THERE IS SOME motion on the hostage negotiating front, but whether it is movement is unclear. The Iranian government, or the prime minister anyway, now allows that the United States has accepted in principle the four conditions that Ayatollah Khomeini and then the Iranian parliament had set for the release fo the imprisoned Americans. The prime minister says that Iran seeks clarifications. The American government indicates it will provide them. There is a name for this sort of exchange: negotiating. In the absence of direct links, it is proceeding, apparently, only through third parties -- a cumbersome procedure hardly calculated either to keep up the pace or to minimize misunderstandings.
The holdup remains on the Iranian side. The harder-line clerical elements, as distinguished from the political types, report that they have reaped the internal political gains they sought when they seized the hostages on Nov. 4, 1979. The conditions they have set, however, do not yet support the view that these elements are ready to allow Iran to move toward a settlement any time soon. It is widely believed that Iran's continuting war with Iraq has rendered such a settlement urgent, in order that a full range of Iranian ties with the outside world can be resumed. Again, the conditions set by Iran do not yet indicate that the government has made a firm decision to do what is necessary to get on with the war.
There is, as well, something curious about the American negotiating position. Repeatedly in recent days some American officials have confided to journalists that the American response to Iran's conditions may not be all that Iran wants it to be. The way this comes across is apologetic, as though it were not only a matter of regret but a matter of American inadequacy that the administraton cannot simply sign on Tehran's dotted line. Regardless of whether the officials understand it that way, these sotto voce comments amount to a poor-mouthing of the American negotiating strategy by some of the very persons charged with working it out. This can only give support to those Iranians who, in the continuing internal debate in Tehran, insist on bearing down harder on the "great Satan." If American officials feel they must characterize the American position, why do they not just say tha it is reasonable and fair and that Iran should respond by freeing the hostages?