Despite its prudence, discretion and skill as a go-between in the hostage dispute, Algeria today showed signs of getting caught in the Tehran power struggle that so often has frustrated efforts to free the detained Americans.
Symptomatic of Algerian fears of such entanglement was an uncharacteristically public and rapid Algerian Foreign Ministry statement disavowing Iranian suggestions that Algeria had proposed a secret plan to solve the 14-month dispute.
Reacting to such suggestions from Behzad Nabavi, the chief Iranian negotiator, the Algerian spokesman said they were "premature."
"For the moment there is no question of Algeria exercising the role of mediator," the spokesman said, noting that Iranian officials had since "corrected" Nabavi's statement.
The Algerian spokesman provided no further details.
Many previous go-betweens -- including Palestinian guerrilla chieftain Yasser Arafat, the United Nations, European socialist leaders, non-aligned movement politicians and three French lawyers -- have come to grief in strikingly similar fashion.
Either by their fault or inattention, they have been sucked into Iranian domestic politics -- and American election year rivalries, in some cases.
The Algerians had managed to avoid such pitfalls through a combination of discretion, good timing and luck.
Although trusted by the United States and Iran since well before the hostages were seized Nov. 4, 1979, the Algerians only came into their own once Ronald Reagan defeated Jimmy Carter for the presidency a year later.
Despite serious political differences since the Vietnam War when revolutionary Algeria, fresh from a devastating war of independence from France, identified wholly with Hanoi, Washington and Algiers have always managed to keep their large economic interests free of controversy.
The United States buys about half of Algeria's light, high-quality oil -- amounting to 8 percent of American imports -- the Algiers has relied heavily on U.S. oil and business expertise as a counterweight to the still influential French presence in Algeria.
Algeria's credentials with revolutionary Iran are equally impressive but nonetheless curious. Algeria helped Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's efforts to bring down the shah but, since his triumph, Algeria also has taken pragmatic stands.
As the Iranian revolution has become increasingly radicalized, the Algerians have been criticized in the Iranian press as a falsely Islamic country. But so far the Tehran authorities have not cared to act on such criticism. Nor did Tehran react when Algeria early on condemned the original seizure of the U.S. Embassy and the hostages. And Algeria successfully kept a foot in both the Iranian and Iraqi camps when Iraq invaded Iran last September.
A subsequent statement by the Politburo of Algeria's ruling National Liberation Front did call for withdrawal of Iraqi troops and negotiations on the basis of the 1975 accord between the two countries worked out by the Algerians.
Iran accepted this position and spared the Algerians the withering criticism reserved for all other countries that did not side wholeheartedly with Tehran in the war.
In any case, the Algerians have proven serious, meticulous go-betweens who have gained the respect of both parties, according to well-informed diplomats.
For example, for the first time since the hostage seizure, a go-between can explain the separation of powers of the American governmental system to the Iranians, who in turn feel confident with men who have their own unimpeachable revolutionary credentials.
Mohammed Benyahia, the Algerian Foreign Minister, was the youngest Algerian negotiator in the arduous talks that led to Algerian independence in 1962 after 132 years of French rule. Also involved in that effort was Redha Malek, the Algerian ambassador to Washington.
Abdel Karim Gheraieb, the Algerian ambassador to Tehran, is younger but is a member of the ruling National Liberation Front's Central Committee and represents hundreds of thousands of Algerians working in Europe.
If Algeria does succeed in solving the hostage dispute, its prestige stands to exceed that right after independence and again in 1975. Then, the late president Houari Boumedienne brought about the end of the Iranian-backed Kurdish rebellion in Iraq by persuading Iraqi strongman Saddam Hussein to accept a compromise.
By 1976, however, Algeria was distracted from its leadership ambitions in Third World, Arab and oil politics by Morocco's absorption of the former Spanish Sahara. The present go-betweens role marks the first time Algeria has felt confident enough of its backing for the guerrillas of the Polisario Front, who are fighting to wrest the territory from Morocco, to reenter the diplomatic major leagues.