Iran is "ready to listen" to any U.S. counterproposals to the multibillion-dollar guarantees that it has demanded for release of the 52 American hostages, according to Behzad Nabavi, the Cabinet minister who heads the Iranian negotiating committee.
"If the United States proposes another way to include guarantees acceptable to the Algerian government," Nabavi said at a press conference in Tehran yesterday, "it will also be acceptable to us."
Nabavi's remarks indicated publicly for the first time that the Iranians want the Algerian government negotiators to take a far more important role in the talks than just acting as couriers between the two disputing countries.
The Algerians were given the role of judging what guarantees were satisfactory in the text of the last Iranian proposal, which they delivered in Washington Dec. 19. But at the time, neither the United States nor the Algerians publicized the arrangement.
Despite Nabavi's announcement naming Algeria as a guarantor as well as messenger in the hostage negotiations, it is not certain that Algeria is willing to accept such a role, considering the difficult position in which it would be placed.
However, Algerian approval of some form of lesser guarantee than demanded by the Iranians on a point such as the shah's assets would provide Iran with a way out of its current negotiating stalemate without having to make a major concession.
Nabavi's statement yesterday also indicated that despite past rhetoric about the last Iranian proposal being "final," the leaders in Tehran are still open to negotiations on implementing the four conditions for the hostage release that both sides have accepted "in principle."
The Iranian official reiterated the standard threat that the hostages would be put on trial if the conditions were not met. He also took a hard line against the recent statements by President-elect Ronald Reagan.
Asked about Reagan's description of the Iranians as "barbarians" and "kidnapers," Nabavi said, "We consider the statements of Mr. Reagan as those of one who still thinks he is playing in Western films. We do not take him seriously."
Nabavi's embrace of the Algerians, however, was viewed in Washington as a sign his government is looking for a way out of its current negotiating dilemma before the Reagan administration takes office.
"In typical Iranian fashion," one official said yesterday, "it may be too late."
Sources within the Iranian government, contacted yesterday by telephone in Tehran, refused to comment on the current hostage negotiating situation.
Only Nabavi and Prime Minister Mohammed Ali Rajai "can speak for the government," one official said.
The speaker of Iran's parliament, Hotjatoleslam Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who also has been known to speak out on the hostage situation, talks primarily for domestic political purposes, this source said.
Rajai and his Iranian Revolutionary Party, which controls the parliament, has been fighting with Iranian President Abol Hassan Ban-Sadr and his followers in a running battle for control in Iran.
Sources in Tehran and Washington fear that this conflict has made settlement of the hostage problem more difficult as each side tries to make certain it does not appear to be backing down in the clash with the United States, the "Great Satan" of Iran's revolution.
For example, Nabavi's press conference yesterday with its reference to considering a U.S. counterproposal was not broadcast over Tehran radio, State Department sources said.
The main stumbling block in the current negotiations is the Iranian demand that the U.S. deposit two cash guarantees in the Algerian Central Bank before any release of the hostages will be allowed to take place.
The United States called the demand for cash guarantees "unreasonable," and said the president did not have the legal authority to provide them.
One deposit, amounting to $13 billion, is to cover the frozen Iranian assets. The other, amounting to $10 billion, was to serve as a guarantee that the assets belonging to the late shah's family will return to Iran. Iran also seeks return of its gold, worth approximately $1 billion, which is being held in the United States.
The guarantees, Nabavi said yesterday, were needed because "we will never trust the promises of the superpowers."
In their last formal presentation of terms, the Iranians wrote the Algerians into the text by listing them as the one who would provide alternatives if the cash guarantees were not provided.
For example, of the $13 billion sought as a guarantee of the frozen assets, $4 billion were to be in cash from the United States "or any other valid guarantee acceptable" to the Algerian Central Bank.
The highly controversial $10 billion guarantee to cover the shah's assets could be replaced, according to the Iranian proposal, by "any other guarantee acceptable to the Algerian government. . . ."