THE QUESTION of how the election of Ronald Reagan will play into the hostage negotianions is a bit complicated, but we should not tie ourselves into knots trying to answer it. Who can doubt that Mr. Carter feels an overwhelming personal compulsion to bring the hostages home before he quits office? Against the suggestion that his lame-duck status may "free" him to pay a higher price than he should or otherwise might must be set his presidential oath, nothing less. Mr. Reagan cut off one pass yesterday by making clear there would be no profit to Iran in waiting until Jan. 20. He said the Iranians could deal now only with Jimmy Carter, and he was right.
In fact, the question of the impact of the American elections is misleading and insulting. It has the effect of transferring responsibility for the holdup from Tehran to Washington. But the problem of the hostages arose in Tehran and it remains there -- completely there. We are unaware of any serious argument whatever in this country, in the administration or between the parties, over either the desirability of bringing the hostages home immediately or the broad terms on which to do it. It is in Iran that there are difficulties, nothwithstanding the impact that the war with Iraq has had on the inclination of some (but evidently not all) Iranians to seek a way out of the hostage impasse. The extremism and fragmentation of authority characteristic of Ayatollah Khomeini's Islamic revolution remain sadly in evidence.
In this light, the impression we have from reading the newspapers is that Americans, in their anxiety and their earnestness and their proclivity for legalisms, may be getting unnecessarily hung up on the seeming difficulties posed by the Iranian parliament's conditions. The State Department, for instance, has been studying these conditions for days with an eye to making a careful detailed response; meanwhile, it is laboriously trying to establish a third-country diplomatic channel to Tehran. But when you think of the continuing desarray of the Iranian political scene and, more than that, when you read the official English-language text, a pastiche written in a convoluted style on the border between ambiguous and impenetrable, you are brought up authors may want back is a prim, nauancy diplomatic note that they will have to refer to their legal department. It might make sense to keep the lawyers in the back room for a while and simply to respond in a general, positive and political way that would give some encouragement, something to work with, to those Iranians who are trying to get the hostage monkey off their country's back.