so near, fearing action now could only help the United States and President Carter.
In the meantime, the new delay once again trained attention on Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the undisputed patriarch of the Iranian revolution. His prestige and influence, in the assessment of the most observers, could still swing the parliament, or Majlis, in any direction should he choose to speak out.
Khomeini called in Iran's top civilian and military leadership late yesterday for an unusual strategy session that the official Iranian news agency Pars said concentrated on military developments in the beleaguered south, but could also have included the hostage situation. Attending were President Abol Hassan Bani-Sadr, Prime Minister Mohammed Ali Rajai and the parliament's speaker, Hojatoleslam Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, among others, Pars said.
Whether or not the hostages were actually discussed at the high-level gathering, Khomeini's focus on the fighting with Iraq underscored the tensions raised by the war that are in some measure overshadowing consideration of the hostage issue in Tehran. It also illustrated Khomeini's apparent reluctance to take a stand on the hostage issue until the Majlis leadership comes closer to agreement with the holdouts who blocked yesterday's debate.
A Moslem diplomatic source in Tehran said in a telephone conversation that the boycott group comprises an ideological mix but contains mostly uncompromising Islamic fundamentalists opposed to any move that could be considered conciliatory to the United States. Opposition among some of them remains so deep that even Khomeini's word might not sway them now, a possible explanation for his public silence so far, the source said.
Their stubbornness also reflects fear of being seen by their constituents and colleagues as acting at the behest of the United States, heightened by the intense U.S. media spotlight beamed on Iran and, to some extent, reverberating on the deputies as they weigh their decision, he added.
The parliamentary leadership, apparently determined to follow through on its scheduled public debate, plans an all-out effort to call in assembly members, some of whom were said to be out of Tehran yesterday " at the front" along the border with Iraq, parliamentary sources told reporters in the Iranian capital.
Rafsanjani set 8:00 a.m. Sunday for another attempt to review conditions for the hostages' release after he was forced to cancel yesterday's scheduled session, falling about 20 short of the required quorum of 179 out of 228 seats occupied in the 270-seat Majlis. Friday is the Moslem holy day, barring a session today, and the Majlis rarely meets on Saturday.
A high Iranian government official, contacted in Tehran by telephone, played down the importance of the boycott. A special seven-member parliamentary commission named to prepare release conditions still seems eager to report terms that will end the crisis, he said, and some Majlis members were genuinely busy with pressing home district emergencies resulting from the war with Iraq.
Even the official news agency, however, noted that it was far from certain that all deputies will agree to discuss the hostage issue in Sunday's debate, assuming it can be held. Although it is conceivable that the Majlis leadership could alter rules to lower the necessary quorum, there was no indication this was under consideration, sources in Tehran said.
In addition, a news agency account said a number of the missing deputies were seen milling about in the corridor as Rafsanjani tried to muster a quorum, purposely staying away to prevent debate on the hostages and saying it could only "help the cause of the United States, and especially Jimmy Carter."
In a dramatic display of anger, Ayatollah Sadegh Khalkhali, the "hanging judge" whose roving Islamic tribunals have sent hundreds of Iranians before firing squads, dashed to the rostrum from his seat in the chamber and, waving his turban about, called on the recalcitrant deputies to take their places for a quorum because their boycott was "treason."
Khalkhali, who was careful to stipulate that he also is "no friend of the United States or Jimmy Carter," seemed to be seeking action on his appeal of Wednesday for a deal releasing the hostages in exchange for U.S. spare parts for the Iranian war effort. Carter, in his debate with Ronald Reagan Tuesday night, reiterated willingness, once the hostages are released, to ship to Iran military equipment purchased and paid for by Iran but held up in the United States because of the hostages.
But after waiting for an hour, Rafsanjani dismissed those present in the ornate chamber, the former lower house of parliament under the late shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. In a statement to reporters soon afterward, he blamed the boycott on the pressure of "international Zionist propaganda" in the U.S. press and echoed charges by the hard-liners that the United States is helping Iraq in the war.
"At the very moment when we were due to discuss the special commission's report on the hostages, the defenseless people of Dezful were smothered in blood and dust by ground-to-ground missiles," he said, according to the Associated Press.
"America has received many blows and will not calm down easily, and its provocations against this nation will always continue. I declare that the hostage issue has nothing to do with the Iran-Iraq war and the Americans should bear in mind that such last-ditch actions and interference in the destiny of this nation will not remain unanswered."
One reason cited for the Majlis' inability to reach a decision in its first two days of closed-door debate Sunday and Monday was anger over an Iraqi surface-to-surface missile attack on the city of Dezful, a critical pipeline junction center in Iran's wealthy Khuzestan Province. Iranian authorities said more than 100 people were killed, many of them civilians caught in bed by the early-morning attack.
Rajai has charged that the United States is aiding Iraq in the war by supplying its Air Force with data from U.S. AWACS radar planes dispatched to Saudi Arabia soon after the war broke out. Against the backdrop of his accusations, some deputies have demanded that the AWACS' withdrawal be among conditions for release of the hostages. Another condition suggested in the Majlis is a formal U.S. apology, a condition first required and then dropped by Khomeini.
The ayatollah has pared his list of conditions to four, said to form the basis of the parliamentary commission's report that was due to be discussed yesterday. These are return of the late shah's wealth to Iran, a pledge of noninterference in Iranian affairs, a halt to legal action against Iran and the unfreezing of Iranian assets blocked in U.S. financial institutions.