Secretary of State Edmund S. Muskie, denying that there is any secret deal for freeing the 52 American hostages in Iran, said yesterday that time-consuming, extensive negotiations probably will be required before the hostage problem finally is resolved.
At a news conference, Muskie, while noting that the Iranian parliament may be on the verge of voting to end the hostage stalemate, pointed out that the process could involve conditions on the Iranian side that will require consideration, possible needs for clarification and further discussion about the U.S. ability to meet these terms.
Reports from Tehran early today indicated that the parliamentary commission on the hostages has recommended freeing the prisoners in selected groups as the United States meets the various point-by-point Iranian demands.
If that procedure is followed, it would confront President Carter on the even of the U.S. presidential election with the sensitive choice of acceding to all of Tehran's demands immediately, or getting only a partial release, which the United States has termed unacceptable.
Yesterday, Muskie also said he regards as "an incredible proposition" the idea that President Carter has struck some kind of bargain that will see the hostages released in time to influence the U.S. presidential election Tuesday.
"If that is really the president's objective, his timing isn't very good," Muskie asserted. "It would have been better to do it a week ago or a month ago. If we could control the Majlis [the Iranian parliament], why would we have waited? Anybody with an ounce of political brains wouldn't wait until the Sunday of the Tuesday before the elections."
He also indirectly dismissed a report by syndicated columnists Rowland Evans and Robert Novak that a deal to swap the hostages for military equipment to help Iran's war against Iraq "was sealed in a handshake" between White House counsel Lloyd Cutler and Iranian emissaries at a secret meeting in Geneva two weeks ago.
Picking up on the language used by the columnists, Muskie said, "I haven't shaken hands with the parliament. I don't know of anybody else who has. There is no deal."
The secretary said his six months of dealing with the Iranian situation had taught him to "exclude nothing from the range of possibilites," including a decision by the Majlis to free the hostages quickly. But, he noted, once the Majlis sets its terms for release, further negotiations are "a probability because of the complexity of the issues," and he added: "I have no basis upon which to set a time frame for a final resolution of the hostage crisis."
Muskie reiterated the administration's position that the various pressures weighing on Iran -- its war with Iraq and its economic and diplomatic isolation -- seem to have convinced some Iranian leaders that "the time has come to get the hostage issue behind them." In particular, he noted the conditions set by Iran's "supreme power," Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, for freeing the hostages from their year-long captivity.
These conditions are a U.S. pledge not to interfere in Iranian affairs, the return of the shah's wealth, the release of Iranian assets frozen in this country and a dropping of U.S. claims against Iran.
However, Muskie noted, the Majlis, which is scheduled to debate the hostage question publicly today, may set additional conditions that would require "further consideration and negotiation" by the United States. Until the Majlis makes clear what it wants, he said, there is no point in making "hypothetical assertions" about what the United States might do, including supplying spare parts for Iran's American-made weapons.
"We do not know what the Majlis will propose," Muskie said. "Some members have said they will not trade their freedom for spare parts. Others have taken a different position. Until we get their proposals, I am not inclined to say what they may or may not do."
Although he conceded that the administration is trying to look ahead and be prepared for any eventuality, Muskie repeatedly insisted it "would not be helpful" to discuss details of U.S. advance planning. He did say though that if the hostage situation continues to remain clouded during the next few days, he might have to postpone a six-day trip to Latin America that he is scheduled to begin Thursday.
Asked about concern in the Arab world that a lifting of trade sanctions would mean a U.S. tilt toward Iran in its conflict with Iraq, Muskie noted that the sanctions were imposed as a spur to freeing the hostages, and that fact had been clear to everyone long before the Iran-Iraq war broke out five weeks ago.
"It was clear at the beginning if Iran would undo what they did, we would undo what we did, as a general proposition," he said.
While stressing that the United States wants to be careful of Arab world sensibilities, he also noted, "I told the Iraqi foreing minister they did not consult us before their invasion of Iran. They are concerned with their own interests."