ASSORTED OMENS suggest, again, that the hostages may soon be coming home. There is an accumulation of the sort of circumstances that, were Iran run by normal standards of national interest, would be conclusive: the continuing and costly war with Iraq, the onset of cold weather, the pinch of the American-organized embargo, eruptions of public disorder and, perhaps not least, the prospect of having to deal with Ronald Reagan. At the same time, there is an accumulation of diplomatic hints of an impending turn. The government in Tehran evidently has regained physical control of the hostages, gotten Ayatollah Khomeini as well as the parliament abroad and, to an accompaniment of optimistic murmurs, dispatched through the Algerians its "final" response to what the administration had characterized as its final response, too.
It will be clear soon enought whether the Iranians have in fact decided to put an end to an crisis they provoked by seizing the Americans 13 months ago, or whether they are still using it as a vehicle of their internal politics. For a time it was possible to suspect that the Iranians did not understand the limitations placed on American negotiating flexibility by the fact the the United States is a country governed by law and a Constitution. But that has been fully and repeatedly explained to them, and so that excuse for Iranian rigidity is gone. If the hostages are not returned now, the reason will be, as it has always been, a judgment on the part of the Iranians that confrontation with the United States is politically more useful to them than a settlement would be. At this point, few Americans would seem in need of being warned not to get their hopes up.
Americans have been criticized, and have sometimes criticized themselves, for being excessively sentimental in regard to the hostages and for lacking the toughness to wait the crisis out. This seems to us a bum rap. The country has sustained an intense feeling for the captive Americans through the long months of their ordeal, and it has done so without losing a sense of perspective on tactics and without yielding its basic self-respect in negotiating for their return. If Jimmy Carter does leave office with the hostages still in Iran, Ronald Reagan will inherit the advantages implicit in having a united populace. He will have, as well, a free tactical hand.